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A Universal Right to Have Rights

by Amir Khouzam
June 18, 2019

Amir Khouzam is a humanitarian specialist who has worked in refugee protection with the UNCHR in Egypt and with Syrian civil society in protection policy throughout Syria. He was the managing editor for print and editorial at Columbia University's Journal of International Affairs from 2018 to 2019.

In 1951, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt outlined her skepticism of the efficacy of human rights. “The right to have rights,” she wrote, or “the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible.” 

Arendt’s criticism was in response to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it was not so much directed at the substantive rights outlined in the document as it was at the subtle caveat embedded in its language and format. Arendt saw in the document, endorsed by nation states and deferential to the international system that they composed, a sleight of hand that equated the rights of humans with the rights of citizens, and that tasked the countries of the world to strive for the recognition and observance of the rights it articulated  “...both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction,” but not, notably to anyone else.

The distinction is subtle but fundamental. It goes like this; states agree on the rights that should be guaranteed, and then agree each in turn to guarantee them to the people under their jurisdiction - that is, within their direct purview In this way a ‘global’ regime of rights is made possible. If, theoretically, all states in the world sign on to this regime, then at least from the perspective of one thumbing through an atlas, the entire globe would be covered by international conventions on human rights.

But the world is not a map and rights are not abstract.

The exercise of rights are a class of interactions between individual human beings and between humans and power. Even in a best-case scenario, where a state is committed to protecting the rights of its citizens, rights often must be demanded. Citizens are able to avail themselves of the state’s protection. when they approach the state, engage it, and urge it to act.

Arendt was acutely aware of the people who this formulation excluded because she herself was one of them. Arendt left Nazi Germany in 1933, seeking asylum first in France and eventually in the United States. She would remain stateless for almost 2 decades. The wave of displacement caused by the Second World War, the millions of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless people unable to avail themselves of the protection of their state, was unsurpassed in human history until this very moment. And as the current trends of migration around the world coalesce into a new normal of irregular movement, it is time for us to revisit Arendt’s test.

Is it possible today to understand human rights as belonging to all humans, rather than simply to those privileged enough to enjoy the benefits of citizenship?

This is not to say that citizens have it easy. It seems that every day brings new infringements on liberties we had started to take for granted. In the United States racialized and minority communities, women, LGBTQI individuals, and those suffering from poverty across the country may well consider the ‘benefits of citizenship’ to be a concept both laughable and tragic. But even in these failures it is possible to recognize the difference between an American citizen, demanding more from their government or holding power accountable for violations of their rights, and some other human, a foreigner in this country, a refugee on their way, who perhaps cannot make demands upon that government, but who remains undeniably and defiantly human. What of their rights? To whom can they turn?

This question has not gone unaddressed, at least not on paper. Through the 1951 Refugee Convention and its subsequent Optional Protocol, agreements on the rights of stateless people, and national legislation, we have made progress towards expanding the circle of rights. But in 2019 it still feels as though the visceral reality—that migrants, illegal aliens, refugees, asylum seekers, and the stateless are all just humans—has not sunk in.

Thinking about migration through a lens of human rights offers a framework for processing this reality. They provide a common metric for, say, talking about whether or not someone should go to jail for providing water and food to people at the southern American border. A framework of rights might remind people that “Every human being has an inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.” (Article 6, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

Such a framework would make a debate about whether facilities built to house detained asylum seekers are cages or cells utterly absurd, because Everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.”

Through a vernacular of rights we would speak differently about those who take boats and buses and trains with their children, seeking a better life, and we would not spend so much time on their legal status or religion, because Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.”

And if people argue that this goes to far, and if people push back, then we would have at least a rallying cry, a foundation on which to stand and argue that the inherent dignity and ... the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

If indeed the heightened state of human mobility in recent years is a new normal, then we would do well to start thinking about it through the lens of rights. The 65 million displaced around the world, and the countless million more who make the choice to move—these are not statistics. These are humans, with rights guaranteed by their humanity itself. Just as in the time of Arendt, it is by no means certain that we are able to establish such an understanding of the world. But if there were ever a time to try, this would be it.