'A Right to Have Rights': Hannah Arendt and the Outlines of a Groundless Cosmopolitics
Posted: 22 Feb 2011
Hannah Arendt offered one of the most powerful criticisms of human rights in the light of the problems of statelessness and ended her critique with a rearticulation of human rights: "a right to have rights." Arendt provided only a brief and tantalizing discussion of this right and defined it mainly as a right to membership in a political community where one's action and opinions count. This paper engages with the interpretive controversies that this perplexing reformulation gave rise to so as to offer an alternative reading that makes a case for a "groundless cosmopolitics" centered on contemporary struggles, especially those waged by non-citizens, raising new rights claims. Of particular importance in this critical engagement are the interpretations that tie "a right to have rights" to the debates on the normative foundations of human rights. The paper contests the interpretations provided by not only the critics who fault Arendt for failing to provide normative foundations for human rights (e.g. Seyla Benhabib) but also scholars who turn to Arendt to find such foundations (e.g. Peg Birmingham). I suggest that directing our attention away from the endless quest for normative grounds to political practices of claiming rights is not only more in line with Arendt's political theory but also more helpful for understanding contemporary rights struggles such as the sans-papiers.
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