What Are Human Rights? (15): Constitutionally Universal

The theme of this post is the often difficult relationship between citizenship and human rights. This relationship is difficult because human rights, which are explicitly rights for all people everywhere, without distinctions of any kind, seem to require citizenship, and hence a distinction between groups of somehow differentiated people, for their protection. Without citizenship, it is argued, human rights remain a wish rather than a reality, potential rather than effective. Indeed, we often see that non-citizens such as refugees, asylum-seekers or stateless people suffer more rights violations than the citizens of the countries in which they happen to find themselves, even if these countries are comparatively well functioning democracies.

I want to argue that there are no legal reasons to consider citizenship as some kind of necessary condition for the protection of the rights of people within the territory of a state. Or, to put it negatively, that there are no legal reasons to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect than the rights of citizens, or to accept violations of the rights of non-citizens with more ease than violations of the rights of citizens. There has to be, in other words, equality of protection between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship therefore should be irrelevant for the protection of the human rights of the people within a given state territory. The state should be blind in this respect and treat non-citizens as if they were citizens. Non-citizens should have the same legal, judicial and other means to stand up for their rights.

The legal argument is based on Article 2, paragraph 1 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states the following:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

The widely held but mistaken belief that the rights of non-citizens residing in a state are, perhaps inevitably, more precarious than the rights of the citizens living beside them, goes back to the historically important role of citizenship in the practice of protecting human rights. Theoretically, citizenship is irrelevant to human rights. These rights are the equal rights of all human beings, equally and unconditionally. It is not justified to say that one should be white, male, citizen or whatever to be able to enjoy the protection of these rights. Universality, equality and unconditionality are perhaps the main characteristics of human rights. That is where they got their name. They would not be called human rights if this were not the case.

Although theoretically these rights come with no conditions attached, in reality and in practice there are many necessary conditions for their effective protection: a well functioning judiciary, a separation of powers, a certain mentality, certain economic conditions etc. Too many to name them all, unfortunately. But the one we should name and explain is citizenship. Historically, it was because people were citizens of a state that they could use and improve the institutions and judicial instruments of the state, including the executive powers, to enforce their rights. It is this historical contingency, the fact that people have always found their citizenship very useful for their human rights, which has led many to believe that there is some kind of special link between citizenship and human rights which makes it possible and acceptable to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect. That rights are only accessible to citizens. That the rights of man have often been the “rights of an Englishman” in the words of Burke.

“The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see … that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism).

The state, although it does not grant rights, has to recognize them and make them real, but not only for citizens. The constitution, the main instrument for recognizing human rights, should and nowadays often does explicitly guarantee rights for humans, and not merely rights for citizens. Everybody within the territory of the state, not only the citizens of the state, can then enjoy the human rights protected by the constitution. Citizens as well as non-citizens can then go to court and challenge unjust laws or acts of state. Both categories of people have legal personality. This is often called the constitutional universality of rights.

The protection of the economic rights of non-citizens is an even more contentious matter. Should non-citizens have the same healthcare protection, social security, education etc.? In principle yes, but some countries may have such a large number of non-citizens in their territory that the economic viability of their social security system comes under threat. The tax payers ability to fund the system is limited, and non-citizens normally don’t pay taxes.

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