Human Rights and Responsibility


By Beatrice Maria Zanella

The word “Responsibility” is often abused and its meaning misunderstood. What do we talk about, when we speak about responsibility? What does responsibility mean when we discuss about human rights, crimes against humanity and their infringement? And what is the correct way of coping with responsibility?

What does responsibility mean?

The word “responsibility” consists of two words: “response” and “ability”. Hence, we can think of its meaning as “the ability of responding for one’s actions or thoughts” or “the consensus to take on the consequences of one’s actions”.

An example for the first meaning could be found in the criminal law. A person whose behavior is against the law of the country where the action was made will face the criminal court. There any person will have to respond for their actions. On the other hand, an example for the second meaning we have identified could be the one of the person who should stay in the hospital as far as the doctor’s advice is concerned and who chooses not to follow this recommendation. If anything happens, the only person who will be responsible for it is the patient.

Responsibility and human rights

Responsibility and human rights are strictly interconnected: one does not exist without the other. In fact, rights are something that each of us or some of us are allowed to have or do (or not do), something we are entitled to. According to the United Nations, human rights are “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status”. Hence, if something must be granted to a person, there has to be another person, or group of persons,  state, institution or organism, that is accountable and responsible for ensuring that the right is respected or that whoever did not respect it gets punished.

There are many international treaties which list human rights, the most important being the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1953) and the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities (1998). Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems of these declarations are their non- binding force. Although the countries that ratify them theoretically commit themselves to implement the principles, often there are neither instruments nor bodies which assure their observance.

The case of Ali Mohammed al- Nimr

Ali Mohammed al- Nimr is an Arab guy who has been in prison for now four years. He is 21 years old and had been arrested at the age of 17 for having taken part to a protest against the own government. When 18, he has been sentenced to death by crucifixion. The United Nations’ Convention on the rights of the Child state that the capital punishment is prohibited for children (that is, people under the age of 18). And Ali Mohammed had been arrested at the age of 17, hence as still a child. When ratifying the convention, Saudi Arabia did it with the reservation of “not applying those parts of the convention which are in contrast with the Islamic law”. This is clearly not the case of children being sentenced to capital punishment.

Indonesian women who must undergo a virginity test for becoming policewomen

In many Indonesian cities, the police recruiting stations use a “virginity test” for female applicants: only for female applicants. Those women who do not result virgin are not necessarily rejected, but still the practice is painful, humiliating and discriminatory. In this case, many human rights are being violated, to name but some of them: the right to non-discrimination, equality and right to privacy. In fact, the article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. (…)”. What happens in Indonesia for female applicants is clearly against this statement. Once again, the reaction to this infringement has come from some International and a couple of local Non- governmental- organizations.

Responsibility and crimes against humanity

Not only is responsibility strictly related to human rights and their infringement or protection; it is also connected to crimes against humanity. According to the International Criminal Court (ICC), crimes against humanity are “acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds, enforced disappearance of persons, the crime of apartheid, other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious bodily or mental injury”.

Also in the case of crimes against humanity, similar problems as for infringements against human rights are to be coped with. In fact, often it is difficult to fit the definition with the acts themselves: laws, definitions are flexible; acts and actions adaptable.  The next problem is the fact that sometimes it is unclear who should be judging and those who are responsible for them. Further on, often those who commit these crimes cannot be judged because of their position or role. Even if many times it seems undeniable that a crime against humanity is happening, it is not always easy to prove it.

South Africa and apartheid

South Africa and its long- lasting apartheid regime is well known to everyone. Probably less known is how the situation was coped with in terms of responsibility. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body’s aim was not the punishment of the perpetrators of the atrocities, but rather the uncovering of the truth and the spreading of information. According to this aim, the outcome of the TRC has been a report with the testimonies of both persecuted and persecutors, a list of human rights abuses and amnesty for those who had been the main characters in the apartheid regime. The difference of how these crimes have been coped with has its background in the fact that the route to a democratic regime has been negotiated: in return for the TRC to being established, members of the government asked for amnesty. Was this the correct thing to do? Can we infer that nobody was responsible for the crimes perpetrated during the regime? Certainly not. But South Africa has chosen the restorative justice instead the punitive one and the transition to an officially democratic regime was, however, successful.

The genocide in Rwanda

On the one hand we have the reconciliation for crimes committed during apartheid in South Africa, on the other hand we have the trials for the Rwandan genocide. The perpetrators of the genocide have been tried in Rwandan, European, American and International courts. A special court, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was established ad hoc. Despite the fact that many judges and lawyers had been killed and many infrastructures destroyed, the Rwandan government and society put a huge effort in trying as many suspects as possible. This has sometimes led to wrong decisions and convictions. Moreover, a law about genocide was issued in 1996, after the end of the Rwandan genocide: too late. Even the worst criminals have the right to know the consequences of their actions in advance.


There are many ways to cope with responsibility for crimes, at International, national, local or private level. For every crime, there should be a settlement of the punishment beforehand. When this is not the case, we more often than not experience an abuse of power. We have seen that many cases of crimes are not even dealt with: the two cases of infringement of human rights. In these cases, the victims are left alone and only non- legal bodies try to take on their situation.

On the other hand, we have seen cases where after the commitment of crimes ad hoc tribunals and legal bodies have been established: in the case of South Africa the situation was handled very “softly” through restorative justice. In the case of Rwanda, probably there was an excess of zeal in the attempt of granting justice to the victims.

However, we are all responsible for what happens around the world. Spreading information is key to avoid further atrocities and the engagement of local and International NGOs should be appreciated and supported.


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