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 Effects of Globalization

So the interesting problem for you, and it was a puzzle for Hannah Arendt too, in the sense that she saw the need for the "right to have rights," as you talk about, but she saw also that in the past these rights had been guaranteed by the nation state by the people coming together and talking about "we, the people." But in fact, it was within a bounded area.

The problem for our times is that globalization is creating movements of people, the need for humanitarian intervention and so on, where a basis for cosmopolitan norms exists outside the boundary of the state. So a lot of this that we see going on in the world that you're just discussing is the iteration of the polity as it grapples with these problems. By focusing on this you're able to move this discussion beyond where Hannah Arendt could take it, because the times have moved on. Is that fair?

Oh, I hope it's also true. I would like to think so. When I finished my book on Arendt in 1996, I was actually looking at the distinction between the public and the private, and her concept of the public space. book coverBut by the time I finished the book I was fascinated by her concept of statelessness and the right to have rights. What she meant by this is that the irony of developments in the twentieth century had been that precisely at the point in which individuals did not seem to have a nation or a state to protect them, that precisely at point at which when the sheer fact of being a human being ought to have entitled one to certain rights and to certain protections, it seem as if one had nothing. That to be stateless was basically to become a complete pariah, and that to be a stateless person was also to be rendered in a way rightless. But the whole notion of universal human rights is rights that accrue to us or belong to us in virtue of our humanity, not in virtue of our citizenship or membership.

She was understandably very pessimistic that the right to have rights would ever been guaranteed in an international system. She thought that only the possibility of establishing a political entity to which one belonged would resolve this condition. She was thinking, of course, of refugees from the Second World War, Jewish refugees and stateless peoples. And she said, although she was not a Zionist, "Let's admit the fact that it is only the establishment of the State of Israel that has, in effect, made these individuals into beings entitled to rights."

Her work ended up, to me, with a [conclusion] that there was a problem and there was a solution which she was only half-hearted about, because she did not think that the nation state was a solution to everything. The nation state, let's say, was the solution to the Jews, but it created the Palestinian refugees. So one group was saved, but the other group emerged, and she was very well away of that.

I started thinking about this, and the developments in the arena of international institutions, in the arena of various conventions, the Universal Declarations of Humans Right, the Geneva Conventions. We have gone beyond the point that Hannah Arendt articulated. But what we have not been able to deal with remains the following problem: border crossings are still a quasi-criminal activity unless accompanied by the right kinds of papers. And there's one voice in me that says from a moral point of view the only justifiable argument is for a world without borders. I don't think that that's going to be viable politically; communities will need to govern themselves and there will need to be some borders. But we are at a point when we have no way of dealing with the system of border crossing in terms of quasi-criminal language. On the one hand, in the global world, we have an unprecedented mobility of peoples, we are aware of the needs of refugees and asylees, and not to speak of about the 30 million displaced persons as a result of civil wars within their own countries. And yet the map that we navigate literally is the map of the nation state, and so we have no way as a world community of addressing this problem of border movement and trans-border justice, except through the categories of nation state.

I am trying to problematize, I'm trying to raise this dilemma to people's consciousness, and to think it through. Do I have any concrete and specific solutions to offer to this? I would say that we need to move towards decriminalization of border movements. One has to have a much more universally anchored system of refuge and asylum. I would also plead for the extension of municipal or city rights for long-term residents.

I don't think that it will be possible for us to envisage a world completely without borders, although we can ideally work closer and closer towards it, because there is the question, still, of democratic representation and accountability. And so we are caught in this puzzle. As I say sometimes, this is harsh, but democracies require borders, they require boundaries, in fact, one needs to know who is representative to whom, and who is accountable to whom. So it's very difficult to square the circle.

I think it is possible to have an empire without borders; I don't think it's possible to have a democracy without borders. So this creates the philosophical and moral dilemma that I have been trying to address in these lectures: Can you reconcile cosmopolitanism and democratic self-governance?

Interestingly enough, as a political philosopher you have to do what the system works against, which you were saying earlier, namely, you have to go back and look at the great issues that the political philosophers have worked on through the years: What is a citizen? What is the power of the sovereign? And so on. These are the big questions, and focusing on them can help us clarify the current confusion about what are the rights of man versus what are the rights of the citizen and so on.

Absolutely. Because when we read the newspapers, we are confronted with images, news stories. We have all heard about Guantanamo Bay. But how many of us really know that one of the difficulties about the situation in Guantanamo Bay is that the United States is a signatory of the Geneva Convention, particularly if there are regular, quote/unquote, prisoners of war [incarcerated there]. The question is, who has the status of being a prison of war? As Colin Powell pointed out before his voice was drowned out six months ago, we would be in violation of the fourth article of the Geneva Convention, which requires that prisoners of war be permitted access to counsel. This administration dealt with it by saying that these are illegal combatants, that is, they don't represent a regular enemy army, which we would have to recognize in combat under the Geneva Convention. So the ordinary citizen looks at something like this, looks at a news item, and says, "Well, what is at stake here?" In order to understand what is as stake, we have to go back to these categories.

Let me just give you another aspect of this issue. (I did not talk about Guantanamo in the lectures, but I could have; I was focusing in on Europe.) How many of us know that Guantanamo is a base that we have rented from Cuba for ninety-nine years? The question is, is it part of the sovereign United States or is it not part of the sovereign United States? As we know, there is a recent court decision at the Federal District that is challenging this notion that it is not part of the sovereign United States. Because if it is part of the sovereign United States, they cannot hold the prisoners without access to counsel, without giving them the writ of habeas corpus, without letting them know for what reason, on what basis they are being held accountable. This is in many ways such a legal and political quagmire, not to say scandal. But as ordinary citizens, to be able to think about this, we have to go back all the way and understand the principles on which we have to act as a nation. In that sense, the history of political philosophy is always there with us whether we recall it or not.

On that note, Professor Benhabib, I want to thank you very much for taking the time, and being with us today on our program, and for this fascinating discussion of the work of theory and the implications of globalization. Thank you.

Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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