This post originally appeared on the blog

Wherever and whoever you are in this world, you are born with certain inherent rights… the right to life, the right to equality, the right to freedom, the right to privacy and so forth… Every human being may lay claim to these rights to ensure fair treatment and an honest life. Legislation and decrees are formed around the power of these rights, and governments have been known to fall for failing to act in accordance with them.

From a young age, even in third world countries like South Africa, we are all taught about this list of rights we are entitled to. We are made to memorise them and to identify when they are being ignored or infringed upon. All over the world we cry ‘wolf!’ at the slightest indication of discrimination against these basic rights, even if we ourselves are not the victims. Be it in another country across the great wide earth, or only a mention of it on social media, not one human hesitates when it comes to reminding others of their rights – often before there is even real evidence about a transgression.

Accepting and proclaiming our rights, though, is not all there is to this matter. Throughout our lives, as early as being born, we lay claim to the benefits, advantages, treatment and assets these rights afford us. One example of this is when we insist on going to school or university because of our right to education. Another example would be when, enabled to do so by the right of freedom of speech, we criticise the actions taken by our governments. Society uses the basic human rights its every member is entitled to in order to justify protests, manhunts, laws and legislation, persecution and even criminal acts. In South Africa, for example, groups of students all across the country are destroying university property and using violent demonstrations to fight for what they call ‘the right to free education’.

So we are born believing our entitlement to certain benefits bestowed upon us by our inherent rights as human beings. Throughout our lives we lay claim to these rights and the benefits that go with them, and when someone fails to recognise them, they are socially punished.

But… what about the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the rights we lay claim to?

Although we may dislike the idea, there can be no denial of the fact that certain rights come with inherent responsibilities – the most significant one is that to lay claim to the rights we are entitled to, we need to respect the same rights of those around us. For example, to lay claim to the right to privacy, you have the responsibility to respect the privacy of others… something that can be questioned in many individuals when it comes to respecting the privacy of high-profile persons such as celebrities or public figures. Many of us would hate to appear nude in public and plastered over the cover of magazines for all to see, and yet most of us jumped to buy the issue where Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was pictured topless.

Another example would be when we lay claim to our right to equality, but fail to recognise this right in others. In modern society this often takes place when certain members of a racial community are so insistent on not being treated with racism and discrimination, that they inadvertently, in their quest for equality, violate the right to equality of other ethnic groups.

Apart from the responsibility of respecting the rights of others, we also have a responsibility towards those from whom we would insist on the implementation of our rights, i.e. our government and our society. There are three responsibilities common to every citizen of every country: paying taxes, obeying the laws and civil servants who are there to protect our rights, and participating in our country’s future (by playing a part in the leadership, such as voting in a government election). These three responsibilities placed upon every citizen is there to ensure the protection and implementation of everyone’s rights. By not fulfilling any of these responsibilities, you will indirectly be infringing upon the rights of someone else.

If you refrain from paying taxes, you could prevent someone else from being awarded an education, by disobeying the law and civil servants you could add to the increase in crime that would violate someone else’s right to safety, and so forth. For every right that you lay claim to, you also have an inherent responsibility to prevent the violation of this right in someone else. Right and responsibility cannot be separated. It is only by the fulfilment of a responsibility that a right can be respected. Without the one, it is unlikely that we will have the other. Without that balance, our society will descend into chaos, discrimination, inequality and injustice.

If even one group of society insisted upon the recognition of a right without obeying the responsibilities that go along with the entitlement to rights, then there would be imbalances that would grow exponentially and spread to taint more than just the original issue. To lay claim to even one right, we must fulfil the responsibility of preventing the violation of all basic rights.

Unfortunately, this imbalance between those who lay claim to their rights, and those who fulfil the responsibilities inherent to those rights exists in most societies. This begs the question: are we still entitled to our basic rights if we disregard the inherent responsibilities that are linked with them?

If you violate someone else’s right to life by murdering them, are you still entitled to the right to life? If you violate another person’s right to property by stealing from them, do you still have the right to property?

The answers to these questions are heavily disputed in all societies…

This does, however, give way to a more complex question: does the pursuit of one right justify the violation of another?

For example, the students in South Africa are protesting for free education. As part of their demonstrations, they have refused to protest peacefully (as is their right) and have instead resorted to violence and aggression by the destruction of property, assaulting others and by preventing others from attending their tests and classes (thus violating the right to education others have).

Does the cause justify the means?

There is no easy answer, and much like the topic of the legality of abortion, I am sure every person will have their own opinion on the matter. I personally do not believe that any one person nor their cause can ever justify violating the rights of someone else, but neither am I entirely convinced that the violation of someone else’s rights should lead to the forfeiting of one’s own rights.

It is just not that simple.

There are some rights that should never be violated, not in any case nor for any cause, such as the right to life, the right to equality, the right to freedom and the right to choice. But should the violation of a ‘minor’ right, such as the right to property, cause one to forfeit one’s ‘major’ rights, such as the right to life? Then again, should the violation of someone else’s right to life still result in the entitlement of the guilty party’s right to life?

This is a matter that could lead to decades’ worth of debate and discussion. There is a shortcut, though.

No matter who or where you are, and what you are doing… you should remember the responsibility you have to preventing the violation of your fellow man’s rights before you consider laying claim to your own.

If we all keep on claiming and insisting upon the numerous benefits we believe should be bestowed on us because of our rights, with none of giving through the fulfilment of our responsibilities… taking and taking and taking… with no one giving… it will not end well.

Published by Lize M Franken