Hannah arendt on human rights

Goyenechea, Elisa Susana (2018). 'Hannah Arendt on Human Rights' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Hannah Arendt addresses the topic of human rights during the late 40’s and the early 50’s, on the wake of the inefficiency of Nation-State to guarantee protection to its members. Arendt carried out her compelling inquieries as a response to the failure of the Nation-State to cope with a huge quantity of stateless people and refugees brought about by the turmoils and wars during the XX century, in Europe. The XX century, argues Arent, has challenged not only our understanding of a key philosophical, juridical and political concept -the “Rights of Man”- but also the confidence it inspired. Human Rights have always been considered natural, that is, inextricably linked to human nature and have been claimed to be independent of any political and legal status. But now, things have changed.
This paper aims to examine Arendts arguments against the statement proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948. Her critical assessment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the General Assembly questions the foundation of the legitimacy alluded in the proclamation. Arendt asserts that the UN resorts to the same argument that endowed the human rights with legitimacy in the XVIII century. Today, those arguments fall short. Modern revolutions grounded the inalienable and universal Rights of Man on two concepts of “man” that refer to human nature as the unquestioned and undisputable source of normativity. For the American revolution it was an “evident truth” that “all men are created equal”, in the image of God and bearer of an undisputed, unassailable dignity. The French revolution glorified Man as a representative of Humanity and bearer of an essence -the human nature- viewed as source of all rights, held to be natural, inherent to human nature and, accordingly, regulatory or normative. Arendt argues that the social and political events of the XX century have led, even to the more radical defenders of such rights, to question the reality of their existence and to reconsider new ways of thinking and talking about the Human Rights or the Rights of Man. Far from attempting a theorical justification or a critical stand against natural human rights, Arendt’s inspiring reflections, compell us to face the tragic hallmark of the rights of man, also in our times. Id est: that their operability, their capacity as a policy-making principle, is null unless they are integrated as part of the legislation of the country. As long as they are not translated in positive laws, they are void. That means that under the conditions of the Nation-State, only those considered nationals are subjects of rights. Arent brings to light both a perplexity of and a challenge for our times: not the refusal, but the (theorical and juridical) incapacity of the modern body politic, the Nation-State, to grant the protection of the so called natural rights to migrants, stateless and refugees, and to all those considered not nationals. Arendt does not allude mainly to political refugees. That is, to those which are forced to flee their countries because of their wrong or dangerous or subversive ideas or actions. Arendt points out particularly to those absolutely innocent, which are forced to flee because of their natural complexion, or because of their membership in the wrong group, collectivity or tribe. Arendt proposes one only human right with the basic expression: “The Right to Have Rights”. Certainly, the formula does not refer to a metaphysical basis as it avoids the troublesome concept human nature, but it requires the lasting commitment of humanity understood as a politically organized entity that ensures a policy of membership on all men. In this respect, we shall resort to the positions of Seyla Benhabib and Jacques Rancière, for a critical interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s “Right to have Rights”.

Keywords: Arendt. Human Rights. Refugees. Benhabib. Rancière 

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