Seyla Benhabib and human rights

Yesterday I had the chance to attend a talk given by Seyla Benhabib at the New School for Social Research, titled ‘Is There a Human Right to Democracy?’ In it she polemicized against certain conceptions of human rights in the international context that have been put forward by Michael Walzer, Martha Nussbaum, and John Rawls, among others. Unlike Walzer, who sees human rights as something that can be a thin consensus of the most common denominator between different cultures, and against Nussbaum, who makes no distinction between rights as moral principles and as legal entitlements, she argued for the idea that human rights are moral principles based on the idea of communicative freedom. These rights need to be made into legal norms so communicative freedom can continue to be ensured.

This idea of communicative freedom is based on the mutual respect of each other’s disagreement. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt’s idea of human rights as ‘the right to have rights,’ Benhabib argues that this mutual recognition of individuality is crucial to democracy. This is not the same as the liberal, agent-centered conception of rights put forward by someone like Rawls, however, because agency can’t be abstracted from communication. The individual is already embedded in social relations that give him the capacity to justify his actions, and it is this justification that is a process of dialogue in which people must engage.

The need to institutionalize this theory of rights is clear. How to do it is a different question. Benhabib closed with the remark that today’s liberal internationalism has developed too much into the belief that there is an obligation to protect human rights, which can lead to preventive war or a hijacking of human rights justifications for ulterior motives. Of course, this does not mean that the whole notion of human rights is just a U.S. ploy for neoimperialism, as some would claim. One only needs to look at the support that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had among Third World nations, or to America’s anti-cosmopolitan stance of the last 15-20 years. The most amazing example of the latter, which I was surprised to learn, is that the U.S. did not ratify the post-WWII genocide agreements until 1988, for fear of being retroactively prosecuted for slavery.


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