Hannah Arendt

This essay, on the contemporary significance of Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘the right to have rights’, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the dispute at Parkfield Community School over teaching about gays.) It was published in the Observer, 10 March 2019, under the headline ‘Human rights mean nothing unless we defend real, threatened people’.

‘The right to have rights.’ It’s 70 years since the philosopher Hannah Arendt coined that luminous phrase in an essay in the American socialist journal Modern Review. Two years later, Arendt developed the idea into a chapter in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism.

It’s an idea that has largely been ignored since, though scholars have begun discussing it more in recent years. It’s a concept, however, as important today as it was 70 years ago. In talking of ‘the right to have rights’, Arendt speaks to many contemporary debates, from the migrant crisis to the question of whether terrorist returnees, such as Shamima Begum, should have their citizenship revoked.

Two major developments spurred Arendt to think about ‘the right to have rights’: the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the disintegration of Europe’s political order following the First World War, which left millions as refugees or stateless, or minorities without rights.

Arendt herself had been forced to flee Nazi Germany, only to be interned in France as an ‘enemy alien’. Having escaped from the internment camp, she was, like many Jews, initially refused refuge in America. She eventually travelled there illegally on forged papers.

The trouble with human rights, Arendt observed, is that when they are most needed, they are least effective. The notion of human rights assumes that humans possess a set of basic, inalienable rights by virtue of being human. But they don’t. Humans, Arendt pointed out, acquire rights only as part of a political community. In the modern world, the political community that confers and enforces rights is primarily the nation state. It is citizens who today possess rights.

Millions of people have, however, been stripped of their belongingness to a political community – minorities that formally have citizenship, but in practice face abuse and discrimination, lacking the protection that other citizens possess, refugees who are citizens of ‘nowhere’ and therefore denied the rights normally accorded to citizens, individuals whose citizenship has been revoked by the state for political reasons. They have all become, in Arendt’s phrase, ‘human and nothing but human’.

It is when people stop being citizens, and become simply brute human beings, that they are most bereft of political rights and social protections – at the very point they most need them. ‘The world,’ Arendt wrote in a phrase that still chillingly resonates, ‘found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.’

We witness this today. From the Rohingya denied citizenship in Myanmar, subject to mass murder and forced to flee their homes; to Syrians displaced by the civil war and deprived of the most basic of needs; to migrants locked up in Libyan prisons at the behest of the EU, so as not to sully Europe with their presence, and to allow politicians to dismiss talk of a migration crisis as ‘fake news’; to families broken up in detention by US border guards, parents often deported without their children – all are brutalised because they are excluded from the political community that confers rights.

In talking of the ‘right to have rights’, Arendt was not suggesting that any such right actually exists. She was pointing, rather, to the contingency and fragility of all rights. She was arguing, too, that neither nation states nor transnational human rights are capable protecting those deemed, in her words, ‘the scum of the earth’.

So, what should we do? Our starting point must be the recognition of rights neither as inalienably rooted in human nature, nor as gifts bestowed on citizens by the nation state, but as aspects of human social existence continually created through struggle and contestation. Rights are, as the political theorist Lida Maxwell has put it, ‘collective achievements rather than individual possessions’, and achievements that are ‘fragile’ and ‘imperfectly realised’.

Rights become meaningless unless we constantly engage in struggles to defend those rights, and in particular to defend those deprived of rights because they are deemed ‘nothing but human’. If we allow states to detain, abuse and bar migrants on the grounds that they are not citizens, if we permit authorities to vilify and discriminate against minorities because they are considered not truly to belong, if we accept that governments can arbitrarily revoke citizenship on the grounds that some are politically unacceptable, we not only deny others their rights; we expose the fragility of our rights, too. And in excluding from the political community those who are ‘human and nothing but’, we make all our rights more fragile still.



The photograph of Hannah Arendt is by Fred Stein.


  1. Andrew

    Thanks for that it’s always struck me as probably the most powerful critique of a mainstream human rights position going.
    On Begum it’s shocked me how willing people who otherwise would appeal to the best of European rights based values are to agree she should be stripped of citizenship.
    The whole debate has been reduced to an awful binary of either you want to defend Britain from the evils of Islamism or you want to protect someone who can only be seen as a victim.

