Hannah Arendt’s Concept Of The “right To Have Rights'

Laws were designed to respect, protect, and fulfill the rights of every human being within the communities that they are formally a part of, and it is the responsibility of the community to carry out these laws. Rights, in its normative definition, depend on membership in a political community and the recognition of the membership. Once one is stripped off of their membership to a community, or in this case, their citizenship in a state, the state is no longer obligated to uphold their rights, deeming those in question stateless and, therefore, rightless. That is the problem.

Once individuals become stateless, they lose all other qualities and specific relationships afforded to them by their citizenship, but they are still human. What Hannah Arendt calls “The Rights of Man” or rights that are universal and essential despite the lack of a citizenship should have applied to the cases of the stateless, yet they did not; the loss of citizenship is the loss of political status for there was no country that acknowledged and accepted them as a political actor. In certain situations, some rights, like that of the right to a job or an education, are made available and given to the stateless persons in a foreign land, but the rights of the stateless become more of a favor granted than a natural right respected.

In response to the plight of the stateless, one of the main elements of “the right to have rights” is givenness, which is related to recognition. Givenness is that which makes every individual distinct, granting every human with the demand to be seen, primarily in the form of speech and action, which is integral in what it means to live a fully human life. Arendt, in her book The Human Condition (1958), references Aristotle, who held “the sharing of words and deeds” to be what makes it “worthwhile for men to live together”. In other words, this demand to be seen and the quality of givenness that innately belongs to every human being is, in another angle, expression of oneself and one’s identity.

Another main element of Hannah Arendt’s (1951) concept of “the right to have rights” is the element of natality. The concept of natality is what draws the line with Arendt, as she explains that it is not mortality, but rather natality - “not the capacity to die, but the capacity to be born, to make new beginnings”. For a more encompassing explanation, Arendt (1951) cites that natality is:

“This mere existence, that is, all that which is mysteriously given us by birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, ‘Volo ut sis (I want you to be)’ without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.”

In line with this concept and applying it to the situation of the stateless, Arendt  continues to talk about states as “a structure which, if it was not yet fully totalitarian, at least would not tolerate any opposition and would rather lose its citizens than harbor people with different views” where even free democracies seriously considering the deprivation of citizenship on the account of dissimilarity such as the United States to American Communists. This introduces a case of statelessness in terms of non-functional citizenship by depriving a citizen of the rights that are supposedly theirs and of which the community that they belong to is supposedly responsible for protecting.

The concept of “the right to have rights” speaks of a right that does not come from the nation and does not dissolve in the absence thereof, but a right that is in need of more than a national guarantee. “The right to have rights” problematizes and offers a solution to the fact that as Arendt (1951) puts it:

“it seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” and that “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human”.

Given the normative concept of human rights being upheld and protected by law, which entails nationality qualified by the state, no one is held accountable and responsible for the rights of the stateless individuals. In effect of statelessness and the lack of representation of a state and its obligations, the stateless individual is rendered rightless without a nation to uphold their rights.

Citizenship without the full enjoyment of political rights, freedoms, and restriction of movement deems citizenship non-functional, making it comparable to statelessness. A framework based on the concept of Hannah Arendt’s “right to have rights” may impact on how individuals and the international community see human rights and help the case of the stateless. 

16 December 2021
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