What are Human Rights? (2/7)

Costas Douzinas
Director Ejecutivo del Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities
Segundo artículo de la serie publicada por el diario británico “The Guardian”

In an extremely interesting thread responding to an earlier article (Are rights universal), contributors discussed the metaphysical status of rights, their universal or local grounding and their political import. Zdenekv took me to task for not understanding that according to ‘moral realism’, people have rights ‘like any other natural property’, one could say like they have arms or legs. The answer to ‘moral realism’ was given by Jami and Barzo, failed’ asylum seekers, in Monday’s coverage of the report of refugee charity Parfras. A shadow humanity without shelter, food, the right to work lives a shadow life in our cities surviving on less that one dollar a day, Parfras reported. In the accompanying video, Jami who sleeps in parks quietly contrasts himself with his friends who have ‘papers’ and implicitly with the rest of us. ‘We both have two hands, two eyes, two legs. They are human like me’. Barzo ends his heart-rending description of destitution, homelessness and despair quietly accusing people like who, from our comfortable houses, keep proclaiming ‘human rights, human rights. But where are the human rights for the asylum seekers?’ Echoing a haunting line that links them to a suffering humanity from Shylock to Primo Levi, these natural philosophers state an indisputably realistic truth: we may all be human but humanity has always excluded, despised and degraded some of its parts. Humanity is not one: it has always been split between full and lesser humans.

How can we understand this paradox that not all humans have humanity in a human rights culture? The inflation of rights-talk has obscured the terms. To understand what Jami and Barzo tell us, we need to clarify them again. ‘Human rights’ is a term combining law and morality. Legal rights have been the building block of western law since early modernity. As Human, rights refer to a type of morality and to the treatment individuals expect from public and private powers. Human rights are a hybrid category which in bringing together law and morality introduces a number of paradoxes at the heart of society.

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