The shadow side of human rights Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Hands holding each other

By Prof Mias de Klerk


The acclaimed psychologist, Carl Jung is famous for formulating the concept of the shadow, the less attractive part of our personality, which we often try to ignore or not to work with.

In essence, the shadow self is the darker side of ourselves that we repress or ignore, but still drag behind us as invisible baggage in everything we do. Jung hypothesised that if you didn’t embrace the entirety of your being, including your shadow side, you couldn’t live a full life without restricting mental bonds.

It is not just our personalities that have a shadow side, but our precious set of human rights also have a shadow side. Similarly to the shadow side of our personalities, the shadow side of human rights cannot be wished away and if we ignore it, it will lead to chaos. The shadow side of human rights is the responsibility that automatically accompanies our rights. Unless we exercise responsibility while we live our lives and enjoy all the privileges of our human rights, it leads to chaos. Exercising any right without consideration of our responsibilities is likely to infringe on other people’s rights or be destructive.

According to the South African Human Rights Commission, “rights come with responsibilities and no one is allowed to infringe on the rights of others.” However, the responsibility shadow that automatically accompanies our rights often tends to be ignored. People are very quick to complain or claim: “it is my right to …”. But we rarely see people insisting on “it is thus my responsibility to …”. In short, living one’s rights with responsibility means one should do less than what you have the right to do or be allowed to do, and more than what you are responsible for or have to do.

Understanding and acknowledgement of the symbiotic relationship and natal cord between human rights and responsibilities to live our lives fully and without restriction are not new. In 2008, the launched the Bill of Responsibilities.  Acknowledging the indivisible relationship between rights and responsibilities, the Bill outlines the responsibilities that flow from each of the rights enshrined in our Constitution. In its preamble, the Bill notes: “I accept the call to responsibility that comes with the many rights and freedoms that I have been privileged to inherit from the sacrifice and suffering of those who came before me. I appreciate that the rights enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa are inseparable from my duties and responsibilities to others. Therefore I accept that with every right comes a set of responsibilities.”

The Bill of Responsibilities is an insightful, thoughtful and practical document that outlines the responsibilities that correspond with each of the rights found in the Bill of Rights, in Chapter 2 of the Constitution. For instance, regarding one’s right to human dignity, the bill describes the responsibility for ensuring the right to human dignity, as:

  • “treat people with reverence, respect and dignity
  • be kind, compassionate and sensitive to every human being, including greeting them warmly and speaking to them courteously.”

However, somehow the Bill of Responsibilities disappeared in obscurity to the extent that it is largely forgotten. One rarely hears about it or talk about it. Indeed, I cannot remember one instance where our political leaders referred to the Bill in the past few years.

We celebrate Human Rights Day without any reference to the Bill of Responsibilities or any of the responsibilities that accompany human rights. Many people are not even aware of the existence of the Bill. This unfortunate situation might have happened because the Bill was developed as “a guide for learners and schools” and a “bill of responsibilities for the youth of South Africa.” Starting with promoting responsibilities at school level is an honourable and worthy approach, but it cannot stay at school level. The insights in the Bill and its subsequent call to duty and action are too important not to make much more of it for all South Africans. Everybody should understand and acknowledge the inseparable bond between our rights and our responsibilities and enjoy the privileges of their rights by exercising their duties and responsibilities to others.

The time has come to acknowledge and work with the shadow side of Human Rights in order to move beyond restricting bonds and to build a new South Africa. Celebrating Human Rights is an empty, one-dimensional and superficial exercise without combining it with reminding ourselves of the accompanying responsibilities. We should celebrate Human Rights day and the human rights that many fought so hard for, but similarly emphasise our human responsibilities as set out in the Bill during these celebrations. Let’s publically promote the existence and content of the forgotten 2008 Bill of Responsibilities to make it a well-known document and use it as a guiding light for what we do and how we do it.

Let the concluding sentences in Bill guide our lives and the exercising of our Human Rights, both on an individual and collective level:

“I accept the call of this Bill of Responsibilities, and commit to taking my rightful place as an active, responsible citizen of South Africa. By assuming these responsibilities I will contribute to building the kind of society which will make me proud to be a South African.”