Hannah Arendt: The Right to Have Rights

Key Concept

Hannah Arendt. From ‘Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt’. ZEITGEIST FILMS

Shortly after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the English translation of Hannah Arendt’s essay was published under the title ‘The Rights of Man: What Are They?’1 This essay was later incorporated in Chapter 9 of The Origins of Totalitarianism and became known as one of the most influential critiques of the document. In her writing, Arendt claims the declaration itself embodies a contradiction: the declaration requires states to protect the ‘universal’ and ‘inalienable’ rights of all human beings, whereas the modern institution of the state is grounded on the principle of national and territorial sovereignty. This paradox, according to her, can only be resolved by the recognition of the ‘right to have rights’ as a juridico-political precondition for the protection of other human rights. Yet, a precise understanding of the right to have rights requires more closely examining Arendt’s diagnosis of the paradox of universal human rights.

First: The Universal Declaration is based on an abstract conception of the human being, while there is no guarantee for human rights outside the political community.

For Arendt, the problematic nature of the rights of Man is deeply rooted in the rise of the nation’s sovereignty against the sovereignty of individuals. As she puts it, the entire project of universal human rights conceives of the human being as an entity with no higher authority above herself. From a historical perspective, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) was the first document to incorporate an abstract understanding of the human being. Such an abstract understanding of a human suggests that she herself—rather than God or natural hierarchies—should be the source of human law. The UDHR’s claim concerning the inalienability of the rights follows the same approach and implies that the prescribed rights are independent of any higher authority. Theoretically speaking, although the source of law and governance could be reduced to the individual sovereignty of human beings, the real source of law and governance is the people of a particular territory and not the individuals. As a result, the promised ‘inalienable’ human rights can only find their guarantee in the collective right to self-governance, which is possessed by the people of a particular territory: the nation.

Within the paradigm of the democratic nation-state, every individual possesses sovereignty, and since all individuals are assumed to be equal, they should share their sovereignty in the governing state to prevent one group from dominating the others. Individual sovereignty can function by and through the national sovereignty of people. The only possible way for an individual to have her rights protected, therefore, depends on a larger encompassing order, which in turn implies membership in a political community. Although the UDHR introduces an individual who is extracted from all her social and political relations as the subject of universal and inalienable rights, it is the individual, in the sense of a member of the political community, upon whom human rights are founded. On the domestic level, the nation claims and pursues national sovereignty beyond that of individuals. However, the nation is bound by no universal law and acknowledges nothing superior to itself. The first inalienable right of the members of a nation is to sovereignty, which entails that human rights can only be protected and enforced as national rights. That said, the state, as the only institution that is supposed to protect and guarantee the rights of individuals, becomes an instrument of the nation rather than a protector of individual rights.

Second: Human rights lose all their signification as soon as an individual loses her political context.

The inalienability of human rights is premised on the assumption that they are independent of all nation-states. Nevertheless, this idea was fundamentally distorted when, in the 20th century, millions of people lost their nationality, and no authority or institution remained to guarantee their rights. The appearance of numerous stateless persons and refugees at the end of World War One demonstrates how the breakdown of the legal relationship between the state and the stateless results in their exclusion from the domain of citizenship and, hence, the legal domain of human rights protection. Because the nation-state is the only juridical authority that can effectively acknowledge and ensure human rights, the whole human rights discourse loses its significance for those who, as a result of expatriation and emigration, cease to belong to any nation-state. Therefore, whoever ceases to count as a citizen of a particular state loses not only her civil rights in that particular state, but also—paradoxically—her universal and inalienable human rights. This, in turn, proves that rights are, in fact, ‘alienable’ from human beings when they lose their political context. Arendt uses this historical evidence to affirm that the Universal Declaration, despite its formal legal language, presupposes the human being to be primarily ‘a member of an ordered political community’—a citizen and not an individual who is extracted from her political context.

Third: The right to have rights should be recognized as a precondition for the protection of every human right.

Arendt locates the particularity of the human, as a member of a political community, in the condition that allows her to act as a political and linguistic being. Here, the political aspect conforms to the existential condition of one who, by definition, lives in a community, while the linguistic aspect is related to the human power of speech and thought. Arendt claims the dignity of the human simply rests on her politico-linguistic existence, namely, her capacities of speaking, judging, and acting. These capacities essentially emerge and develop through, with, and vis-à-vis other human beings. Such a fundamental ontological condition finds its signification when and where the human acquires her ability to speak, act, and think by virtue of being political.

