The Right to have Rights

Karolinska Institutet, a Swedish University, is moving abroad; yesterday they announced they are setting up a kind of research base in Hong Kong. It should not have been possible without a huge donation, 50 million USD, made by a Hong Kong-based businessman: Ming Wai Lau. This is one of the substantial ways globalization works – a blend of money transferring, research on high-level, international settings and a mix of government and business. 

Ming Wai Lau

The concept globalization refers to the phenomenon when national borders loses significance, and closer collaboration leads to a global civil society. The phenomenon has weakened the nation-state all over the world since the 90s.

It used to be common to claim that nations, like Sweden and Denmark, had existed for all times. Most nations had certainly been oppressed or shattered during history, but that did not affect the fundamental fact that Swedes always had been Swedes, and Danes always had been Danes. Today the opposite opinion is politically correct. No nation-states have existed before the 19th century. This opinion opens up for new versions of global collaboration, since the national legacy is undermined.

The words nation and state have their backgrounds in two different traditions. Nation is related to emotions, state is related to the monopoly of administration and political power within a certain territory. One nation, one language, one culture, one history is the purest version. Today it’s obvious that the juridical citizenship and the cultural identity quite often don’t match.

Globalization has definitely given power to post-national movements, one of them is cosmopolitism, made up with the Greek words cosmos (world) and polites (citizen). Cosmopolitism is an ideology defending and strengthening the bounds between the single individual and the whole humanity. The three basics traits are:

Individualism. Cosmopolitism is an ideology for individuals more than the collective.

Generality. All people are equal, and everyone is a moral subject, not only for example a white person, a man or a Muslim.

Universality. The fundament has a global scope and comprises everyone.

Many contemporary cosmopolites base their theories on empirical analysis – a strong interpretation of globalization. The globalization of economy, politics, culture and information is linking people, and making societies depend on each other. The sovereignty of the state is under these circumstances broken, since it has lost much of its power.

You can find cosmopolites on both the right and the left political wing. On the right wing the neoliberal patterns of thought dominate: The world is nothing but a global market, you are free to choose, buy and sell whatever you want whenever you want – education, insurances, retirement benefits and so on. The citizenship is equivalent with a consumer. On the left wing individual freedom isn’t the driving force, but justice. There is no moral motif for the more or less closed and autonomous state, since it sanctions unfair distributions of assets and possibilities.

There are definitively some attractive features in the cosmopolitan critic of the exclusivity of the state. To draw a too clear line between members/citizens and foreigners is just unfair under the present, global circumstances. But at the same time it’s quite easy to find arguments against hard-core cosmopolitism, and several post-national theorists are occupied with models made up of levels of international collaboration and justice, rather than a completely globalized, cosmopolitan world.

The UN declaration of human rights was written in 1948, and it has become some kind of sacred text for the secular society. In reality a lot of people miss these rights, although they are citizens in states who have signed the declaration. States of dictatorship are well-known for violating human rights, but the problem also occurs in ‘democratic’ countries.

Individuals without citizenship in the country they live in, are risking exclusion from human rights. It could be a person who has fled from her homecountry, and has been denied protection in the new country, but decides to stay there anyway, hiding from the police and the authorities. It could be a person who for some other reasons, for example labour, has left a country, and now live in a new country without permission. Nationless individuals is another category. These individuals, who in the eyes of the state are considered as illegal, are denied several of the most fundamental human rights – the rights for health care, education, safety, freedom.

Thus, human rights have been reduced to citizen rights, since they are connected to states and territories. States sign the international declarations, but is usually only responsible for individuals with citizenship or legal rights to stay in the country. It’s a deep conflict between this practice and the universality of the human rights.

In the nation-state the citizenship is a basic condition for the relation between the individual and the state. This idea has been essential in political philosophy; Thomas Hobbes talked about the civil contract as a contract where individuals give up parts of their right of determination in exchange for protection of their lives and properties. While Hobbes saw the civic contract as a presumption for certain ethical rules and as a tool for controlling egoism, John Locke meant that justice is inherent in the human being. His description of equality for humans is actually still central for many political systems.

Hannah Arendt

One of the first to observe the vulnerable situation of the non-citizens was Hannah Arendt. Her research on migration in Europe during the World Wars, demonstrated the crack in the intersection between civic rights and human rights. Individuals who leave their countries lose their right to family, education, nationality and freedom from discrimination and persecution. One of her classic quotes is: “The right to have rights”.

The increasing international migration of today, is one of the consequences of globalization, and is probably the biggest challenges for the nation-state. An equal society, where no one is excluded or discriminated, where the human rights are a reality instead of a vision, is desirable, and probably some kind of post-nationalism is required. 


Fredrik Sandblad || 2016-08-05