    • There is more to it than that, as Kenan spelt out in an earlier post. Even if you regard Begum as fully morally responsible for her actions, or even, however improbably, as a danger to national security, the UK has no right to inflict her on anyone else.

      I used to think I was a citizen of the UK. I have now discovered that I am a citizen of the UK only as long as Home Secretary says so.

  2. damon

    One of the biggest problems is I think, that people who are the biggest supporters of people’s rights, will often not be entirely honest about what’s going on with particular issues. I’m thinking of the Yarl’s Wood women’s detention centre for example, where a great amount of effort was put into painting the staff there as crude racists.
    I’ve never been there myself, but my instincts were telling me that we were being manipulated by the rights activists when they wrote stories about it in the newspapers.

    Big “rights activist” Sunny Hundal did a tweet the other day to highlight a situation that’s going on in El Paso Texas.
    Nine Indian Sikh men are in US custody after trying to cross the Mexican border illegally, and have gone on protracted hunger strikes. They are claiming political asylum. Like with the Irish Republican hunger strikers of the 1980s, their supporters are highlighting their deteriorating health – and implying more or less, that this is the fault of the the authorities holding them – in this case, the immigration service ICE.
    Hunger striking is attempted blackmail and doesn’t mean you have a justifiable case.
    It could be equally argued that the US is just defending its frontiers from illegal crossings.
    As a rules based society, it can’t allow people to just flout it’s laws.
    Why should Indian people be needing asylum in the USA in the first place?
    India is a democracy, and a very big country. If they were having problems in Punjab, then they could have probably gone somewhere else in India.

    • Andrew

      I really don’t think it’s ‘rights activists’ being dishonest here. If you think detaining women and children indefinitely in prison like conditions when they’ve apparently committed no crime, and certainly no been subject to any recognisable due process, at least have the honesty to say so.
      Whatever the merits of those men’s cases, it patently obvious they’re but a minuscule number compared to those seeking asylum (which is obviously not the same as being an illegal immigrant). If you present yourself as seeking Asylum with a genuine fear of persecution then by definition you’re doing nothing illegal and you should have your case dealt with on its merits.
      Even if the Shikh men are trying it on, if you think that somehow undermines others case or the principle in general at least have the honesty to say so.
      Your entire post is as disingenuous as it is incoherent.
      I’m at at loss as to what any of it has to do with either Begum or Arendt’s point.

      • damon

        On your first point, the most important thing – if you are going to be able to discuss such things in a rational way – is for people to be at least honest at what’s going on, and not make things up, exaggerate or bring emotion into things too much. I think the Yarl’s Wood campaigners have done all those things, so I find it hard to take anything they say seriously. The campaigning left do this routinely on nearly every issue they cover, so it makes having conversations about difficult subjects pretty hard.
        The women are locked up as they are mostly due to be deported. But what they are doing is fighting the system, and making up accusations of racism and brutality is just part of that fight.

        A quick google search will show that people from India taking the route to Mexico that the nine men on hunger strike have done, has been going on for years now. It’s a trafficking route. The would-be refugees are coached about what to say. You can’t have an asylum process if it becomes overwhelmed by people making false claims. A former Labour Home Secretary said that the Home Office system for asylum claims had broken down and “wasn’t fit for purpose”. It couldn’t cope with so many appeals and legal cases.
        A few years ago at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, south Asians from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were trying to force their way into the EU, by hiding themselves amongst the Syrian refugees. It’s this that makes systems break down and become overwhelmed.

        A similar situation could have potentially taken place on the US – Mexican border last year.
        If the US was forced to take everyone claiming asylum at the border at face value, it would have caused thousands and thousands more to set out on a similar journey.
        If people weren’t to be held on the border, the other alternative would have been to bus them or fly them to their cities of choice in the US, and then wait years as they fought their asylum claims through the courts.

        • Damon, being ‘dishonest’ seems, to you, to be synonymous with ‘not agreeing with my speculations’. You claim that

          ‘the most important thing… is for people to be at least honest at what’s going on, and not make things up, exaggerate or bring emotion into things too much. I think the Yarl’s Wood campaigners have done all those things.’

