Most people would agree that human rights today have become a “lingua franca of moral and political claim making” (Ingram, James D. (2008) ‘What is a ‘Right to Have Rights? Three Images of the Politics of Human Rights’ in American Political Science Review 102(4): 401-16). This, however, is certainly no guarantee that each and everyone’s rights are protected and respected. Too many examples have made this clear. It’s fair to say that human rights have fallen victim to their very success, that interventions in the name of universal human rights not seldom make things worse, and that living conditions of vulnerable groups are unacceptable in light of international human rights law. An obvious example of the latter is undocumented migrant children in Europe lacking access to basic human rights.
I assume that Hannah Arendt, who’s books I’m working with at the time of writing, would agree that there is a need in our time for a broader understanding of the basis of “universal human rights”. This is strongly suggested by her ambition to frame human rights philosophically and manifest them politically.
In the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) Arendt approaches human rights by giving a close account of the trial against the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem after the Second World War. Not so interested in whether Eichmann was a cog in the larger machinery or whether he was the engine behind, Arendt seeks an understanding of how serious violations of human rights can come about.
Eichmann, the book’s main character, completely lacked the ability to think himself into other people’s situation and position. He is described as an unimaginative bureaucrat without his own ideas and initiatives other than climbing the career.
In here analysis Arendt claims that Eichmann didn’t have a radically evil core or motivation that fuelled his monstrous actions, but a banal evil that was perpetrated by his thoughtlessness. The second part of the title “banality of evil” refers to Eichmann’s claims that he bore no responsibility because he was simply doing his duty; “he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law” (p 135). During the trial Eichmann maintained that he was never anti-Semitic nor willed the murder of human beings. His guilt came from obedience praised as a virtue under Nazism.
I think two main points in the book are valuable when exploring contemporary migration control mechanisms. Both have to do with bureaucracy as a way of organising governmental power. The first point is the following: When the space for individuals operating in complex bureaucracies to reflect upon their tasks is curtailed, it has an impact on their way of exercising power. Worst case, structures where room for reflection is limited facilitates and cause thoughtless use of power.
Although it is tempting to see Eichmann as a monster, it wasn’t the case says Arendt. In several parts of the book his anxiety for Nazi atrocities is described. As an individual bureaucrat Eichmann wasn’t demonic, but he was thoughtless. As most ordinary people operating in complex bureaucratic systems, Eichmann developed a tendency to obey orders without thinking more closely about the results of his actions. Perhaps most people, in a system with certain characteristics, can come to a point where they undertake terrible acts.
What, then, are these organisational characteristics? Here comes the second main point made by Arendt in the book, namely that complex bureaucratic systems through a division of tasks tend to diffuse responsibility. An organisation can actually insulate those acting within it from critical self-reflection with the inevitable consequence that intellectual processes through which bureaucrats achieve moral authority are degenerated.
With the division of tasks, combined with constant reference so “someone else’s orders”, it is very difficult to hold individuals responsible for the consequences of the organisation’s activities. In the Nazi system for example, giving the order to transport Jews to a camp where they would certainly be killed, was separated from arresting individual Jews or them away from their home. The scope of the organisation’s implications was veiled in obscurity to the subjects operating in it and thus it was almost impossible to ask someone accountable for the consequences of their actions.
To conclude, Arendt’s sustained analysis of the Nazi system in Eichmann in Jerusalem gives important insights as regards which consequences complex bureaucracies can have for bureaucrats’ domination over individuals.