This piece by Prof Julian Petley on ‘What Rights? Whose Responsibilities?’, published in the journal ‘Soundings’, was written shortly after the Ministry of Justice in 2009 produced its Green Paper Rights and Responsibilities: Developing Our Constitutional Framework, which examined the case for a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. Although protracted internal wrangling prior to its publication rendered the Green Paper largely vacuous, it is still of interest for at least two reasons. The first is that it represents yet another attempt to render the notion of human rights acceptable to those in parliament and the press who are fundamentally opposed to the very concept. The strategy employed here is to bolt on the notion of responsibilities, irrespective of the fact that rights carry with them the responsibility to respect those rights in other people.
As Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it: ‘In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others’. The second reason why it remains interesting is for the light which it sheds on how the government regards rights, namely as being contingent upon the prior fulfilment of responsibilities as defined and laid down by government. When liberal democracies refer to statutory responsibilities, they normally mean the responsibilities which the state owes to its citizens, not the other way round, The latter is the province of rather different sorts of societies. The fact that this piece was written in response to actions by a Labour government, but could apply equally well to the attitudes of subsequent governments to human rights, is sobering.