          That’s a strong claim to make. Do you have any evidence to back it up? Do you know for a fact that there have been no cases of neglect and abuse at Yarl’s Wood? Or is it you that is ‘making things up’ or ‘exaggerating’ or ‘bringing emotion into things too much’?

  3. damon

    I wasn’t saying it was you who was being particularly dishonest Kenan, but more the left wing rights activists in general. On Yarl’s Wood, they just remind me too much of the Irish Republican women who were serving sentences in Armagh gaol during their protests against the prison regime in the 1980s.

    “We broke Armagh – it never broke us”

    While I’m sure some of their allegations against the prison officers were true, I’m pretty sure there was political manipulation of them by the Republican movement too.
    And I’m pretty sure some similar things happen with Yarl’s Wood also.
    I don’t have any proof of course, but I can see what left wing activists have become today.
    Just reading about how they are going after people like Julia Hartley Brewer, saying she has “blood on her hands” over the New Zealand murders – and Chelsea Clinton was even accused of the same by a couple of ridiculous SJW types the other day. You can’t take anything that section of the left say anymore.
    The one headline that made me think the Yarl’s Wood claims could be exaggerated, was one in the Independent that said “They call us black monkeys”.
    If that was true it would be absolutely outrageous ……. I just have difficulty believing that someone working in a job like that would say it.
    It could be true of course, but how do you believe activists of the Owen Jones and Ash Sarker variety?
    You have to be sceptical of everything they say.

    • You made a series of allegation about Yarl’s Wood prisoners and about Yarl’s Wood campaigners, including that they were being ‘dishonest’ and ‘making things up’. I asked you to provide evidence to back up your accusations. You have not been able to provide any. You won’t even admit that you got it wrong. Instead you try to divert attention by talking of other cases. So, my question still stands: Who is really being dishonest here? Yarl’s Wood prisoners and campaigners whom you claim are making things up but cannot provide evidence that they are? Or you who makes allegations without evidence?

      • damon

        My point would be …. how can I know they are telling the truth? I can’t, it’s just allegations.
        There aren’t any trusted sources that I’ve seen that can convince me one way or the other.
        Though I’m sure the conditions inside might be quite unpleasant.
        Political campaigning has become so partisan that it’s often just a straightforward fight.
        And the Yarl’s Wood activists, and the women resisting their deportations, will use a whole host of means to win in their struggles. Supporters of campaigns like this will even go to the lengths of physically stopping deportation planes from taking off from runways.
        But everything gets obfuscated in a cloud of rhetoric and misinformation too.
        Every issue like this does. Like the Calais jungle did – with activists focussing on children and the rights of would-be refugees there to come to the U.K. Emotional blackmail becomes a tactic in the fight to achieve their aims. An almost opposite – but equal – reaction to the reactionary press and racists pushing the other way. I find rights activists today as about as appealing as Tommy Robinson. They are almost like a mirror image of each other.

        But on Yarl’s Wood specifically, it seems that there was a culture of active resistance to the regime and the staff. Women going on hunger strike, self harming, and refusing to cooperate with requests to do things by the staff. When any hands were laid on these women to try to enforce compliance, this could result in incidents which are then reported as “beatings” as this women directly alleges here.

        When people are fighting against a system so hard, why should I take what they say as necessarily the truth? Any more than I would have taken what Irish Republican spokespeople said when the Armagh and H Block campaigns were going on in Northern Ireland.
        I follow activist Sunny Hundal on twitter. I read the ridiculous “Zelo Street” blog ….. and Nesrine Malik and the other Guardian “race” columnists. Political debate has morphed into a straight-up sectarian fight between the right and left. And being truthful and objective is no longer that important, but it’s winning that has become everything.

        Just one last thing on “open borders” Kenan. You support that, which is fair enough.
        But I think about that sometimes as I travel about, and am in Ethiopia just now.
        The culture here is just so hugely different to the West, that I can’t see how that would work.
        People are left to die in the streets here, covered in flies, just outside the gates of a hospital (like I’ve seen in Harar). No one cares for the glue sniffing, barefoot street children – it’s a different culture.
        The people are pretty nice overall, but they just can’t get over a white person being a foreigner.
        I was just imagining yesterday how it would be if we scooped up all the people crowded outside one of the city gates to the old city in Harar – all buying and selling their “chat” leaves at the chat market, which they then chew all day, and plonking them down in Southwark or Newham. It would take a lot of them a long time to integrate. For many, it couldn’t happen in their lifetimes. I’ve never really understood the open borders argument. Wouldn’t England become more like here?

