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People, not states, have rights

Upholding democratic values is anathema to believing any state has “a right to exist.”

People have rights, and to secure our rights we make political arrangements. States are the very imperfect results of these compromises. The struggle for democracy and human rights always continues after the creation of the state and in conflict with most political leaders. Politicians are not usually interested in furthering justice and democracy — or, as is too often the case, prefer to take away many of the rights that we secured.

People have rights. States don’t! States have obligations to protect, defend, guarantee and promote the rights of the people — all of the people — regardless of the legal status conferred by the state upon various groups of people within the state.

All of the people living under the power and authority of a state have these rights and the states have the obligation to guarantee these rights. At the present time, most states neither recognize these rights nor accept their obligation to all of the people under their power and authority. Anti-democratic movements are growing in many “democratic” countries. Anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric is used to inflame racist and “white nationalist” sentiments in the US and Europe. Powerful political leaders want their states to become nation-states of the dominant ethno-cultural group. In the United States this takes the form of policies to defend the privileges of “Christians” who are the descendants of mostly northern and central European immigrants. The State of Israel brazenly asserts that it is “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and not of its citizens and inhabitants. Such states are illegitimate not only because they fail to fully protect the rights of all but also because they deny they have such an obligation.

People have rights. States don’t. States “[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The idea that a state has a “right to exist” is at the core of fascist political ideology. Fascist ideology holds that states have rights and that a state’s obligation is to pursue the “national interests” of a particular “nation.” Fascists value wielding state power in the interests of a particular group. Fascists assert their particular nation-state has a right to exist (but do not necessarily extend this right to any other state). And they believe that because the nation state embodies the essence of the “people,” the people have a duty to serve the interests of the state. This is the ideology of the current Trump administration, Israeli political leadership and the agenda they and the growing right-wing movements in Europe are pursuing.

Peoples do not have a right to a state and states don’t have a “right to exist.” Rather, people have individual democratic and human rights. Peoples have collective rights including the right to self-determination.

We all have the right to political arrangements that secure our individual and collective rights. Ideally, people and peoples living in the same or contiguous areas should be able to live together under one set of political arrangements and institutions.

I look forward to the day when We the people, in order to form more perfect political arrangements, unite to establish social and economic justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, make the truths that we hold to be self-evident manifest and visible to all. Moreover, “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government ... “When our rights are threatened it is indeed our “duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for our future security.” Likewise, when people in other countries rise up against oppression and injustice, it is our duty to support their struggles for democracy, human rights, and social and economic justice.

Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch lives in Ashland.