Conference: The Right to Have Rights Today [2022 C4eJ 32]

This symposium is based on an online international and interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto, on June 3, 2022.

Hannah Arendt’s useful phrase ‘the right to have rights’ asks us to consider foundational rights—to consider on what ‘right’ other ‘rights’ are based. In The Rights of Others, Seyla Benhabib argues that the first right in Arendt’s phrase is addressed to humanity as a call to recognize political membership, where such a ‘right’ to membership entails legal entitlements (the plural ‘rights’). Working with a different literature, and calling into question the still-predominant North American priority of political rights over economic rights, in Basic Rights Henry Shue argues that security and subsistence rights are foundational for other rights. In still different fields and sites, theorists in Native Studies and centuries of Indigenous activism have called for land (back) as foundational to other meaningful economic or political rights, and others in Native Studies and Black Studies have asked theorists, advocates, and organizers to re-think both a strategic reliance on rights claims and a too-easy sense that the nation-state protects rights (e.g. Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks; Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return; and Rinaldo Walcott, The Long Emancipation). Finally, Paul Gilroy has recently asked us to re-imagine the history of human rights such that its genealogy begins not with Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence or Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration, but with David Walker and Frederick Douglass (cf. Postcolonial Melancholia and Darker than Blue).

In other words, claims to human rights—what they have been, are, and could be—remain unstable into our present, part of a larger contradictory history that includes the South African white supremacist Jan Smuts calling for human rights in the preamble of the United Nations Charter while W. E. B. Du Bois took up the term in his contemporaneous Color and Democracy; or, more recently, when human rights have been invoked to argue both for and against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

What are we to make of this conceptual instability? What histories, traditions, and cosmologies help us to understand rights claims in new ways? What sites of practice (well beyond political theory) leverage rights in the most useful ways, and what can we learn from these sites, struggles, and celebrations? At the very least, such a contested history of human rights requires what Arendt called thinking.

Panel 1: Rights, the Nation-State, and Sovereignty

  • Yasemin Sari (University of Northern Iowa), The Right to Have Rights: Humanity and Substantive Belonging
  • Katie Howard (Southwestern University), The ‘Right to Have Rights,’ the ‘Right to Life,’ and the ‘Right to Maim’

Panel 2: Indigenous Rights

  • Miranda Johnson (University of Otago), Entangled Discourses: Becoming Historical Subjects, Claiming Indigenous Rights
  • Benjamin P. Davis (University of Toronto, Centre for Ethics), The Right to Have Rights in the Americas: Arendt, Mariátegui, and Monture in Dialogue