Hannah Arendt on the decline of the nation state & the end of human rights

December 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

The atmosphere of disintegration between the world wars, although devastating for all, discovered that two victim groups were without the rights once thought inalienable [the Rights of Man]: the stateless & minorities. “Denationalization became a powerful weapon of a totalitarian politics, & the constitutional inability of European Nation-states to guarantee human rights, made it possible for the persecuting governments to impose their standard of values even upon their opponents” (269). [Sans papiers are without travel documents regardless of where they find themselves.]

The disintegration of the legitimacy of Europe’s Nation-state model began with the appearance of minorities after WWI — clearly, not everyone could be considered a national & an equal citizen of all states. That Nation-states could not handle the new problems of world politics was already evident even before it was exported to Eastern Europe. Peace Treaties that formed new countries in that region believed they were making exactly European Nation-state model states, when in reality the populations were divided between ethnic & power lines [some being “state people”, others “constituent”, & many more “minorities” — now an official category]. Minority Treaties, which were essentially instruments for their assimilation, were enforced in the region to aid protection; these treaties discriminated the new states, as the West [not even defeated Germany] was bound to them. It is estimated that at least 30% of their populations was under Minority Treaty protection. That left many millions in a disadvantaged & dissatisfied position. In most cases, the nationally-frustrated [non-“state people”] were convinced that true popular sovereignty was yet to be achieved in the creation of a new Nation-state for themselves.

The group that was more troublesome still is the stateless [heimatlosen produced out of 1919 Peace Treaties, denationalized refugees from Russia, Armenia, Hungary, Germany, Spain, &c.]. Denationalization is unquestionably totalitarian — not tolerating any form of opposition — invented at this moment in history, & there was hardly a European country that did not introduce new legislation to this effect. They were called “displaced persons” to deny them protection under international agreements that were then in place for the stateless to seek asylum [the only right that had figured in international relationships]. “From the beginning everyone had agreed that there were only two ways to solve the problem: repatriation or naturalization” (287); neither worked on account of the scale of the displaced.

So how did this strata of people actually live? “The Stateless person, without right to residence & without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law […] Only as an offender against the law can he gain protection from it” (286) almost to the degree of citizenship [they only existed in a negative relation to the law & only had legitimate residency in prison]. Other than crime, there was only one other opportunity of escaping statelessness for those unfortunate enough to find themselves in that position, & that was to be[come] a genius, & therefore useful or desirable to the oppressive State. Both as minorities & the stateless, Jews were the example par excellence. They were the most vulnerable [although not the largest in number until Nazi policy of remobilization] for being the only minority whose interests could be defended solely by internationally guaranteed protection of Minority Treaties, which were already considered a mockery. Solving the Jewish Problem was high on the political agenda, then, not only of Germany & it is not so surprising that many other States were relevantly tolerant — if not enthusiastic — about the third solution to the problem of minorities & the stateless proposed by Hitler.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man “indicated man’s emancipation from all tutelage & announced that he had now come of age” (290), seeking the source of rights from external factors [Nature] or paternal figures [God] had come to an end; man assumed responsibility for herself. The function of religion to spread a doctrine of equality among people was replaced by human rights in the rapidly-secularizing world. In reality, this was not the case: as we have already seen by the lack of protection for minorities & the stateless, in Europe national rights were treated as identical with human rights. These two victim groups are “abstractions” of humanity [i.e. cannot have legitimate identities, such as professions, by which they might be characterized as anything but bare humanity] & yet they still do not have rights. This disproves the inalienability of human rights.

In the war, those two victim groups were worst off because they had no protection whatsoever neither from governments nor from international agreements. Civilized countries did offer asylum to the persecuted, but these were unofficial measures for assistance that could not support even a small portion of the new categories of the persecuted — persecuted, not by anything that they had done or were in essence but by the very accident of their birth]. A class of people without community was born & no laws existed for them. “The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first & above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant & actions effective.

Something much more fundamental than freedom & justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community in which one is born is no longer a matter of course & not belonging no longer a matter of choice” (296). These people can only be articulated in the private sphere, then, as bare humanity or mere existence — the only thing a live birth can truly guarantee [it cannot even promise citizenship, we’ve seen]. “We are not born equal”, Arendt concludes, “we become equal as members of a group [community is necessary for equality] on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights” (301). “The great danger arising from the existence of people force to live outside the common world is that they are thrown back, in the midst of civilization, on their natural givenness, on their mere differentiation” (302).

The stateless might be dangerous because they are treated as savages & therefore prone to start acting savagely. What correlation this has to today’s debates & distresses needs no explication.


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