Yesterday was Human Rights Day, and I spent the evening at an excellent gathering organized by Bristol Refugee Rights about the UK’s record on indefinite detention of migrants. Around 30,000 people every year, mostly men, are detained by the British state by bureaucratic processes without judicial oversight. Some of them include extremely vulnerable people who have been torture victims in the countries they have fled from. When they are detained, often after a routine visit to a police station, they then face a future with no certainty at all. Some people have been detained for up to eight years: as a criminal you’d have to have done something pretty serious actually to serve that long. And these are prison-like conditions, administered mainly by private companies with poor records (to put it mildly) of looking after the interests of those in their charge.
It wasn’t the only news on Human Rights Day. We also heard what we’ve long known, that the United States routinely tortured on an industrial scale after 9/11. And then we have the seemingly endless series of post-Ferguson stories of police ill-treatment of black Americans and the failures of the judicial branch of that state to hold such official perpetrators to account.
Meanwhile, here’s a commonplace statement within political theory about what “legitimacy means”. It is from Andrew Altman and Christopher Heath Wellman’s book A Liberal Theory of International Justice.
“a state has earned legitimacy if it is willing and able (a) to protect its members against ‘substantial and recurrent threats’ to a decent human life – threats such as the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the infliction of torture – and (b) to refrain from imposing such threats on outsiders”. (p.4).
In other work, on immigration, Wellman has argued for the right of states to exclude would-be migrants, just so long as those states are legitimate. The trouble is, that lots of modern states, the ones tacitly referred to by liberal theorists when they distinguish between legitimate states, outlaw states and so forth, don’t actually meet the criteria for legitimacy that the same theorists endorse. Here, I’m not intending a dig at Wellman, but rather a statement of what participants in these conversations presuppose when they enunciate principles, give policy examples, and so forth. But when we leave the seminar room, there’s not an awful lot of legitimacy in the world.
What should be our attitude? I’m not completely sure, but here’s a stab at an answer. As campaigners, I think that lowering our standards for legitimacy would be a mistake as these express important principles which politicians play lip service to on high days an holidays. Just the other day, in a much-promoted speech on immigration, the British PM David Cameron went on about Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Did he believe what he was saying? Is his capacity to hold contradictory beliefs that developed? Or is he just a hypocrite? We should hold them to the ideals they profess. But for other purposes, such as political theory, maybe threshold standards of legitimacy have to go and we should take a more piecemeal attitude, granting authority to states, including non-democratic ones, in some of their functions (directing traffic, macroeconomic management, maintaining public health) but refusing it to them as a whole? Piecemeal philosophical anarchism.