Finding the Length of The Moral Arc: Human Rights, Hannah Arendt, and the Rohingya

Ashley Jowell

 In his commencement address to the graduating class of 1964 at Wesleyan University, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  proclaimed these famous words:  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Dr. King’s words remind us of the struggle to create a virtuous and humane world, and although he was speaking in the context of the civil rights movement, they can undoubtedly be applied to many other unjust situations. This essay seeks to explore the path to justice for stateless people who, since the rise of the nation state in the 18th and 19th centuries, have suffered from genocide and other mass atrocities. By exploring the roots of their persecution and the acts of courageous heroes who successfully defended these stateless individuals, I will investigate how we can alter our current perspective of human rights to eradicate mass atrocities and other genocidal events so that our contemporary world order can “bend towards justice” for all people.

The challenges faced by people who are denied citizenship rights are enormous. The 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as one who “is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” The stateless person therefore is not a citizen of any country, which can pose tremendous problems.   In her essay The Perplexities of the Rights of Man, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who experienced statelessness first-hand, asserts that as far as stateless persons are concerned a “loss of national rights was identical with loss of human rights” (32-33). Why, one asks, does statelessness translate to a loss of human rights and how might this understanding help us to ensure the rights of those who have been excluded from citizenship? To answer these questions, lets first turn to a brief history of human rights.

Our current conception of human rights stems from the 18th century French Declaration of Rights of Man, which works to define certain “unalienable” rights that all human beings possess inherently. As articulated in Article 2, these rights include “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” These Rights of Man, however, were not derived from embodiment but rather from a notion of the sovereignty of the state. Article 2 of the Declaration explains further, “The aim of all political association [inherent in sovereignty] is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.” Arendt posits that human rights’ political association leads to the renunciation of rights for stateless people when she states:   “the whole question of human rights, therefore, was quickly and inextricably blended with the question of national emancipation; only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one’s own people, seemed to be able to ensure them” (Perplexities of the Rights of Man, 32). Not only do stateless people therefore lack protection from the government, but as long as the sovereign nation is the guarantor of human rights, then anyone excluded from that body of citizens can be perceived as a threat to the liberty, property, security and freedom from violence which the sovereign nation guarantees for its people. Additionally, in earlier essays, Arendt recognizes that in order to be free, one must have the ability to act in the political sphere; yet, by being denied a state, individuals no longer have access to a public sphere in which to speak or act and are denied a voice.  In losing their voices, stateless people have therefore lost the essence of their humanity— that is, the right to express themselves.

Greek Jews being deported in the Holocaust
Photo Credit: Yad Vashem

One is able to see the correlation between statelessness, lack of rights, and consequent implementation of mass atrocities when one considers what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. The Jews, who were stripped of their national rights, therefore lacked all ability to defend themselves when Hitler began the implementation of his Final Solution. Not only did they lack this ability to enter the public sphere, but their exclusion from national rights in turn led to indifference among the remaining citizens.  One sees a prime example of the result of statelessness when one investigates the situation of the Greek Jews who, two months after implementing Hitler’s race policies, deported the entire Jewish community of 72,000 individuals who had previously been stripped of their citizenship (US Holocaust Museum). Arendt articulates this inhumane Greek impassivity in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: “The Greek population was indifferent at best [to Jewish deportation], and even some of the partisan groups looked upon the operations ‘with approval’”(189). Thus, the Greek citizens felt no affiliation towards the stateless Jews and no desire to help them; furthermore, due to their lack of political voice, these Jews had no ability to defend themselves and were in turn sadistically deported and massacred. In this example, the arc of the moral universe could not be further away from justice.

