Freedom: Everyone’s responsibility

This year marks the 48th anniversary of Malawi’s independence.  With independence came freedom. But freedom also comes with responsibilities. The problem is that in the past we have focused too much on our freedom, neglecting our responsibilities.

But freedom is inseparable from responsibility.  If I have the freedom to think, it is my responsibility to think positively. If I have the freedom to speak, it is my responsibility to speak properly, wisely and meaningfully. If I have the freedom to act, it is my responsibility to act responsibly.

When we gained independence in 1964, and became a free nation, we automatically assumed responsibility for our nation. That is why it is pointless to start blaming others for our problems.  If Malawi is still poor today, 48 years after gaining independence, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We are the masters of our own fate.

Undule: CHRR boss, the author

Yes, our freedom is important, but it is only one side of the story.  There is also need to fulfil our responsibilities. We cannot talk of freedom without talking about human rights. Freedom and human rights are almost synonymous.

Indeed, as one scholar suggested, “human rights are a result of humanity’s increasing and persistent demand for dignity, respect, justice, protection and freedoms –all needed for a decent human existence.”

Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are considered entitled: the right to life, liberty, freedom of religion, thought and expression, and equal treatment before the law, among others.

These rights represent entitlements of the individual or groups, including the government, as well as responsibilities of the individual and the government authorities.

While human rights are not always interpreted similarly across societies, these norms nevertheless form a common human rights vocabulary in which the claims of various individuals can be articulated.

The widespread ratification of international human rights agreements is often taken as evidence that these are widely shared values.

Having human rights norms in place imposes certain requirements on governments and legitimizes the complaints of individuals in those cases where fundamental rights and freedoms are not respected.

Malawi is a signatory to several international protocols that underline the importance of freedoms.

Of the protocols concerned, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), for example, calls on all African nations to take the responsibility of building societies that are inclusive:  tolerant of diversity, and committed to human development and freedom.

The Charter underlines the importance of freedom from political oppression and persecution; economic opportunity, education and health for all citizens; and adequate safeguard for the rights of minorities. However, it also urges state parties and individuals to take responsibility to achieve these.

But what responsibilities are we talking about? The state and the individuals have the responsibility to promote, protect and fulfil human rights.  States have the ultimate responsibility to protect and promote human rights.

Responsibility to protect and promote human rights resides first and foremost with the governments. The responsibilities of states, as outlined in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, includes, to protect, promote and implement all human rights, to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction are able to enjoy all social, economic, political and other rights and freedoms in practice, to adopt such legislative, administrative and other steps as may be necessary to ensure effective implementation of rights and freedoms and to conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights.

States also have a responsibility to take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, adverse discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs etc.  The list of state responsibilities is long. However, in many cases, the governments are the ultimate violators of human rights. Many conflicts in the world are sparked by a failure to protect human rights.  Here in Malawi, we have several examples of government violating human rights, including the events of July 20, 2011 in which 20 innocent people died at the hands of law enforcers.

International law allows limitations to be placed on certain rights and freedoms. However, according to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, which oversees implementation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which oversees implementation of the ICCPR at country level, these limitations are permitted only if prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

International law, however, emphasises that these restrictions should not be imposed for discriminatory purposes or be applied in a discriminatory manner.

Many believe that the protection of human rights is essential to the sustainable achievement of the three agreed global priorities of peace, development and democracy. This is why respect for human rights has become an integral part of international law and foreign policy. And this is also why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in its first sentence, states that respect for all human rights is the “`foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

International human rights instruments also impose responsibilities on individuals –the so called rights holders. What responsibilities are we talking about? If I have the right to food, it automatically means I have the responsibility to work for it, and once I have earned it, to take care of it.

Similarly if I am a student and I have the right to education I have the responsibility to learn, work hard in school and take care of school materials, so that I become a responsibly citizen.

The problem is that we have focused too much on the rights, ignoring the responsibilities that come with those rights. That is why we see a lot of vandalism in schools etc. To overcome this problem, it high time human rights education went hand in hand with advocating for  responsibilities.

Yes, civil society has often been blamed for emphasising too much on rights at the expense of responsibilities.  However, the duty of promoting human freedom, and the responsibilities that come with it, rests with everyone.  This is stressed in all the human rights instruments that Malawi has ratified.

The instruments, including the World Plan of Action on Education for Human Rights and Democracy, adopted in March 1993, all emphasise the need for human rights education to be incorporated in the school curriculum in order to achieve common understanding and awareness with a view to strengthening Universal commitment to human rights and freedoms.

We cannot move forward as a nation without being responsible and the responsibility is for all of us.

*Undule D.K.  Mwakasungula, Executive Director /Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), email: – [email protected]/writing in his own personal capacity

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