The aporia of human rights (abstract/ intro/ theoretical framework)


Human rights have historically been enshrined in a plethora of theories derived from the tradition of analytic philosophy. Attempting to go beyond the potentially narrow economy of thought of only one discipline, this dissertation draws upon a staging of enquiries and arguments which stem from social and political theory, international relations, legal theory, and philosophy, proposing a new distribution of the thinkable. Inspired by Jacques Rancière’s thinking ‘in-between’ disciplines (a term which he establishes as ‘indisciplinarity’ (2007:101)), I contend that social studies are affected by the specialisation of knowledge within well-delimited disciplinary frameworks. For this reason, debates on human rights, political asylum, and democracy, as embedded within the realm of politics, aesthetics, and ethics will be discussed, whilst questioning the very meaning of these three realms. In other words, this dissertation focuses on the way in which human rights have been used as a means to various ends, and how the theory and praxis around them affect democracy and the bearers of rights. Some of the thematic questions which run throughout the dissertation are: are human rights means to an end, or are they an end in themselves? What kind of politics is desirable in order to recognise the obvious, namely the equality of asylum seekers with citizens, without having to appeal to an institution as a mediator and enactor of ‘rights’? Who is the subject of human rights? And ultimately, how are we to imagine a democracy based on a politics of equality and an ethics of hospitality?

Introduction & Theoretical framework


Human rights are said to be universal and self-evident, whilst the role of state is claimed to be that of protecting citizens through the use of a neutral, objective, and indisputable law. However, the violation of human rights is ever-more prevalent in contemporary political affairs, one of the social categories discriminated en masse being the asylum seeker. They are subjected to violence not only within the territory of the country of residence or of birth, but also in the country they seek asylum from, as the latter prioritises ‘human security’ for its citizens, against welcoming refugees. Security and hospitality, therefore, are set in tension against each other, the former winning a growing popularity and power, deeming human rights to appear futile. Triggered by this tension and aporia of modern human rights, the dissertation aims to question the top-down, liberal utilitarian approach to the human rights project in relation to politics and democracy. To do so, the paper focuses on one of the initially-identified subjects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely the asylum seeker. Further, the impact of human rights on asylum seekers will be considered by assessing the theoretical contributions of political theorists and philosophers such as Bentham, Mill, Nancy, Douzinas, Arendt, Agamben, Rancière, and Derrida. We can then acknowledge that what had appeared to be a radical idea, that is, the recognition that all humans qua humans have equal rights, has been subverted by the reified logic of international organisations and states. Hospitality and equality, in effect, are conditioned by their reliance upon the law, as stipulated in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘all are equal before the law’ (UN 1948; my emphasis). Echoing this statement, modern politics has treated equality between humans as a fabricated ‘lie’ or ‘agreement’ to be protected by the law, instead of believing in equality as such. Not only are these forms of organisation of power the inscribers of human rights upon subjects, but they can also distribute and order identities. Thus, a utilitarian prioritisation of identities generates a hierarchy which dehumanises those who are made invisible and unheard within the ‘distribution of the sensible’; they are ‘the part of those who have no part’ (Rancière 2004a:305). To interrupt this partitioning, there is a need for a politics based on dissensus which acknowledges the radical equality between humans (in an anarchistic way), and an ethics of hospitality ─ aspects to be discussed in the final part of the argument. These principles, it will be conveyed in the conclusion, are much needed for the destruction of state sovereignty, both in its material and ideational dimensions, for sovereignty is always in contradiction to democracy (Derrida 2005b:100).


Theoretical Framework

As the structure of this dissertation does not follow a standard outline, this section constitutes a justification for not having included an extensive literature review and a chapter on methodology. Firstly, this dissertation represents a theoretical inquiry into the philosophy and ethics of human rights and politics, through the use of continental philosophy’s anti-analytical approaches. Using clear-cut research methodologies would contradict the very tenets of the philosophical approach followed in this paper. However, the illustration of case studies complements the theoretical discussion by exemplifying political practices and gestures, for an insightful critique of the right to asylum.

Secondly, the whole dissertation could be interpreted as a dialogical exploration of often competing, but also complementary standpoints. The development of the argument, then, does not rest on a collection of empirical findings. Rather, the dissertation is organised into three thematic chapters which are to be regarded partly as narrative literature reviews. This approach is employed as a non-systematic way of illuminating old and new ambiguities of human rights, in order to formulate a new repositioning of the subject of the rights of man within the human rights project. Additionally, the analytic table of contents has the role of succinctly outlining the main arguments in each of the chapters, complementing this brief theoretical framework, so that read together, they could be regarded as an alternative to a traditional literature review, adapted to the needs of a theoretical dissertation.

