The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are among the most important human rights documents of the post-WW II period. Yet the universalization of the refugee status after the 1967 Protocol has given rise to a series of discrepancies between the letter of the Convention and the purposes it is being asked to serve. In particular, the five-protected categories specified by the Convention have come under criticism. There are also tensions between the Eurocentric discourse and jurisprudence of refugee protection and the fact that the largest numbers of the world’s refugees are housed in Third World Countries.
With globalization of the refugee condition, new trends have also emerged: States seek to create measures of “non-entrée”—no access—to their territories by various modes of outsourcing monitoring and enforcement. These range from the installation of refugee processing centers in bordering countries and along the Mediterranean seacoast in particular, to the signing of special bilateral agreements to prevent refugees from accessing the states’ territory (as between the US and Mexico) and to the more radical measure of simply “excising” territory, that is, declaring it outside the bounds of the jurisdiction of that state. These trends, along with criminalization of the refugee status, have undermined the universal human promise of the “right to have rights” (Hannah Arendt).
In conclusion I ask why cruelty is spreading in liberal democracies and discuss three normative responses to the current predicament: liberal nationalist, liberal internationalist and cosmopolitan interdependence. I suggest a fourth alternative which synthesizes elements of each.
Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. This Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy was presented on January 15, 2020.