We are now very familiar with the claim that all humans everywhere have rights. But we are much less familiar with the notion that rights are protected by the fulfillment of duties, as Samuel Moyn observed in 2016. Thirty years ago, Onora O’Neill noticed that “although serious writing on human rights acknowledges that any right must entail correlative obligations, we find no Universal Declaration of Human Duties, and no international Human Obligations Movements.” My paper will pick up the issue of human duties in an attempt to re-launch this campaign. It will show that the history of this discourse is much older than that of human rights — indeed, it goes back 4,000 years — and that it is today timelier than ever because, as Moyn adds, “Human rights wither without a language of human duties.”
Aleida Assmann is Professor emerita of English Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Konstanz, Germany, where she taught from 1993–2014. She received an Honorary Degree from the University of Oslo (2008) and the Max Planck Research Award (2009). Her main areas of research are historical anthropology, history of media, history and theory of reading and writing, cultural memory, with special emphasis on Holocaust and trauma. Publications in English include Memory in a Global Age: Discourses, Practices, and Trajectories (ed. with Sebastian Conrad, 2010), Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (2012), Memory and Political Change (ed. with Linda Shortt, 2012), Shadows of Trauma: Memory and the Politics of Postwar Identity (2016).