Human Rights Day is December 10, in recognition of the date that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a major step in recognizing human rights shared by people throughout the world. The declaration was created by the United Nations after the Second World War in response to the experience of that war.

In the declaration, it recognizes the freedom of all people to live in dignity, be happy and secure, have an identity and defend their rights. It also recognizes the freedom from bias, slavery, torture, unequal justice and unwarranted detention.

What are human rights? They are described as “inalienable” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and similarly in the French “rights of man” of the 18th century.

In his book The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen states that human rights are not created by legal action, legislation or common law. These are rights that each person is born with. Every human being has human rights as part of their human experience, and part of the legacy of being human.

Proclamations of human rights are not only declarations of the existence of this concept called a human right, but also an ethical objective, and an indication of the need for attention to significant freedoms.

Along with the basic ideas of social justice, recognizing and establishing these freedoms are beneficial in a number of ways.

Eighteenth century philosopher Adam Smith, as he discussed in Wealth of Nations (1776) and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790), was significantly concerned with human freedoms. He recognized the enhancement of freedom as an important factor for economic and social change.

Sen outlines three significant ways in which the enhancement of freedom is beneficial in his book Development as Freedom: It provides a benefit for an individuals’ personal freedom, improves the individual’s opportunities to have valuable outcomes, and enhances the ability for an individual to help themselves and others.

The power from such a declaration comes from a sense of obligation and responsibility. Freedom requires responsibility. The writer of Genesis relates the question of Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

As Sen states in Development as Freedom: “As competent human beings, we cannot shirk the task of judging how things are and what needs to be done. As reflective creatures, we can contemplate the lives of others.”

Responsibility is necessary to having and keeping freedom alive, but the relationship is reciprocal. “Freedom is a necessary, sufficient condition for responsibility to exist,” Sen writes.

Responsibility for what? Sen explains that there is no expectation that everyone must help prevent all violations of human rights no matter when or where it occurs.

There is, however, an acknowledgement that if someone is in a position to be able to do something effective in preventing a violation of a human right, then they have a reason to do so, an obligation to try. We all have a responsibility to do what we can when we can.

The freedoms we enjoy and the obligations that are required from us are contingent upon our personal, social and environmental circumstances. What we are able to do is dependent upon what we are capable of doing.

The human rights we enjoy, the freedoms in which we are able to participate, all depend upon our capability to participate.

In Creating Capabilities, the Human Development Approach, Martha Nussbaum tells us that the recognition of a capability or fundamental entitlement is grounded in the notion of basic justice.

The Capability Approach is closely allied with the international rights movement. Capabilities and human rights both have an intimate relationship to the possibility of a life in accordance with human dignity and choice.

We are truly free when we have the capability to be free; have the functioning to act free; the agency to choose to be free. I think of Benjamin Franklin’s comment upon the completion of the U.S. Constitution, “We have a republic, if we can keep it.”

As we celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let’s ensure we can keep it relevant.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week, calling attention to December 10 as Human Rights Day.

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