Print Edition - 2016-10-09  |  Free the Words

Doing by knowing

  • We citizens need to realise that we have as many responsibilities as we have rights
When the choice of an unhealthy lifestyle is our own, is it fair to look at the state for free treatment of non-communicable diseases and their complications?

Oct 9, 2016-It was a pivotal moment in history when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For the first time ever, global leaders came together and signed what was the defining moment in assuring universal protection of fundamental human rights. Nearly seven decades since then, progress has been steady and countries have made progressive effort in embedding a rights-based approach in all national-level policies, strategies, plans and laws. ‘Human rights’, however, remains vague in definition and execution. This is a lurking threat capable of pushing human development to its lowest ever. Thus the question on everyone’s lips ought to be, “How much have we understood about rights?”

Globally, there has been a lot of advocacy of one’s rights. There are mechanisms in place to monitor the implementation of human rights ranging from national institutions and governments to United Nations committees and many independent non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International, International Federation of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, World Organisation Against Torture, Freedom House, International Freedom of Expression Exchange and Anti-Slavery International. These organisations collect evidence and documentation of alleged human rights abuses and advocate the enforcement of human rights laws.

A hot topic in Nepal

So how has human rights fared in the Himalayan country of Nepal in comparison? A decade-long bloody insurgency, a dramatic change in the political system and ideology, a known history of societal segregation and hierarchy, patriarchal dominance, religious strongholds and extreme poverty—Nepal checks all the right boxes traditionally associated with exploitation of marginalised communities and grave human rights violations. Not a surprise, human rights is one of the hottest topics of discussion here. 

The ‘chhaupadi pratha’ where women are banished to a cow shed or makeshift hut during menstruation or just after childbirth because of so-called ‘impurity’, the rigid caste system and the citizenship debate are all pertinent human rights issues the country is struggling to tackle. The picture appears grave, but the country is gradually overcoming such social ills. Remarkably, even with all that Nepal withstood, including a devastating earthquake in 2015, it has emerged as a very progressive country! The government of Nepal, in collaboration with donor agencies, civil society and communities, has successfully acted upon gross human rights violations, and to date, continues to champion equal rights for all Nepalis. 

As a result, Nepali women are breaking the traditional glass ceiling to take on leadership roles. Historically marginalised communities have access to opportunities to earn more and improve their economic status. Nepali society has come a long way in instilling and protecting the rights of every woman, child, differently-abled individual, and ethnic and sexual minority. Nepal’s right-based successes today assure the right to claim compensation and the rights of workers, consumers, companies, organisations, animals and plants. It is a list without end. The interim constitution of Nepal 2007 states, “Every citizen shall have the basic right to health free of cost from the State.” The new constitution of Nepal unveiled on September 20 last year identifies and backs fundamental rights for all Nepalis.

While amassing many successes, challenges remain. The biggest one is interpreting the rights provisioned in the constitution. Too often, people interpret rights in a way they see fit and end up taking a contradictory position. For instance, every Nepali must have the right to free basic health care, and it is the responsibility of the state to assure this. Even without doing a scientific study, we can see clearly from the statistics how often the government or an institution is blamed for everything from the tiniest to the biggest issues, and how bandas and strikes are called leading to hospitals, schools and transportation being shut down. The question is this: “Is it right to claim these rights only from the state or national government? Are these demonstrations, strikes and bandas adverse effects of the focus on rights?”

Individual obligation

Let’s take healthcare as an example. What if health was advocated as the responsibility of every citizen instead of a right? Would things be different? How often do we ask a child on the street whether he or she has been immunised, or a pregnant mother whether she has been having her regular antenatal check-ups? If we know that our children need to be immunised, shouldn’t it be our responsibility to ensure that every child is immunised or every pregnant woman is safe?

Now, let’s look at non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs account for the death of 38 million people each year with almost three-quarters occurring in low- and middle-income countries. There is enough evidence to show that children, adults and the elderly are all vulnerable to the risk factors that contribute to NCDs—unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, exposure to tobacco smoke and harmful use of alcohol. Isn’t eating a healthy diet, remaining physically active and refraining from tobacco and alcohol the responsibility of every individual? When the choice of an unhealthy lifestyle is our own, is it fair to look at the state for free treatment of NCDs and their complications?

It is time we realised the obligation of individuals and held them responsible for their own actions. At least they should be empowered enough so that they have the courage to take the right action. It is important to understand that responsibility is about exercising social and moral restraint so that others do not have to pay for one’s own actions and lifestyle choices. 

John F Kennedy said in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” If protecting the human rights of the citizens is the duty of the government as set forth in the constitution, it is the responsibility of each and every citizen to know and understand these rights and discharge their duties and responsibilities to the country. Therefore, when we talk about one R (rights) let us not forget the other R (responsibilities). Let’s look at ourselves and see what we have or have not done. Is it time now to talk about a responsibilities-based approach?

Mahat is a public health specialist

Published: 09-10-2016 08:58

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