The Human Rights State: Justice within and beyond Sovereign Nations

The Human Rights State: Justice within and beyond Sovereign Nations

The Human Rights State: Justice within and beyond Sovereign Nations

The Human Rights State: Justice within and beyond Sovereign Nations


The nation state operates on a logic of exclusion: no state can offer citizenship and legal rights to all comers. From the logic of exclusion a state derives its sovereign power. Yet this exclusivity undermines the project of advancing human rights globally. That project operates on a logic of inclusion: all people, regardless of citizenship status or territorial location, would everywhere be recognized as bearers of human rights. In practice, human rights are afforded, if at all, then only to citizens of those few states that sometimes regard human rights as moral necessities of domestic commitments--or for states that find that stance politically expedient for the moment.

This discouraging reality in the first decades of the twenty-first century prompts the question: What political arrangement might better conduce the local embrace and enduring practice of human rights? In The Human Rights State, Benjamin Gregg challenges the conviction that the nation state can only have a zero-sum relationship with human rights: national sovereignty is possible or human rights are possible, but not both, not in the same place, at the same time. He argues that the human rights project would be more effective if established and enforced at local levels as locally valid norms, and from there encouraged to expand outward toward overlaps with other locally established and enforced conceptions of human rights grown in their own local soils.

Proposing a metaphorical human rights state that operates within or alongside a nation state, Gregg describes networks of activists that encourage local political and legal systems to generate domestic obligations to enforce human rights. Geographic boundaries and national sovereignties would remain intact but diminished to the extent necessary to extend human rights to all persons, without reservation, across national borders, by rendering human rights an integral aspect of the nation state's constitution.


The playwright Bertolt Brecht spent fourteen years in exile. He was officially stateless for twelve. He fled Germany in February 1933, one month after the Nazis took power. After shorter stays in various cities, including Prague, Vienna, Zürich, and Paris, he spent a longer period in Denmark and then in Sweden. When the Germans occupied Denmark and attacked Norway in 1940, and neutral Sweden allowed Germany transit routes for its Norwegian campaign, Brecht fled in April to Finland by ship. He remained in Finland until May 1941, when he left by train for Leningrad, then Moscow, then Vladivostok and, only nine days before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, by Swedish boat to Los Angeles, which he reached in July. He returned to Europe in 1947.

While he and his companions struggled to get visas to the United States, Brecht started a play in rural Marleba¨ck, four hours outside Helsinki, in 1940, and worked on it intermittently until 1944, in Los Angeles. He sets his Flüchtlingsgespra¨che, or Conversations in Exile, in a bar at the Helsinki Railway Station where two German refugees, Ziffel, a physicist, and Kalle, a laborer, while away their time sparring in a loosely connected series of meandering exchanges. “These encompass memories of childhood and school years as well as of exile, some of which … are recognizable as Brecht’s own” (Parker 2014:421). At one point Ziffel says to Kalle, “The passport is the noblest part of a person. It isn’t generated in the plain and simple way people are. A person can be begotten anywhere in the world, in the most frivolous of ways—but not a passport. That’s why a passport, so long as it’s a good one, is recognized—whereas a person can be ever so good yet still be denied recognition.” Brecht captures in this passage the topsy-turvy world of rights: what matters is not the human being but rather his or her legal status. Thus the person is reduced to an epiphenomenon of . . .

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