A Rohingya Muslim Woman with NoWhere to Go Photo Credit: Exiled to Nowhere

A Rohingya Muslim Woman with Nowhere to Go
Photo Credit: Exiled to Nowhere

As a result of the failure of these UN declarations, there are continued crimes against humanity occurring today. One example is the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan State. There are approximately 800,000 Rohingya Muslims living within Arakan borders, which encompass an area of land located in the western part of Burma near Bangladesh. Although violence against the Rohingya has erupted since June 2012, persecution of the Rohingya has occurred for dozens of years and is rooted in the 1982 Citizenship Law. The 1982 Citizenship Law discriminates against the Rohingya for it only grants citizenship and rights to one of the eight official “national races” or to those who can demonstrate “conclusive evidence” (which the Rohingya lack) that they were citizens before the 1948 Burmese independence from the British. Because the majority of Rohingya lack said “evidence,” they are consequently denied the right to citizenship, and as a 2012 Human Rights Watch report explains, “the government has made use of this denial of citizenship to deprive Rohingya of many fundamental rights…[including] restrictions on freedom of movement, education, marriage, and employment” (HRW, 16).  As a result of this exclusion from citizenship and discrimination against the Rohingya based on skin color and religion, terrible violence has erupted against them.

The rape of an Arakanese Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in May 2012 catalyzed recent tensions between the Rohingya and Arakanese; as a result, local Arakanese and Buddhist monks have retaliated against all Rohingya. Violence against the Rohingya became a threat in June, 2012 when Arakanese leaders and Buddhist monks publically released pamphlets calling for Rohingya deaths.  One Buddhist monk in the town of Sittwe described in an interview to Human Rights Watch how

the Arakanese people must not sell anything to the Muslims or buy anything from them…they[ must not be friendly with the Muslim people. The reason for that is that the Muslim people are stealing our land, drinking our water, and killing our people. So we will separate. We don’t want any connection to the Muslim people at all (HRW, 25).

As a result of these pamphlets and mounting racism, in October 2012, violence against the Rohingya exploded and has since killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands.  Human Rights Watch has officially declared the hatred against the Rohingya as an “ethnic cleansing,” and many fear that genocide is already a serious risk (BBC). Because they partake of no nationality, the Rohingya lack the power to defend themselves effectively and properly against this violence – consider the October 23rd massacre in Yan Thei Village, where thousands of Arakanese attacked Yan Thei and killed dozens of innocent Rohingya. One 25-year-old Arakanese man describes the brutality of the attack and indifference of the police stating,

First they [police and army] said they would protect us but when the violence started they took sides with the Arakanese people. When the Arakanese set fire to our village, they [the Arakanese] were using [slingshots] on the people too. One of my brothers was hit with a metal arrow. We went to help my brother and then some Arakanese cut the throats of two from our group…I saw everything. I was very close…  I lost two family members and buried them” (HRW, 51).

A Rohingya Village being burned in Arakan State Photo Credit: "All You Can Do Is Pray" - Human Rights Watch

A Rohingya Village being burned in Arakan State
Photo Credit: “All You Can Do Is Pray” – Human Rights Watch

Unfortunately, this brutality in Yan Thei Village is not an anomaly, and violence against the Rohingya continues to be perpetrated throughout Arakan state; furthermore, it is clear that the Burmese government and police has no desire to help protect these persecuted people (Human Rights Watch).  What, therefore, is the solution to stopping this atrocity and how can the international community act to guarantee the rights of these Rohingya Muslims?

Map of Myanmar  / Burma with the Arakan (otherwise known as Rakhine) state highlighted Photo Credit:

Map of Myanmar / Burma with the Arakan (otherwise known as Rakhine) state highlighted
Photo Credit:

Danish Jews being transported to Sweden Photo Credit: Yad Vashem

Danish Jews being transported to Sweden
Photo Credit: Yad Vashem

The answer to this problem can be found by turning back to the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust is shrouded in despair and cruelty leading to the deaths of six million European Jews, one can find a story of hope in the example of Denmark. Having conquered Danish territory, Hitler ordered the Jews living in Denmark to identify themselves publicly by wearing the yellow star. However, the Danish king responded to Hitler’s orders by saying that he himself “would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that the anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own recognition” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 171). By standing up to the Nazis and declaring solidarity with the Jews, the Danes were able to save thousands of lives. However, it was not only the occasional Dane who worked to save the Jews – rather, the entire country was united in this effort. When describing the German roundup of the Jews, Arendt reports that, “the Jews had just enough time to leave their apartments and go into hiding, which was very easy in Denmark because… all sections of the Danish people from the king down to simple citizens stood ready to receive them” (Eichmann In Jerusalem, 172). The wealthy Danes in turn paid for their fellow Danish citizens to transport Jews to neutral Sweden where they would be safe:  indeed, their heroic collective efforts led to the rescue of 6,500 native Danish Jews and 1,400 refugees who had sought asylum there before the war.

