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It is my right!

27 February 2023

By Gabriel Abad, Head of UWC Dilijan

UWC Dilijan Head Gabriel AbadRecently I read a discussion in an aviation forum I follow (yes, I continue to be an aviation geek) about a passenger who was offloaded from the plane that she had already boarded because she could not stow her carry-on luggage in the overhead bin. This seems non-sensical, as the crew is there to help the passengers, isn’t it? As I read on the different posts I learnt that the crew was actually legally correct in refusing to stow the luggage for her as their union had negotiated for this not to be part of their duties, with the argument that they risk injuries while doing so. To make things worse, the offloaded passenger was a cancer patient who argued she could not physically do it herself.

So the crew were exercising their right not to do something that is not on their job description. Umm. It would be easy to demonise the crew straight away. How could they not help? However, even if one believes that their actions (or, rather, lack of) in this situation was immoral, surely there were other passengers around seeing the drama unfold. Nobody stood up to offer to stow the luggage for the passenger concerned?

Reflecting on this reminded me of an idea I had heard Kishore Mahbubani discuss, the need for a Human Declaration of Human Responsibilities. Kishore is a philosopher who has performed many roles, including chairing the UN Security Council. He was also Chair of the Board of UWCSEA, and a UWC parent as two of his children studied there. I was privileged to be the mentor to one of them, and met Kishore on my last trip to Singapore to celebrate UWCSEA’s 50th anniversary.

After a quick electronic search, I found the reference in his book The Asian 21st Century, an open access compilation of his writings freely accessible. There he argues that “[w]e will see greater change in the twenty-first century than we have in any previous human century. Huge leaps in science and technology, accompanied by huge economic and social advances in many societies around the world, especially Asian societies, will mean that the texture and chemistry of the twenty-first century will be massively different from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

One of the changes that he argues for is the need for the human species to focus on our responsibilities, positing that we will have to complement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) with: the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. What I did not know and have learnt while reading his book is that one such document was actually drafted by a group of statesmen led by the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1997 ahead of the UDHR’s 50th anniversary.

Mahbubani argues that their work was sabotaged as Western powers had no appetite for such a document and believes that the time has come for us to reconsider this. While his article was prompted as a reflection on the COVID pandemic and the assault on the US Capitol, I clearly see how it can be applied elsewhere, moving on from the macro level of his global outlook to the micro level of a UWC campus. Mahbubani is right in that in the West we have focused a lot on our rights, and not enough on our responsibilities. A common criticism of today’s societies is that they have become too individualistic. Perhaps we claim our rights far more often that we exercise our responsibilities?

As I sit on my armchair reflecting on his idea, I can see our campus spread out ahead of me, and am considering what it would entail for us to explore this. Perhaps it would be a great exercise for us as a community to work on such a dual document: our rights and responsibilities.

K. Mahbubani, The Asian 21st Century, China and Globalization

Originally published on UWC Dilijan's Head's Blog.