Academic journal article Refuge

Re-Theorizing Human Rights through the Refugee: On the Interrelation between Democracy and Global Justice

Academic journal article Refuge

Re-Theorizing Human Rights through the Refugee: On the Interrelation between Democracy and Global Justice

Article excerpt


Drawing on Habermas's notion of discourse ethics and agonistic democratic theory I offer an account that attempts to overcome the exclusions revealed by statelessness by appealing to the mutability and contingency of community, as well as the fundamentally unsettled nature of the political. I argue that by placing discourse ethics, as a means to theorize the issues raised by statelessness and the idea of a claim to community, in dialogue with the agonistic emphasis on openness and the contestability of terms, we are provided with potential resources for conceptualizing more open notions of political membership.


S'appuyant sur la notion d'ethique de la discussion chez Habermas et la theorie de l'agonisme democratique, l'auteur propose une lecture qui tente de surmonter les exclusions revelees par l'apatridie en faisant appel a la mutabilite et la contingence de la communaute, ainsi que la nature fondamentalement instable de la politique. L'auteur soutient qu'en ouvrant un dialogue entre l'ethique de la discussion, comme moyen de theoriser les questions soulevees par l'apatridie et l'idee d'une revendication de la communaute, et l'accent agoniste sur l'ouverture et la contestabilite des termes, nous obtenons des ressources pouvant potentiellement conceptualiser des notions plus ouvertes de l'appartenance politique.

Contesting Community: The Refugee as a Site of Tension

Writing in the mid-twentieth century with the horrors of the Second World War still close at hand, Hannah Arendt noted that the emergence of stateless persons as the "most symptomatic group in contemporary politics" served both as a catalytic factor in the emergence of totalitarianism and as a lasting crisis of the post-totalitarian world. (1) Of course, since Arendt penned her far-sighted observations, the off-referred-to "humanitarian problem" that refugees and stateless persons have been seen to pose bas only become far more ubiquitous, with over 17 million people classified as refugees and displaced persons to date. (2) To be sure, our categories for describing the stateless have become more nuanced since Arendt's time, but our progress in addressing her concerns has remained rather limited. (3) Indeed, alongside the equally pressing international issues of immigration and humanitarian intervention, the questions posed by the phenomenon of widespread statelessness have only intensified the degree to which commitments to universal human rights and the sovereign daims of political communities have been seen to clash, thereby complicating discussions of global justice and the emerging international legal norms of out increasingly interconnected present. Indeed, for our modern paradigm of human rights that has been philosophically advanced on universalistic grounds, and yet linked to the incorporation of such rights into national institutions and law, the refugee appears as a figure both least protected and most vulnerable under present international arrangements.

Yet despite the apparent challenges the position of the refugee appears to offer toward our contemporary understandings of citizenship and human rights, the issue of statelessness has received relatively little sustained attention within discussions of international justice. In many ways it appears as if the general consensus views statelessness as a status far too exceptional, and therefore peripheral, to merit direct concern. It is because of this general trend that this paper attempts in part to reorient normative political theory to the particular quandaries and issues raised by statelessness. This is because, as I hope to indicate herein, an inattentiveness to the position of the refugee often distorts or clouds discussions of international obligations and human rights, allowing us to gloss over the underlying inconsistencies in our prevailing understandings of international order and global justice. A central example of this blind spot in contemporary political theory is found in the later work of the seminal political theorist John Rawls. …

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