        • It’s one thing to be skeptical, it’s quite another to accuse people of ‘dishonesty’ and of ‘making things up’ without a shred of evidence because you disagree with their views or actions. As for things being ‘obfuscated in a cloud of rhetoric and misinformation’, I would suggest that you look at your own comments. Every time I ask you to provide evidence for your claims, you… obfuscate, by talking about all manner of cases and issues apart from the one for which you cannot provide any evidence.

  4. damon

    I’m not accusing you of dishonesty I hope you know. And as I’ve said already, I can’t know one way or the other for sure about the claims of women in Yarl’s Wood and their activist supporters. It’s only my suspicion that they exaggerate and make things up. Because that sort of dishonesty goes with that kind of struggle and fighting the system. It’s endemic in campaigns like Black Lives Matter and the race politics of the black activists in the U.K. who have held marches and protests about deaths in police custody. They disseminate the idea that police murder black people in custody because they are such racists.
    It sounds unbelievable that people working for the government (even if privately contracted) would be calling African women in their custody at Yarl’s Wood “black monkeys”.
    But as an accusation, it’s hugely powerful. I can only be skeptical of such a claim, even while admitting that it could be true. Even if it was true, that would just be the misbehaviour of an individual person (or group of persons) who would be immediately fired from their jobs if they were found out to have said such a thing.

    So to sum up, I don’t know why you’re asking me for evidence for my claims, as I admit they are only my reasoned guesses at things I can never know about for sure. We have to operate that way on loads of subjects.

    The thing about Yarl’s Wood I think, is that the government would prefer people taken there to only spend a short time on there, prior to deportation. But they end up getting stuck there due to protracted legal appeals.
    It’s really quite a difficult situation, as many of the people are considered flight risks if they are realeased back into the community. When you have activists who have a position of opposing all deportations, then that’s going to clash quite starkly with the way our bureaucratic system works. We know that the asylum system was overwhelmed with false claims – and that if you fight the system hard enough, you can cause it to fail.
    Anti deportation activists would love the system to crash and fail.
    By the way, I marched for no deportations myself more than 25 years ago in London. You might have been on it yourself Kenan. It was the one up to the Home Office in Westminster about Kenneth Baker’s asylum bill.
    The chant was “kill the bill” and “they’re welcome here”. Quite militant really. A call for open borders more or less.

    Do you know much about the way they house asylum seekers in the Republic of Ireland?
    They put them in “direct provision” hostels where they stay for years. Far less draconian than Yarl’s Wood, but they still are heavily criticised. Because people spend so long in them. Up to ten years. I went to one once. The big Mosney camp on the coast north of Dublin. They wouldn’t allow me inside though. A guy from Nigeria who was staying there, stopped to give me a lift in his car as I was walking down to it from the main road. He’d been in there several years. I should have asked him why he needed asylum in Ireland from Nigeria. Whatever his problems were there, couldn’t he have just moved to a different part of the country? Ireland now has a Nigerian diaspora community due to these asylum claims form more than ten and nearly twenty years ago.
    I think it’s fair to say that many of them were completely bogus.
    I was just reading that they are developing some of the same issues we have in England. With black youth coming into contact with the police etc.

    Lastly, since I don’t always have WiFi when travelling, I listen to podcasts that I download when I have it, and I’ve been listening to a load of these called “Code Switch” from radio station NPR. They’re all about race in the US and are interesting and I like the presenters. But really!! They are obsessive about race. Is this where having a diverse society inevitably leads? Is this what Ireland has to look forward in the future to as well now?

    • I’m sorry you can’t see the difference between being skeptical about a claim and accusing people of being ‘dishonest’ and ‘making things up’ without any evidence to back that up. Nor why you shouldn’t throw round such accusations without evidence. (It was not just your ‘suspicion’ when you first made the claims; you’ve backed down a bit since I asked for the evidence.) This is not a question of whether or not you think I’m dishonest. That’s irrelevant. It’s a question rather of how one should conduct public debate, and why you should not make accusations without evidence.

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