As you may or may not know, I was in a Human Rights Program in college, compelling me to take several fascinating classes focusing on issues in human rights from historical, legal, sociological, and philosophical perspectives. Periodically, I would get frustrated with the conceptual discussions of human rights: what's the point of endlessly talking about human rights theory when that time might be better spent actually fighting injustices. For one semester, I worked on creating a curriculum for a graduate class that dissected the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which allowed me to understand that the issues were far more complicated than I had originally understood. Human rights were a relatively new concept in 1948, albeit with ancient roots, ideologically. More insidiously, rights are inextricably intertwined with religion and the nation-state, basically forcing human beings to rely on the apparati of institutions and organizations that are, themselves, often the originators of the injustice.
Soon after the UN adopted the UDHR, Hannah Arendt, the noted writer and philosopher, wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), where she argued that rights don't exist outside of citizenship and, therefore, stateless people were, de facto, without rights. The problem is not that human beings should not have rights separate from a state to enforce them, but that the concept of a human being is itself a social construct, one that is meaningless without relation to other people, without relation to a society. A man alone needs no rights; only a man in the company of others needs the right to be free from abuse, free from injustice, free from tyranny. The first document to identify the liberated man, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), simultaneously invented a "liberated individual" and subsumed him in the polity.
Arendt contends that one cannot separate “the right to have rights” from the mechanics by which one obtains and ensures those rights: through being a member of a recognized polity (for example, a nation state). After WWII, while this debate over rights raged behind closed doors in upstate New York, Arendt's point played out repeatedly, as the stateless became rightless. She writes, “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships—except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 295) Moyn adroitly summarized this paradox of human rights: once a person is recognized as a human being only (and not a member of a nation-state, for example), they lose their human rights. Arendt expands:
“The paradox involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides
with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general—without a
profession, without a citizenship, without an opinion, without a deed by which
to identity and specify himself—and different in general, representing nothing
but his own absolutely unique individuality which, deprived of expression within
and action upon a common world, loses all significance.” (Ibid., 297-8)
Ultimately, the question raised by her points is about the mechanics of human rights and has some serious implications for both the rightless within our borders (undocumented citizens) and the rightless abroad (I can think of a group that starts with a P and rhymes with Alestinians):
Does the conception of human need to be changed or do the nation-state system and international law need to adapt to stateless people who are nonetheless still human?