Having outlined the reasons for not following the standard structure of a dissertation, I shall now present my perspective on it. This piece problematises the notions of human rights, politics, and democracy, putting forward the work of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Rancière for a reimagining of the three terms.  In agreement with Rancière, I claim that ‘a method means a path’ (Rancière 2009:114). Through this dissertation I intend to create my own path in tackling the genealogy of ideas and practices within modern Western societies. Through this exploration, we will encounter rationalities and justifications for different understandings of human rights, politics, and asylum, but the main intention is to highlight the much needed interruption of these narratives through the inscription of equality, that is, an uncovering of the illusion of ‘natural inequalities’ between people. It will be claimed that democracy (here understood as a process, not as a form of governing) cannot be realised without considering the possibility of opening up to the unexpected. To emphasise the anarchical, grass-roots approach to politics, this dissertation can be considered in Deleuzian terms a ‘minor literature’, as it argues against a politics based on consensus. It attempts to oppose the top-down approach of politics as ‘police’ which creates and excludes ‘the other’ who, in our case, is ‘the uncounted’ (Rancière 2004a), the foreigner, the stranger (Derrida 1996). At the end of this theoretical journey, we will address the question of why it is important for politics to always interrupt, and never conclude, or (arithmetically) ‘count’ its subjects.

From the beginning of the thesis it will be noticed that the aporia of human rights becomes manifest every time they are invoked; human rights arguably have as many meanings as the variety of actors who use them. This begs the question for a clarification of the reason which underpins my decision of focusing on the refugee and the right to asylum. In the early stages of gathering information about human rights, the increasing relevance of refugees within political, social, and legal debates became apparent. After the Second World War, more than 40 million refugees and displaced persons were in Europe alone (Klemenčič 2007:42), creating an unprecedented context which has contributed to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the Convention on the Status of Refugees in 1951 (Robinson 1998). The creation of a universal jurisdiction has led to a significant reconceptualisation and challenging of state power (Cohen 2012:79-80), although state sovereignty still remains the principle located at the heart of public international law (Shaw 2008:487), territory being ‘perhaps the fundamental concept of international law’ (O’Connell, cited by Shaw 2008:488).

Six decades after the Declaration, the situation of the refugee is still precarious, being one of the most vulnerable social categories, with a slight level of variation across countries, identities, and asylum systems. Even more, 2012 had witnessed the highest number of refugees since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In 2012 alone, there were 45.2 million forcibly-displaced people worldwide (UNHCR 2013a:5), but it is expected that numbers are even higher, when considering the unregistered refugees. As the situation has reached a critical juncture, in December 2013, the UN Refugee Agency published a report in which they declare that the Regional Response Plan (RRP) for Syria for 2014 ‘is one of the largest appeals ever presented for a refugee emergency’ (UNHCR 2013b:4). On the whole, debates about the reliability, authenticity, and effectiveness of human rights reflect the current local and international politics concerns. Additionally, the urgency of granting political asylum to displaced refugees, at a time when Western countries are becoming more hostile to immigration, makes the provision and conceptualisation of human rights ever more crucial.

On the topic of methodology, I agree with Rancière’s rejection of the statement that ‘there is no science but of the hidden’ (Rancière 2013:46). This dissertation does not attempt to create or add new theories to the existent cornucopia of standpoints. Instead, it seeks to intervene in the already-established and taken for granted systems of predicates within contemporary politics by ‘reversing and displacing’ conceptual and nonconceptual orders (Derrida 1977:21). Thus, the politics based on radical equality, dissensus, and hospitality advocated for in this paper does not need to give ‘scientific legitimacy’ to the discourses of the ‘othered’ subjects. There is no hidden meaning or ‘beyondness’ of the appearance and representation of identities to be revealed. My task is much simpler, that is, to expose the uncritically accepted ‘ordinariness’ of exclusionary practices and the significant intervention which undecidability, interruption, and hospitality posit to a politics as police which, by trying to encompass its subjects within a fictional ‘totality’, it always-already fails to do so, as there is always a surplus of people/guests who, through their very presence, challenge this ordering.

Finally, the dissertation does not firmly conclude or prescribe empirical solutions; concludere, a Latin term, means ‘to shut’ (Still 2010:256) – a clear act of inhospitality. Or, as Nancy puts it, ‘finality concerns a supposed knowing; generosity exposes to not-knowing’ (2003a:42). The analysis of hospitality and politics does not end here, and it can never end, as it always waits for the event when the unexpected newcomer creates a necessary interruption through their contribution to the process of shared thinking. Finally, I make a plea to the reader to join me in my theoretical journey, and to regard my approach as a sign of strength for the development of an argument in support of inclusive, egalitarian politics.


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