The emergence of modern human rights and the development of related declarations within the paradigm of nation-states implies that belonging to a political community is needed for the realization of the fundamental conditions of a dignified human life and, hence, the effective protection of ‘human’ rights. In short, human rights are ‘the rights of members’: those who are already considered as members of a political community. Therefore, Arendt suggests that there should be a human right to belong to a political community for all human beings as a precondition for the protection of other human rights. To put it differently, human rights need to be considered first as the right to membership in some kind of political community, rather than as the mere rights of those who already belong to a political community.

Arendt’s critique of human rights and the idea of the right to have rights have received a vast reception in critical legal and political theory. For example, Giorgio Agamben, in a radicalized reading of Arendt, has introduced ‘the figure of the refugee’ as a ‘limit concept’ to rethink the boundaries of the political community under the paradigm of the nation-state, and as a potential means of moving beyond the institution of subjective rights.2 Jacques Rancière has offered a critical reading of Arendt and fundamentally challenged her distinction between the political life of the citizen (bios politikos) and the non-political life of the human (zoë). As Rancière has put it, such a distinction precludes the possibility of claiming the right to have rights for those who are deprived of a political life and renders the rights of man either ‘void’ or ‘a justification for humanitarian interventions’.3 But in an affirmative reading of Arendt, Christoph Menke has suggested that her conception of ‘human dignity’ could open a fundamental possibility to overcome the human rights crisis. Such a victory happens if the entire project of human rights re-establishes itself first on an anthropology of ‘a politico-linguistic form of life’, and second on an idea of subjective rights informed by the experiences of what is the ‘right’ thing for human beings.4

Leila Faghfouri Azar is PhD candidate in Philosophy of Law at the University of Amsterdam, Paul Scholten Centre for Jurisprudence.

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Main reference: Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New ed./with added pref. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973. Print.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The essay was first published in 1946 as a response to Hermann Broch’s project for an ‘International Bill of Rights’, and was republished both in German and English in 1949. See: Hamacher, W. & Mendoza-de Jesus, R., (2014), ‘On the Right to Have Rights: Human Rights; Marx and Arendt’, The New Centennial Review, Vol. 14(2), pp. 169–214.
  2. Agamben, G., (2008). Means without end: Notes on politics. Minneapolis, Minn: University of Minnesota Press.
  3. Ranciere, J., (2004), ‘Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2-3), pp. 297–310.
  4. Menke, C., (2007), ‘The ‘Aporias of Human Rights’ and the ‘One Human Right’: Regarding the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Argument’,  Social Research. Vol 74(3), pp. 739-762. And, Menke, C., (2014). Dignity as the right to have rights: Human dignity in Hannah Arendt. In M. Düwell, J. Braarvig, R. Brownsword, & D. Mieth (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, pp. 332-342.

  2 comments for “Hannah Arendt: The Right to Have Rights

  1. Ahmad M. H. Shboul
    14 July 2019 at 11:34 am

    Interesting and thought-provoking analysis. Thank you Leila for this.
    I have a minor comment:
    I am somewhat bemused by the use of the expression “Rights of Man”, in own own dubsequent discussion (not simply in citing the title of Arendt’s English version), while elsewhere in the essay you use the pronoun “she” to refer to the same “human being”.
    I am aware that the term “Rights of Man” is a literal rending of the original French “Droits du l’homme “, as in the original revolutionary document of 1789 and after – (the English of the UN 1948 declaration being “Human Rights”, of course); and, on the other hand, I appreciate that it is now customary for progressive researchers and writers to use “she”, rather than “he” or “he /she” ..
    I just couldn’t help but notice the apparent (and I am sure unintended) irony! ..

    By the way, I am an advocate of using “الحقوق الإنسانية” in Arabic, rather than “حقوق الإنسان”, to ensure the inclusion of Arab women..

    • PETER CORYELL
      14 July 2019 at 6:26 pm

      It is something of a flaw that the English language has inherited from Latin that the generic pronouns for a person is the same as the masculine while the feminine remains specific to the gender. Perhaps if we used “one” we would have pronouns non gender specific and “he/him/his” would refer specifically to the masculine, but we don’t use it. I suppose it sounds archaic to our ears but it would make our language more articulate. I am guessing that the author figured that since both she and the subject were feminine that she needn’t cede to the language’s embedded sexist convention, which would have been especially ironic given the essay’s topic. In a subtle but profound manner she is animating the very precepts of the topic.

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