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The Right to have Rights

Talk of universal rights conceals the real nature of ‘might is right’

Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase ‘the right to have rights’ was coined in her 1958 book ‘The Human Condition’. The condition of being stateless, of being a displaced person, which began its modern history in Europe with World War I, has been experienced since by untold millions who have had to listen to the claim that ‘human rights’ are universal and fundamental – but not for them.

Once we had the glamorous figure of the cosmopolitan, the person who belonged to the world, the global community; that figure has been displaced by the refugee, who belongs nowhere, but is to be found everywhere in the paradigmatic settings of the modern and contemporary world – the prison camp, the internment zone, the refugee camp, the ghetto, the jail, the arena of suspension where people live in a place that is always outside the country that it is inside. Arendt pointed out that the creation of such places and conditions is a political decision, not just a terrible catastrophe. It is the prevailing form of the penal colony, the new home that we have built to house the theory of human rights.

Since Arendt, and most especially in the indebted work of Giorgio Agamben, it has become clear that the concentration camp of the twentieth century was not some historical anomaly, but that it is actually one of the paradigm sites of Western modernity. The internment camp is a zone of suspension, of ‘rendition’, a place that is always outside the country it is inside – Guantanamo is the best-known example, although there many such places – our best- known example was The Maze in Northern Ireland. Those entrapped there expose the hollowness of any claim to universal human rights, to having rights just on the basis of being human. Arendt said it plainly: the refugee, the displaced person, has regularly been denied the right to have rights. The denial is a political decision. It takes its most popular form in the denial that there are any ‘political prisoners’ in the denying country, although enemy countries are full of them. Its political nature has been counterpointed more clearly since 1948, since the United Nations began its series of declarations of Human Rights, unabated since that date; rights of men, women, children, of minorities, of the disabled, of all indeed who can be characterised as having been ‘excluded’, which means that even the ‘poor’, a constituency which enlarges globally by the hour, faster than ever since the almost perpendicular rise of neo-liberalism in the decades before and after the financial crash. Reading these rights, as ‘declared’ (whatever that means), in that bland United Nations universalistic rhetoric, it is hard to know whether to laugh or cry. Such noble vacuities, such actual atrocities – produced by the same state systems that have prevailed since 1945.

It was part of Arendt’s long argument, which began in 1943 with her essay “We Refugees” (about Jewish migrants who had become ‘stateless’, that condition in which they had no rights) that asked why European civilisation had so successfully produced the barbarism that made statelessness pandemic and human rights so unavailable to the millions of ‘displaced persons’ of World War II. Part of her answer was that this barbarism was so successful precisely because it was so concealed within or behind the declarations of universal rights and justice which the West, in the case of the American and the French Revolutions, had made central to the powerful ideology of what mutated into Western ‘freedom’.

Arendt’s question then was: how could such an ideology be developed (as through the UN declarations) and simultaneously traduced (as in American foreign policy)? It is too feeble an explanation to put it down to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy on this scale occurs when the people who most sincerely believe in the peaceful principles are those who most regularly betray them in violent action. The British spent three centuries in perfecting their international reputation as hypocrites, a nation that believed itself to be peaceful even as it waged endless wars. Now that role has been assumed, largely, by the Americans. But, to achieve world domination is one thing; world hegemony is another. That’s what the World Wars were fought for.

Arendt achieved notoriety with her reporting on the 1961 trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, which was published in book form as ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’, where she developed the central figure of the ‘desk-murderer’, the bureaucrat who administered the death-camps. But her key point was that this was a show-trial, that pretended to be an example of universal justice triumphing over universal evil. Rather, it was in fact a national victory of the Israelis over their Nazi persecutors. In this exemplary instance, we are shown how the language of universalism can be used as a disguise for a state’s policies.

The jurist who had the ambition to do that for a successful Nazi state, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), described in his ‘Nomos of the Earth’ (1950), how the European system of international law had been replaced by an American one, with the UN as its legislature and the International Tribunal or Court as its executive. In effect, the language of universal rights was used to ratify the aims of American foreign policy; Nuremberg, Tokyo, Damascus, the Hague were, like the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, elaborate pretences that something objectively true was being defended from the current version of sectarian betrayal – war criminality, terrorism, the new terms of ‘war crime’ and its flourishing neighbourly companions, such as ‘ethnic cleansing’. Danilo Zolo has demonstrated in Victor’s Justice how the Kosovo war of 1999, that infamous intervention (to be followed by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan , Libya and elsewhere, saving the ‘people’ of those countries for democracy, largely by killing and dispossessing them), with its International Court at the Hague, which could try anybody but Americans, is the most egregious example so far of how the language of universal rights has been perverted to the ends of a warring state.

If a civilian population is to be saved from violent, armed assault, then the Palestinians should have been saved from the phosphorous bombs of their Israeli aggressor. But that, too, demonstrates that rights belong only to those who are on the winning side in a series of wars that have nothing to do with justice except as that is determined by superior force and disguised by a globally-disseminated ideology.

In Ireland we have been reminded that it is not only people without citizenship who are denied rights. Those people in homes and orphanages, schools and ghettos of various kinds – religious, economic, gender, medical – have been denied their rights as vigorously here as what we may call the ‘disabled’ of all countries have been. French and American medical history supplied some of the terrible names, now almost joke-terms, for them – morons, idiots, even ‘almosts’. These terms were once applied wholesale to the Irish also.

Now, as we see migrants, victims of ‘just wars’ yet again, flee from the ruins of their homes, one would hope that we could recognise and act upon the crimes of the past in which we have been both agents and victims.


Seamus Deane