The ‘Right to Have Rights’ 65 Years Later: Justice Beyond Humanitarianism, Politics Beyond Sovereignty


  • Katherine Howard



Readers of Hannah Arendt’s now classic formulation of the statelessness problem in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism abound at a moment when the number of stateless peoples worldwide continues to rise exponentially. Along with statelessness, few concepts in Arendt scholarship have spawned such a volume of literature, and perhaps none have provoked as much interest outside of the field of philosophy, as ‘the right to have rights.’ Interpreting this enigmatic term exposes the heart of our beliefs about the nature of the political and has important consequences for how we practice politics on a global scale because it implicitly takes plural human beings, and not the citizen, as its subjects. Arendt’s conceptualization of this problem remains unsurpassed in its diagnosis of the political situation of statelessness, as well as its intimate description of the human cost of what she refers to as ‘world loss,’ a phenomenon that the prevailing human rights and global justice discourse does not take into account. And yet, as an alternative framework for thinking about global politics, the right to have rights resists easy interpretation, let alone practical application.