Seyla Behnabib Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Philosophic Iterations, Cosmopolitanism, and the 'Right to Rights': Conversation with Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, March 18, 2004, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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New Norms of Human Rights

Your current work and the subject of your lectures focus on identifying the processes by which universal norms assume an authoritative position, though they're outside the boundaries of the nation state. That is a first rendering on my part of your complicated work. Interestingly, you relate this subject matter to unsolved puzzles in the work of Arendt and Kant in your lectures. So as you grapple with these problems -- and let's talk about those problems -- it's very clear you turn to that tradition to find the iterations, or to help create the iterations. How did you become interested in these subjects of migration, humanitarian intervention, and so on, where there is a search for legitimating new universal norms in a context that transcends the nation state?

The best way to talk about this may be by going back to 1948 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After the experience of two world wars, the nations of this world entered a learning process where it was established that self-governing nations, whatever their differences, had to respect a minimum set of rights and universal norms. So the 1948 declaration initiates what I call the rise of an international human rights regime.

Since then, the number of international treaties and conventions -- a convention, let's say, on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the convention against cruel and unjust punishment, the convention on the rights of the child, the international covenant on social and economic rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights -- if you look at all of this, there are numbers and numbers of treaties and conventions that have been signed and ratified. Not by all the nations of the world: we have about 190 to 195 recognized nation states or political entities, and not all of them have signed them. In some cases, two-thirds do and one-third has not.

But there is a new moment in the evolution of the international community where we are going beyond what would simply be called international law based on treaty rights. So, for example, let's say the U. S. and Japan, the U. S. and China, have a number of treaties and international obligations to one another that can range from trading to the hunting of tuna fish, etc. book coverThose are international treaty obligations that nations can voluntarily undertake with one another. This has been the norm, also, of much of international law.

But the human rights treaties and the kinds of norm conventions that I'm talking about initiate a new moment, in that these are now almost a kind of ... I will say very carefully, they are almost a quasi-constitutional structure for the international community at large, where what the nations are obliging themselves to are not how much tuna fish can be hunted, or how much Chinese exports can come in and how they are regulated, but very fundamental norms, like the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. Think of the many countries that are signatories of these, where the internal practices of this country can hardly be assessed to have ceased discrimination against women.

Now, what is this moment in human history when increasingly there is a constitutionalization of a set of norms, and the fact that nation states acknowledge them? I describe this as the cosmopolitan moment, as the emergence of cosmopolitan norms. This is different than international trade law, international treaties, but it is genuinely a novel development for the human community.

At the same time that we have the emergence of these treaties and norms that are becoming more and more accepted by the nations of the world, there is also the fundamental contradiction that nation states are the addressees of these norms. They are the signatories. When you look at whose signature is under these treaties, it's always the state. And yet at the same time, these norms themselves constrain the very action of the states. In other words, the states are both signatories, and yet at the same time, they are constrained. They are constrained by these very norms. If Egypt signs the convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, this has consequences. So Egypt is both the addressee of these norms, but it also has consequences for the way in which, let's say, the rights of women, divorce, property, etc., are dealt with in a country like Egypt.

So in my lectures, I try to reflect upon the rise of cosmopolitan norms and republican self-determination. For us in the United States, these issues became particularly relevant with the decision of the Bush administration to rescind the participation in the International Criminal Court, our own treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, on the basis of the argument that this would give rise to spurious and ill-founded prosecution of American civilians and military. I do not agree with that argument, but I think that we see very clearly that there is a conflict, and particularly for the United States, who spearheaded the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Eleanor Roosevelt, to find ourselves now in this position of saying, "We remain sovereign. The world can go cosmopolitan, but American law is sovereign." I mean, this is simplifying it, [but] I have been thinking about these puzzles.

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