HKS Affiliated Authors


Touching on points from her newly published book, The Hidden Face of Rights: Towards a Politics of Responsibilities, Kathryn Sikkink urges the global community to place responsibility on all actors to uphold human rights during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Building on the work of Iris Marion Young in her posthumous book, Responsibility for Justice, in The Hidden Face of Rights, I argue that all actors socially connected to structural injustice and able to act, need to take action to address the injustice. One problem with the word responsibility is that people often use it in the common legal meaning focused on who is to blame or liable. This is what Iris Young has called backward-looking responsibility or the “liability model.” She focused on political responsibility that is forward-looking. This kind of responsibility asks not “who is to blame,” but “what should we do?” Forward-looking responsibility is necessary to address the Coronavirus pandemic and to think about what we should do in the world after the pandemic. I also draw on Max Weber’s idea of an ethic of responsibility in Politics as a Vocation to stress that it is not enough to act with good intentions. We also need to have done our research about the most effective way to act so that our actions have the impact we seek.

This framework is useful in the context of the Coronavirus crisis because it involves both a range of rights and responsibilities of many actors. Our right to health, but also rights to liberty, freedom of movement, to education, to information, to food and shelter are all at stake. As countries ramp up exclusionary travel and border policies, some of these rights may be imperiled, and governments need to strike a balance between protecting the health and respecting human rights, as the WHO Secretary General recognized in his briefing on March 12. A quarantine is a legitimate state policy in times of health emergencies, but the state must attend to the rights of individuals caught in the quarantine to adequate health care, food, and shelter. 


Kathryn Sikkink. 3/16/2020. “Rights and Responsibilities in the Coronavirus Pandemic.” OpenGlobalRights.