Asylum

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION: THE SPATIAL AND THE TEMPORAL

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home-so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.1

The first great damage done to the nation-states as a result of the arrival of hundreds and thousands of stateless people was that the right of asylum, the only right that had ever figured as a symbol of the Rights of Man in the sphere of international relationships, was being abolished. Its long and sacred history dates back to the very beginnings of regulated political life. . . . But though the right of asylum continued to function in a world organized into nation-states and, in individual instances, even survived both World Wars, it was felt to be an anachronism and in conflict with the international rights of the state.2

These two quotations, the first from Eleanor Roosevelt, the second from Hannah Arendt, express two distinct if related conceptual frameworks for understanding rights and through them the concept of asylum. Roosevelt's notion is a spatial one: it demarcates space into small places of rights barely visible on maps: factories, farms, offices, schools, and neighborhoods. There is an emphasis on the personal, the local, and the domestic. Arendt's, on the other hand, introduces a temporal framework: a moment in which asylum exists, a moment in which the right of asylum is at risk, a moment of the change in the nation-state particularly after World War II, a moment when asylum is invoked as an ancient right, and also one when it may appear anachronistic. Her temporal framework is announced too in the title of her book: The Origins of Totalitarianism in which ancient or prior rights mitigate against every instantiation of their retraction in originary moments of totalitarianism. Roosevelt's celebration of human rights on its tenth anniversary returns responsibility for those rights to the person, the human, and the domestic. "In Your Hands" is suggestive of humans moving through their domestic lives in multiple places around the earth. The Origins of Totalitarianism is concerned with institutions that arise in moments of global change. These then have huge effects on people moving through space and places, and indeed their ability to take anything in their own hands in the face of institutionalized violence and deprivation.

Eleanor Roosevelt emphasizes the domestic, the local, the individual, and the citizenry. Discourse about human rights frequently takes the form of discussions about bodies moving through spaces, of the bio-political, and of citizens who have rights as they emerge into different spaces, rather than institutional control over people's lives. Roosevelt's passage evokes a comfortable picture of a secure and knowable site in which rights must be upheld. At that liminal space of the threshold into the neighborhood or into the "human family" proposed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), there is an implicit understanding of those sites of apparent safety as being full of risk and danger.3

Arendt is concerned, in the post-WW II period, with what she sees as the necessary changes that have to take place in order that the hundreds and thousands of stateless peoples (she was thinking mostly of Jews and Armenians after the Holocaust) were cared for. She claimed that a substantial shift in world politics and law ensued from that point, and indeed a reconfiguration of the world and its "surplus population. …