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Citizenship and Human Rights: A New Framework

Dr. Christian H. Kaelin

Dr. Christian H. Kaelin

Dr. Christian H. Kaelin is Chairman of Henley & Partners. He is a leading expert in citizenship and immigration law and policy.

The concept of humanity based on reason excludes a large range of individuals. In the past, it excluded enslaved persons, women, workers, and African Americans; and today it excludes undocumented migrants, collective groups of people — for instance, Palestinian citizens in Israel, indigenous peoples — and so on. Even individuals who have formal citizenship status do not always have the same ability to fulfill their rights.

The problem is not only with the spatial diversification of the enjoyment of rights reinforced by citizenship, but also with the ineffectiveness and ambiguity of human rights, and their exclusivist nature. Someone is a person of a lower or higher degree depending on whether they are a citizen. We become human through citizenship, and the subjectivity is based on this gap — the difference between the universal human and the citizen of the state.

In my new book, Citizenship and Human Rights From Exclusive and Universal to Global Rights: A New Framework, I examine the philosophical nature of the concepts that represent the current foundation of our understanding of human rights, and present a new theory of global human rights that aims to overcome the tensions between the global (universal human rights, humanity, and such) and the local (citizenship, particularist identities and values).

Abstract image of school children walking across a map of the world

Developing a more realistic narrative

The human rights discourse is based on various metanarratives, which create tensions between humanity and citizenship, and represents a particularistic doctrine with universalist claims. Metanarratives are socially, politically, and historically constructed — thus, they cannot be measured by truth and falsity. They actually reflect various power relations and power structures.

And although some works explore this tension between humanity and citizenship, they do not offer a philosophical analysis of the exclusivist nature of the main concepts on which the idea of human rights is built. Identifying the metatheoretical presuppositions is important and necessary when it comes to rethinking and restructuring the human rights discourse, which is something that is urgently needed.

The book is a substantial study of the transformation of the nature of human rights and citizenship, with a view to developing a new and more realistic theory of global human rights based on different cultural perspectives, as well as different contexts, views, and circumstances.

The meaning of human dignity 

To develop a widely acceptable and hence enforceable standard for human rights globally that is more compatible with the system of exclusive, state-based citizenship, we need to first examine the philosophical roots of the concept of humanity on which the modern idea of human rights is based.

The concept of humanity is abstract and exclusivist, and the concept of human rights actually constructs who and how one becomes human. The notion of humanity does not include everyone (as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights claims), but only a limited group of people. Therefore, the notion of humanity, which derives from the legacy of classical philosophy, Christianity, and the Enlightenment, needs to be re-examined.

And if we look at the philosophical and historical roots of the concept of human dignity, it is clear that it also does not represent a universal moral value as is emphasized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents.

Many authors have warned of the deliberate and unconscious manipulative uses of dignity by specific doctrines that employ human dignity to pass off parochial and controversial ideas as universal, self-evident, and uncontestable truths. Despite its widespread use, the meaning of the concept of human dignity is largely uncertain. The concept of human dignity does not originate from the legal discourse but is introduced into human rights documents and various constitutions without clear definitions.

International order versus nation states

Supposedly universal human rights also face a hermeneutic challenge — they are interpreted and applied differently in different societies. For example, the right to freedom of expression is exercised differently in the USA, France, and Islamic countries. Human rights law blandly acknowledges that the right to freedom of expression may be limited by considerations of public order and morals. But a government trying to comply with the international human right to freedom of expression is given no specific guidance whatsoever.

Universal human rights have never been fully realized in practice because of the contrast between the international order and nation states, universal human rights and citizenship, and global and national/local. This is clearly evident in the example of the human rights crisis in Afghanistan and Myanmar, or China's challenge to international human rights.

Postnational citizenship is based on the idea of multiple membership that includes complex systems of duties and rights, as well as a multilayered concept of identity that includes global, regional, national, and local aspects. Postnational concepts of citizenship are based on personhood, not nationality. Although postnational citizenship made a shift from emphasizing common nationality to emphasizing common humanity, it retained the modernist idea of identity, which defined both categories as monolithic. In this way, both categories, humanity and citizenship, are exclusivist.

A new theory of global human rights

A multilayered notion of identity can serve as the basis for a new civic culture that is not based on one universal grand narrative but includes different narratives that can help us overcome the tensions between universal human rights and citizenship.

I put forward a new conception of civic culture and a philosophical ethic rule on which to base all global human rights, and attempt to break the link between the current discourse and an exclusivist, modernist idea of citizenship. By reinterpreting the Western culture of citizenship and human rights, and separating it from the universalistic metaphysical worldview that created a dichotomy between humanity and citizenship, we can begin to rethink and reconstruct the concept of human rights so that they are more realistic and inclusive.

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