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Christoph Menke The “Aporias of Human Rights” and the “One Human Right”: Regarding the Coherence of Hannah Arendt’s Argument IN 1 9 4 9 , IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE NEWLY founded United Nations had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Hannah Arendt published—first in English and rapidly afterwards in German—a short text that was noth­ ing less than a scathing critique of the recent attempts to reanimate the idea of human rights as political foundation (Arendt, 1949b).1 Arendt pointed to the declaration’s complete conceptual confusion, which would “invariably [lead] to philosophically absurd and politically unre­ alistic claims such as that each man is born with the inalienable right to unemployment insurance or an old age pension” (Arendt, 1949b: 34). This confusion corresponds to a conspicuous “lack of reality” (Arendt, 1949b: 37) that, for Arendt, the thinker of political judgment, of the political as practice of judgment and of judgment as political, was arguably one of the gravest objections to be raised against a political action. W hat she objected to in her critique is the fact that recent attempts to reformulate human rights merely repeat, in spirit and in attitude, the traditional declarations formulated at the end of the social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 739 eighteenth century without accounting for the profound crisis that has befallen the idea of human rights since those rights failed in the face of totalitarian politics. We do not know if Hannah Arendt had the final version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at hand when writing her text.2 However, given the even sharper repetition of her critical diagnosis in the famous ninth chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was published two years after the essay, we have no indication that Arendt would have been convinced the declaration was an adequate response to the totalitarian challenge ofhuman rights, despite the fact that the preamble proclaimed it to be an expression of the “outrage” of the “conscience of mankind” in view of the “barba­ rous acts” committed by totalitarianism. In fact, Arendt rephrases her critique in such a way that an adequate response to the totalitarian challenge to human rights seemed to be by and large impossible as such—at least a response that would be given in the name of human rights. It is in her book on totalitarianism that Arendt formulates the “aporias of the Rights of Man”3 as a way of describing the confusing situation into which totalitarian politics brought human rights—not only the possibility of practically realizing human rights but the very idea of human rights itself is called into question. An aporia, however, is a situation with no solution. At first glance, there seems to be surprising agreement, even among authors who work with Arendt from very different angles, as to how we must understand her diagnosis of a crisis of human rights deep­ ened to the point of an aporia. Giorgio Agamben concludes from this diagnosis that we have to abandon “decidedly, without reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen and his rights [...])” (Agamben, 2000: 16). Jean Cohen draws the opposite conclusion: she holds that in order to save the idea of human rights we need to counter the “disdain for universalistic argumentation” expressed in Arendt’s critique of the declaration of human rights, and reconstruct a “moral principle (i.e., a universal principle of justice)” (Cohen, 1996: 183).4Just like Agamben, Cohen reads Arendt’s diagnosis of a crisis or even the aporia of the idea 740 social research of human rights as exhibiting their untenability. However, instead of surpassing Arendt like Agamben, she criticizes her for this diagnosis. The title of Arendt’s essay in English asks the skeptical question: ‘“The Rights of Man’: What Are They?” This, however, is not the title she chose for the German version of the text published a little later. Instead of the ambivalent question that we find in the English version, the German version is entitled with the assertive statement Es gibt nur ein einziges Menschenrecht: ’’There Is Only One...


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