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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The Enduring Ideals of Kant

Now, very briefly, the reason why I went back to Kant and Arendt is that they had a sense, particularly Kant, who is famous for having written a essay in 1795 called Towards a Perpetual Peace which articulates certain conditions that nations must respect if there ever will be perpetual peace. The term "perpetual peace" is also almost like the German term, ewiger Frieden, it's eternal peace, [but] it's also the peace of the cemetery, right? Kant is very aware of the fact that -- this is ironic -- he says: "Nobody expects the philosopher to come out and tell generals and kings" -- this is 1795, we're not talking about democracies -- "how to run the world and how to articulate principles. But if there is going to be perpetual peace among nations, here are the conditions that I will lay out." He say that the constitution of every state must be a republican constitution, that is, it must permit representation; that the nations of the world should move towards a cosmopolitan federation where they regulate their relationships with one another according to laws; and that they should increasingly seek a common body of laws.

He also says in the third definitive article of Perpetual Peace that there is one right that belongs to a human being, as a human being in the world community, and that is the right to hospitality. That is, if someone comes upon your shores through need, or for commerce or barter, and if their purposes are peaceful, you cannot deny them access. You cannot deny universal hospitality, particularly if it will mean their destruction.

So the right to universal hospitality, that is, the right of human beings to seek contact with one another, to seek access to each other's land, to seek access to resources is a fundamental human right. It needs to be regulated, and there is a certain margin as to how much, for example, you owe to the stranger who comes up on your land. What kind of obligations do you owe to this stranger? Kant's own formulation is somewhat more minimal than I would like it to be, because he says you have a right of visitation but not a right of long-term stay. The host can determine that. I would argue that the human right to visitation is more extensive than Kant makes it out to be, and that nations have stronger obligations to exiles and refugees which are different than the obligations to immigrants. But this is a fascinating beginning point for thinking about this.

And what's really interesting, he's writing several hundred years ago, and he's laying the groundwork for a theorist working today to clear some of the confusion about the issues of immigrants, refugees, which we see every day in the headlines. In fact, as you're suggesting, the European Community is a site for experimentation with regard to these matters today, that is, real politicians acting in the real world, having to make decisions which are changing the nation state, and the limits it can impose without consulting these cosmopolitan norms. Is that fair?

Oh, I think that that is absolutely fair. There is the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951, and its protocol added in the sixties. All states that are signatories to the Geneva Convention have the obligation to conduct themselves vis-à-vis refugees and asylum-seekers in a particular way. The most important aspect of this is that if someone reaches your shores and raises a claim to refuge and asylum, you as the state have an obligation to examine the veracity or truthfulness of that claim and reach a decision. You have an obligation of what is called, in fact, non refoulement. That is to say, you cannot send the refugee back without having examined this claim. You ought not to send the refugee back into the point of danger.

Now, everybody, in many ways, violate this. What we do, for example, with Haitian refugees is that we catch them in the high seas even before they set foot upon the continental United States, because once they have done so, the government is under an obligation to conduct itself in various ways. Even if it does not respect it, it is liable, legally, as a signatory of the Geneva Convention, for its treatment of refugees and asylees, and various kinds of international groups and other NGOs can, in fact, take the government to task, which they have done. So the method becomes preventing them from setting foot on soil in the first place, which is really quite devious. Of course, we now see the criminalization of all these issues in the United States under the Bush administration. All matters of refuge, asylum, and also immigration have become so much absorbed into criminal law. There's this notion of homeland security that [puts us], frankly, in the midst of a frightful mess from the standpoint of international law, which is being flouted.

Now, the situation is presenting itself somewhat differently precisely because, also, the European nation states are forming the European Union. The consequence of forming the European Union is that internal border controls have been eliminated. That is to say, a European citizen can now, in principle, drive from Krakow down to Lisbon without internal border controls. But the elimination of internal border controls does not mean that the question of Europe's external borders has been solved. Continental Europe is a very wealthy environment. It has very extensive rights, and for a lot of the refugees and asylees of the world, it is a very desirable focus. So you have had over the last number of years millions of people trying to enter the boundaries of the European Union. From Moroccans, Kurds, Africans, to people from mainland China, there has always been some crisis about refugees and asylum-seekers within Europe at the moment.

But this has caught it in a difficult moment. Just as they are eliminating internal borders, they're in the situation of having to draw external borders. And so there have been various agreements, like Schengen and Dublin that have tried to control refugees and asylees from coming in, so that we see a very mixed picture at the moment within the European Union of great liberality within the member states, but rather harsh measurements developing towards refuge- and asylum-seekers.

One difference here is that because of the various legal traditions and because of the way in which Europe subscribes, also, to the Geneva Conventions, the practice of trying to stop people in refugee centers before they even touch the European continent has not been that successful. The Blair government is asking for the establishment of so-called refugee processing centers in countries where refugees are coming from, but the European Union has not accepted that, because they realize it's a violation of the Geneva Convention.

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