It came as a great shock to the Nazis that the Danes risked their own lives and united together in solidarity with these Jews whom they considered stateless refugees. Even more shocking, and inspiring, than the Danes’ aid to the Jews was the fact that the Nazis living in Denmark were in turn changed by the Danes’ actions and began to show sympathy towards the Jews. Arendt elaborates on this idea writing, “they [the Nazis] had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun. They had even been able to show a few timid beginning of genuine courage” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 172).  If the Nazis could be changed by Danish courage and disobedience, could an individual within Burma acting in solidarity with the Rohingya Muslims lead to a paradigm shift from hatred to compassion?

What was unique about the Danes was that they were able to make use of judgment, to borrow a term from Arendt, to act on the principle of solidarity rather than relying on a measure of legislation. This judgment instead originated from the plurality of Danish citizens derived from their local context and community – in other words, their protection of the Jews was a spontaneous, unmandated performance of freedom. Parekh builds upon Arendt’s concepts of judgment and solidarity in her essay “Between community and humanity – Arendt, judgment, and responsibility to the global poor,” stating that such resistance requires a transcendence of “one’s individual limitation, in order to take into account the viewpoints of others…we still judge from our own place in the world and point of view…but we move between our rootedness in a political community and an impartial concern for humanity” (Parekh, 158). The Danes therefore placed an emphasis on the importance of a shared humanity and acted in a manner that valued Jews as fellow citizens, not only of Denmark, but of the human community. Although Arendt does not give us an account of individual Danish citizens, we might imagine them to be like Carl Wilkens, the only American to remain in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide. He concludes a speech in Durham, North Carolina in 2010  by stating “We are all part of one race – the human race.” Inspired by the principle of solidarity, Carl applied this principle within the local Rwandan context to “work” with the Hutu government and save hundreds of Tutsi lives, including his housekeeper and children in a local Gisimba orphanage.  Carl was able to save the children in this Tutsi orphanage because he brilliantly realized that he had the power to ask the Hutu Prime Minister to protect the orphanage – thus, by understanding his influence on the Prime Minister and acting within the local Rwandan context, Carl was able to collectively save hundreds of lives even though he was putting himself at tremendous risk (PBS Frontline, 2004).

This notion of using our local perspective as members of a community to act in solidarity is not only limited to the Danes in the Holocaust or mass atrocities; it can also be found in more modern day examples, in particular through Xavier Beauvois’s film Of Gods and Men (2010). In this movie, a group of Tibihirine French monks living in Algeria, on whom the local community relied for healthcare, were faced with the choice of leaving in order to ensure their own security from violent Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Throughout the film, the monks battle with the decision of valuing their own safety over that of the village community in which they are integral members. One local Algerian eloquently describes the importance of these monks to the town stating “we’re the birds, you’re the branch. If you go, we lose our footing,” for not only are they the sole doctors in the region, but they also aid the community in performing others endeavors such as helping a woman write and send a letter to her son. Eventually, the monks decide to remain in solidarity and to stay in the town even at the risk of their lives. Christian, their leader, situates the decision within the larger context of their original vows and the mission of the Cistercian order they joined, for he states “We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtakes us despite ourselves… our mission here is to be brothers to all.” The church and the Cistercian order are both global organizations that value the plurality of the human condition and togetherness, yet they act within a local context. This focus on plurality resonates with Arendt’s theories in The Human Condition where she explains that, “… action, while rooted in a given political community, requires the cosmopolitan element of “human togetherness” (180). Thus the Algerian monks, just like the Danes, were able to judge within their local context based on the principle of human solidarity and act as global citizens.  Although the monks’ commitment to solidarity eventually led to many of their deaths, their courage led to the betterment of our world and the beginning of the path to combatting extremism.

