Refugees & Human Rights Part 2: The Future | Philosophy Tube

Welcome back. In Part 1 I told you a story
about pre-WWII Europe, when a lot of people became stateless and their human rights went
unrespected. We noticed some parallels between the refugee crisis then and the refugee crisis now. The philosophical problem for all those refugees in interwar Europe was that all their rights were dependent on their having a nation. And so if they had no nation they basically had no rights. Political scientist Hannah Arendt says that
if your rights don’t contain within them a label saying who is supposed to fulfil that right, more than likely they probably won’t get fulfilled. So let’s say I’m the government and I give you the right to… I dunno, like, shelter for instance. Okay. Cool. You have the right to shelter! That’s your right. That’s on the books. But uh, who do you go to for that shelter? Whose job is it to give you that? And if my answer is, “Well,
nobody,” or, “Well, somebody but I don’t know,” then what’s the point in having
the right? What good is it to have that right if there’s nowhere you can really cash it in? We tell ourselves that everyone is born equal, and Arendt says that is a fantastic idea but we are not living up to that right now. In practice, she says, it’s by being recognised by a nation that we become equal, that we acquire the right
to have rights, and if no nation recognises you, you ain’t getting dick. “The Rights
of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable.” If somebody’s rights exist pretty much only on paper philosophers call that formal access. Like for instance, there are some states in the USA where you technically have the right to get an abortion – that’s a right that’s on the lawbooks – but it’s deliberately made so difficult that for many people it’s practically impossible. They have the right on paper but the right only exists on paper. Substantive access is when people can actually get ahold of the thing that they’re entitled to. Substantive access takes things like infrastructure and investment, which somebody has to pay for. Like for instance, making sure everybody in the USA had substantive access to their right to get an abortion would mean, at least, opening up some more clinics, right? Which is why, in an age where the rich
are trying to hoard as much money as possible, more and more people’s rights end up merely formal – just on paper. So the philosopher Onora O’Neill says we
should forget about human rights and start talking about human obligations. Rather than go to somebody who needs shelter and saying “You have the right,” which is useless if there’s nowhere they can cash it in, better, she says, to go to someone who can provide shelter and say, “Hey – you have the obligation to give that person shelter.” That way it
actually gets done, and we can avoid situations like interwar Europe where we’ve got a lot
of people who need help and a lot more people trying to pretend that it’s not their problem. O’Neill’s not the only philosopher to
question the value of talking about human rights. We’ve mentioned Henry Shue on the show before, who said that healthcare, shelter, and food are essential if you are gonna have any other rights. Pick any right you like,
like the right to free speech or the right to an attorney. You can’t use that right
if you’re dead! You also can’t use it if you’re under threat, if you are sick, or in debt, or poor: you’ll trade away your rights bit by bit
just to stay alive – and who can blame you? That’s why Shue recommends that things like
healthcare, shelter, and food be seen as Basic Rights – the things that you need in order
to have any other rights. And therefore things that should be provided to you, free. And if he’s correct then the whole idea of Human Rights is way more demanding than we might have realised. We like to think that everybody has human rights: they’re a human thing. But free healthcare, shelter, and food for every human being? We could do that, that is literally a thing that we could do: it’s within out power. But it’s gonna require some big changes, right? Well Shue says it’s either we make those changes or we give up on the idea of human rights entirely and admit that in practice they’re just for rich people. And the less money you have the fewer rights you’re actually able to use. In order to avoid making those big changes,
the history of human rights philosophy is littered with examples of people trying to find exceptions to the supposedly “universal” Rights of Man. So we’ve mentioned already how in interwar Europe people made all sorts of excuses for why they were just gonna leave other human beings to die. But it goes back further than that: philosophers like John Stuart Mill and John Locke loved to talk about liberty and freedom but their systems explicitly contained exceptions for “savages” and “brutish races.” And the kicker was, they themselves were also to be the deciders of who is savage and therefore not deserving of rights. How convenient. This practice of making exceptions to supposedly universal rules caught on, and is still going on: the founding fathers of the USA talked about “liberty and justice for all,” right? But they must have made some exceptions because they also owned slaves. Prime Minister Teresa May condemned the Chechnyan use of concentration camps for LGBT people but when she was Home Secretary she deported LGBT asylum seekers to countries where they’d
be imprisoned for being LGBT because they couldn’t prove to her satisfaction that they were. There’s been so much hypocrisy surrounding human rights that little wonder some philosophers have said it’s not really worth talking about them at all. As a final twist in the tale, in her book
“Social Death,” Lisa Marie Cacho warns that there’s a trap lying in wait here. The trap
is that we go to the state and we demand that the state enforces substantive access to everybody’s rights. When, she says, it’s states that are treating people badly in the first place. To try and use state apparatus to fulfil people’s human rights still buys into the idea that rights are something that governments give us, and therefore, something governments might take away. So it allows these same problems of statelessness – of not being recognised by any state – to potentially creep back in. The solution, she says, is to stop allowing
the state to decide the value of human lives. Rather, she says we should allow people
to value their lives on their own terms, and that means putting a stop to policies that
value people based on how much they contribute to a particular understanding of how economies should work, or how much they cooperate with what their governments are trying to do. In Part 1 I told you that story about Interwar Europe and in this Part 2 I’ve thrown out quite a few disparate ideas without as much linking as I normally do. And no doubt, the ideas that I’ve been throwing out there reflect who I’ve read and what I think about politics as a person. Rather than convince you of any specific point, what I hope these videos have
done is show you that there are alternative ways of thinking about human rights when it comes to refugees. If you’d like to know about any of the points of view I’ve touched on there’s some recommended reading in the description. Two or three dollars a month from you at could help me pay my rent and make food. Rent in London is egregiously expensive so anything you could do would be really, really helpful. And don’t forget to subscribe.


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