Human Rights and the End of Status

When Solon gave Athens her laws, he developed egalitarian citizenship by democratizing practices hitherto reserved to nobility. His gesture to the intermediate classes laid the groundwork for Athenian democracy, and anticipated a period of classical splendor to boot. But the idea of group equality – for all its historical instructiveness for understanding the legal position of individuals in society – has received surprisingly little attention in attempts to grasp the foundations of contemporary human rights law. This is especially puzzling considering that the recognition of group-based claims has played a significant role in the leveling of societies by phasing out status and class, which in turn has reinforced equality among individuals.

The radicalism of human rights resides not just in the idea of inherent equality among individuals, but also in the abolition of status-based distinctions associated with group membership. If we subsume (as we often do) group rights to the individual sphere, it is easy to overlook this point. But the recent work of Jeremy Waldron on the concept of dignity suggests that the recognition of equal status among groups has a deeper connection with individual human rights than has previously been acknowledged.

In his Tanner Lectures of 2009, Waldron puts forward the proposition that dignity is a normative status as opposed to an inherent state, and that many human rights can be understood as incidents of that status. He rejects dignity in the Judeo-Christian sense as the goal or telos of human rights, and instead submits that human rights are a leveling-up of every individual to an equally high rank, ‘so that we now try to accord every human being something of the dignity, rank, and expectation for respect that was formally accorded to nobility.’ (p. 229) Before dignity became synonymous with the universalist notion of inherent rights, it was associated with the concept of honor, itself linked to institutional roles that propped ruling classes and dominant groups above others. Waldron’s decoupling of dignity from this exclusionary dimension of honor suggests that the eradication of status attached to group membership is a necessary condition for individual human rights. It is interesting because the interwar regime of minority protection did just this, and informed the structure of international human rights law thirty years later. Much as in Athens, modern democracies have phased out the dignitarian notions associated with ethno-national identity to ensure equal rights across multinational populations.

Since Kant, the idea that all individuals are equal in dignity has dominated the tradition of Western political thought, and is usually believed to constitute the basis of the contemporary human rights edifice. But individual equality would seem less important in societies where groups have a predominant role in the formulation and attribution of individual claims, and where, more often than not, human rights are routinely denied on the basis of group identity. This is especially true when the group itself is perceived as inferior. In those cases, it would seem that removing the status associated with group appurtenance is a precondition to individual equality, and one can achieve this by elevating all groups to an equally high status, as Waldron suggests.

One prominent instance of group leveling was the interwar regime of minority protection, where post-World War I international treaties guaranteed the equality in law and in fact of national and ethnic minorities vis-à-vis majorities on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination. Following the dissolution of multinational empires, the peacemakers who redrew the borders of Eastern and Central Europe in 1919 favored a model of statehood and citizenship that shunned group-based distinctions in favor of equal political enfranchisement. If Waldron is correct about the democratization of dignity as the basis for rights, there is something to be said about the ‘leveling up’ of interwar minorities to the same status of national majorities as a necessary logical step before universal individual equality could be envisaged, let alone become self-evident.

This argument takes shape when contrasting American ideas of democratic representation against the conservative nationalism of the Eastern and Central European countries where the minority protection regime was applied. Wilson’s imported ideas of equal political participation were far removed from the Eastern European understandings of social status that still existed in 1919, and which attached to certain national minorities. Moreover, Wilsonian self-determination called for a civil and political emancipation of peoples that ran counter to Eastern Europe’s status-conscious societies, and where the ancien régime continued to define the political landscape well into the twentieth century. When comparing the feudal remnants that dotted Eastern Europe in the early 1900s with American principles of self-government (‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, as Lincoln would have it), we may begin to grasp the profound implications of Wilson’s plight for political equality among national minorities in Europe. The comparison is especially striking with groups that were, for one reason or another, regarded as inferior: the political rights of Russian serfs were virtually nonexistent, and the disenfranchised Jews in Romania were largely excluded from public life, to name but two extreme examples.

By contrast, Judith Shklar’s illuminating account of American citizenship shows that political rights were not exclusively attached to land ownership, class membership, or social standing in the United States. Instead, the position of Americans in society was always closely connected to the individual work ethic, and to the self-improvement that comes with ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Crucially, the right to vote and representation was independent from social station, and was also coupled with the equalizing notion of work. This would have resonated strongly in Eastern European societies where class, ethnicity, and nationality defined political standing, and where only a handful of landowners were able to fully exercise their civil and political rights. Further east, estate bondage and personal servitude persisted, with serfs still tied to their manorial tenants. To the Eastern European peasant of 1900, America was a place where he could quite literally become ‘his own man’ by reaping the benefits of his labor.

In the euphoria of individualistic human rights, group rights were quietly set aside, overshadowed by post-colonial claims to emancipation, and minimized amidst the clamor for external self-determination. But this brief account of the encounter between American and Eastern European conceptions of society suggests that some major turning points in the history of human rights law can only be understood by reckoning with the societal dimensions of individuals in addition to their intrinsic qualities. It also prompts us to reconsider the legacy of the League of Nations’ oft-discredited minority protection system, which embodied the first international attempt to set aside hitherto legitimate distinctions between groups and their members for the equal enjoyment of civil and political rights. Until then, the European landscape of citizenship and political participation was thinly construed because of the persistence of ancien régime parameters such as honour and rank to define social standing, subjecthood, and citizenship. Ethno-national identity was a mark of the old social order, and the League’s recognition of equality regardless of these allegiances paved the way for broadening the circle of rights beneficiaries. Viewed thus, the notion that equality is self-evident among groups is a precondition to enjoying any human rights at all.

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