Human Rights Aren’t Universal – Not the Way We’re Doing Them

This past week, another thousand Hondurans gathered and departed from bus stations in San Pedro Sula, journeying northwest towards Mexico and, ultimately, the US. Hundreds did not wish for sunrise to begin their mammoth voyage, so left on foot in the rain in the dark.

You know the rest: these now-stateless men, women, and children are following in the footsteps of multiple large “migrant caravans” from Central America that have converged near the US-Mexico border in the last few months. Their story is nothing new. All around the globe, record-breaking numbers of migrants and refugees flee violence for stability, poverty for opportunity, illegitimate regimes for legitimate states.

Meanwhile, in America, Trump is so desperate to build his wall that he has embarked on a record-breaking government shut-down; the Democrats meanwhile clamor to prove their commitment to increased border security and funding. No one, however, seems willing to address the blindingly obvious question: what are these migrants – deprived of economic and even physical security in their home countries – supposed to do?

Many on the left today – from Democratic Party insiders to New York Times columnists – do indeed oppose our increasingly regressive immigration and refugee laws. They argue that that “migrants are good for the economy,” that “America is a nation of immigrants.” Unfortunately, regardless of the relative truth of these statements, their nation-centric lens still perpetuates and obfuscates a more fundamental paradox: the fact that our very framework of nation-states is in inherent conflict with the reality of constant humanitarian crises. To be frank, so long as this we do not evolve past this state-centric rhetoric of sovereignty and national interest, any notion we have of “human rights” will remain ephemeral at best and non-existent at worst.

A brief dash of history: the concept of the nation-state is impressively new. For the most part, “nations” as we know them today did not come into existence until the late 19th century. In the early 1800’s, most of Europe was still divided into kingdoms and empires, townships and loosely-bound confederations. Over the course of the next century, a series of intensive political campaigns brought together language centralization efforts, state-mandated education reforms, and most critically, intentional construction of nationalist sentiments for political unification. The result was the birth of the modern nation-state. Think the establishment of the German Reich, or Italian Risorgimento leading to the Kingdom of Italy.  

The reason why this is significant is that two centuries later, this comparatively young, Western model for nation-states has been adopted by virtually the entire world. For much of the rest of the world, however, the borders to their nation-state were not determined through intentional cultural unification. Most were determined through empires drawing lines in the sand, through annexations and dissolutions, through remnants of colonialism rebuilding from scratch. Whatever unification efforts occurred, they largely occurred after a boundary had been drawn — as part of a colony, a mandate, a satellite state, or something else — and in many places, the success of these efforts has been unsurprisingly limited.

In other words, the nations of this world were, quite literally, not created equal. When a state’s borders were determined entirely by outsiders, decades or centuries before it was even a state at all, how successful can we expect its government to be in providing an adequate, fair guarantee of rights across arbitrary peoples?

As an extreme but illuminating example, consider the Middle East, where the British and French empires infamously — and almost literally — drew a “line in the sand” during WWI to divide the falling Ottoman Empire into their own imperial possessions. This line, the endlessly-discussed Sykes-Picot agreement, thoughtlessly divided dozens of ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups and set off a century of crisis in the region.

Today, the Middle East is a patchwork of minorities held together by volatile governments constantly undergoing their own legitimacy crises, and the devastating consequences of this historic division has not been lost upon the people of the region. ISIS draws on this resentment, and has declared it would not stop its advances until it has “hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

Yes, the left today is correct to acknowledge this deep-seated inequality of countries in the world, particularly across Western and post-colonial lines. Yet when it comes to confronting the consequences of this inequality, we rarely question the validity of our state-centric model.  

Once again, what is it we say about immigration? “America is a nation of immigrants.” Nation. Our attitude towards migrants is still wholly dependent on our framework of nation-states.

I want to challenge this outlook further. The problem with our state-centric view is that it allows us to masquerade humanitarian crises as political ones. In today’s world, the ability to determine citizenship is viewed as a matter of state sovereignty. This, however, obscures the fact that human rights, which are tied to citizenship in a functional and adequately-resourced state, can be freely rejected on the basis of sovereignty.

We have already concluded that nations in this world are deeply unequal, not only in resources but in fundamental political challenges. To make things explicit, by being born a citizen in the United States, I generally have access to a level of education, safety, health, and freedom that would be largely unavailable to me in most the rest of the world. Conversely, if I was born in the war-torn Syria or Saudi-torn Yemen, it is likely I would not even have the guarantee of survival tomorrow. Worse yet, we also know from our earlier discussion that many of these inequalities were neither random nor inherent, but rather a long-lasting consequence of our own thoughtless overextension.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee from WWII, made an initial connection between citizenship and human rights half a century ago in her book On the Origins of Totalitarianism. In the post-WWII and post-Holocaust world, humankind, she argues, has somehow collectively acknowledged the existence of a set of “human rights” which should be guaranteed for everyone by virtue of being alive. Under our modern system of nation-states, however, these rights can only truly be provided for and guaranteed by a state government. Simply put, human rights are entirely dependent on citizenship rights.

Yet we know in today’s world that citizenship rights in many countries do not guarantee human rights. Citizenship certainly would not guarantee my human rights in Syria and Yemen, as mentioned earlier, and nor would it in any country torn apart by violent political upheavals, refugee crises, or wars on drugs.

In other words, we must tighten Arendt’s conclusion: the supposedly fundamental, universal guarantee human rights is dependent on citizenship rights in a country that is capable of and committed to guaranteeing them.

That, in a nutshell, is my core argument. If human rights are indeed real and inalienable, and we need access to a state that respects human rights in order to uphold them, then everyone has a real and inalienable right to enter such a state — and at least given a chance for their appeal to be considered. Whether it’s asylum-seekers in Australia’s brutal offshore detention centers, or thousands-strong migrant caravans risking border after border to reach the US, they should be given a chance — not because it would make our nation stronger or weaker, but because it is their fundamental human right.

I am not (yet?) an anarchist; I am not advocating for the abolition of borders or states. However, it is worth noting that up until the 1920’s, immigration was essentially entirely unrestricted in the US — we had almost completely open borders. This may be a nearly incomprehensible idea into today’s world. But at the very least, when we talk about either opening or closing doors to immigrants and refugees, we need to stop talking about it in terms of simply building a stronger or better nation, or in terms of securing a border that may mean something to us but is just as arbitrary as their own to the rest of the world. What may appear to us a simple matter of political citizenship is, to others, their only guarantee of what we’ve declared to be universal human rights.


Joyce Xu

Photo: Israel-Egypt border north of Eilat, Idobi

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