Declarations, Immigrants, Rights & Responsibilities

Pritpal S Tamber

September 20, 2017

Just some thoughts weaving together rights, responsibilities and agency, with an anecdote related to an illegal immigrant

I’ve been much affected by a comment in a BBC documentary about the Declaration of Human Rights. The comment was from Mahatma Gandhi and boiled down to his disagreeing that people had rights without responsibilities. I want to relate that perspective to a recent experience and my work.

No Rights Without…?

The Declaration is presented these days as an inalienable set of rights that everyone should have. But when it was drafted – I learnt in the BBC documentary – there was not unanimity around the world. It was created through the UN, and at the time the UN did not include India – the belief was that its view was represented by their Imperial rulers, Great Britain. Nonetheless, the drafting committee felt they needed the views of a few globally respected people, whether their countries were at the UN table or not, and one such person was Mahatma Gandi.


The drafting committee never reconciled Gandhi’s view. I don’t know if they included it in an appendix of things to be considered in a re-draft down the line, but, from what I understand, it remains unreconciled. And so, we have enshrined that people have rights without any explicit mention of what their responsibilities are.

Before I get to my recent experience and my work, I should say that I think I understand why the criticism was left unreconciled. The drafting committee likely wanted to create something that framed other work, something that would act as a moral rudder during what were the choppy seas of the time. To have introduced responsibilities, they would have brought in a level of subjectivity that would have made its agreeing and finalising impossible. It was better to achieve something, even if imperfect, than strive for perfection and hence achieve nothing.

The Experience

I recently met a Sikh immigrant in Cyprus. He’s in the country illegally, looking for work, having recently failed to “get his papers” in Australia (I decided it wasn’t polite to ask how he seems to move around the world illegally so easily). He was recently offered an “off the books” job in a restaurant kitchen but only if he shaved off his beard and either cut his hair or wore it in some manner other than a turban. He refused and is currently unemployed, looking for work.

He told me he had a right to wear his hair any way he wanted. But, from where I stood, I struggled to understand why he did not see he had a responsibility to look less different. The restaurant owner was asking him to look less different so that he could effectively hide him “off the books” – and hence not get caught by the authorities. A bearded, turbaned Sikh is pretty conspicuous in a mountain village in Cyprus.

It’s important to remember that he’s an illegal immigrant. He wants the right to work in the EU but does not accept he may have responsibilities to help make that happen – responsibilities that are all the greater for being illegal.

I see versions of this all the time (although without such obvious framings as legal versus illegal). We live in times when people think they have the right to something but don’t consider whether they have a responsibility, which may be a quid pro quo to that right.

My Work

On the journey to Bridging Health & Community (BH&C) I learnt the word ‘supplicant’ through a tweet. The twit is now a Board member of BH&C  and his interpretation of my exploration and associated ramblings have helped bring focus and structure to what has become about the importance of agency to health.

It seems to me that social welfare systems (and other forms of institution-delivered services) reinforce people’s roles as supplicants, diminishing their agency. In response to their degraded ability to exert control over their lives, people resort to demanding their ‘rights’, something they believe they have partly due to the Declaration. I’m not saying people cite the Declaration, as such, or that they even know what it includes (I barely do), only that there is now an air, a culture, of people declaring they have ‘rights’ and demanding things as a consequence.

It seems to me that this declaring and demanding is a mask below which is the bare reality that people are unable to exert any control over their lives. Their agency has been diminished as an unintended consequence of them being told – unequivocally and without any associated responsibilities – that they have ‘rights’.

I don’t know if this is an argument too far (perhaps my brain has been addled by the Cyprus sun) but it seems to me that, although part of fostering someone’s agency is about them understanding they have rights (especially if they’ve been institutionally excluded), it also needs to be about them understanding they have responsibilities.

Just a thought.

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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