A Destroyed Mosque in Arakan State Photo Credit: All You Can Do Is Pray

A Destroyed Mosque in Arakan State
Photo Credit: All You Can Do Is Pray

How can the courageous acts of the Danes, Wilkens, and Algerian monks apply to the stateless Rohingya Muslims? As I articled earlier in this paper, our definition of human rights is largely based on citizenship and an individual’s place in society. We must switch this paradigm to an understanding of human rights that is derived from human solidarity and from the idea of a global community in which cosmopolitan citizens have a certain duty to reverse oppression. Yet this cannot be accomplished through top-down, non-legally binding legislation such as the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; instead, as global citizens, we must apply the principles of solidarity to a local context, just as Carl worked within Rwanda and the Danes helped to save the Jews through shipping boats within the context of their own country. Our actions towards solving the problem with the stateless Rohingya needs to rest upon our shared humanity with them: we, as global citizens, must have the courage to act, and this courage will hopefully influence those around us to convert their hatred into love (just as the Danes were able to influence the Nazis and Christian was able to influence the other monks as well as his aggressors).

What, one might ask, are some specific actions that we can take in the context of the Rohingya? As foreigners, we must first and foremost have a comprehensive understanding of the conflict, just as the Danes understood how to transport the Jewish population and refugees to safety in Sweden, Wilkens could locally negotiate with the Rwandan government, and the Cistercian monks could effectively provide healthcare and aid to local Algerians; only once we have this understanding can we most effectively judge and act in solidarity with the Rohingya and apply this principle of solidarity to the local Burmese context. This requires us getting on the ground in Burma (or supporting different on the ground, local efforts if we ourselves are unable to go there).

Thomas Van Dyke, Executive Director of Heroes Serving Humanity, Aiding Civilians in Burma  Photo Credit: Heroes Serving Humanity

Thomas Van Dyke, Executive Director of Heroes Serving Humanity, Aiding Civilians in Burma
Photo Credit: Heroes Serving Humanity

Unfortunately, there are very few on the ground efforts currently aiding Rohingya Muslims – it is imperative that we change this. Numerous different NGOs have successfully acted in solidarity with other Burmese ethnic groups having human rights violations perpetrated against them, such as Heroes Serving Humanity, which operates in the Karen state near the Thai Burma border.Although the Karen people are not stateless individuals, they are an ethnic group often brutally targeted by the Burmese government; luckily, organizations such as United States based Heroes Serving Humanity are there to help. Heroes Serving Humanity acts… where the UN cannot intervene, and where other international aid organizations will not go…” and therefore provides medical aid to targeted civilians, transports injured victims, and works to instill hope among the people of the Karen state. Volunteers, such as executive director Thomas Van Dyke, have traveled to Burma and have put their own lives at risk while providing on the ground aid to Karen State victims; thus, they have acted according to Arendt’s principles of solidarity within the local Burmese context. Another NGO working in solidarity with the people of the Karen state is Outer Voices which interviews and shares the story of an incredible group of activists called the Karen Women’s Organization living along the Thai-Burma border. These interviews both empower the Burmese women as well as broadcast their story to inspire other international, as well as Burmese, people to act in solidarity with the Karen people and ameliorate their situation.

The solution towards helping the Rohingya is neither clear nor will it be easy– instead, it will require the efforts of many individuals uniting and working towards applying this model of human solidarity within the local context of the Arakan state. We, as global citizens, must act however we can to help these people, whether we have the resources to go into Burma, by donating to on the ground organizations such as Heroes Serving Humanity, volunteering for a refugee camp, or starting something entirely new that has yet to be conceptualized. Therefore, a final concept of Arendt we can employ is that of human natality, which Arendt expounds upon in The Human Condition stating, “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting” (The Human Condition, 9) .The beauty in this birth gives us the freedom to come up with entirely new ideas – perhaps you, the reader of this essay, upon proper understanding of the atrocity against the Rohingya, might be able to conceptualize a solution that would form a piece of the puzzle towards stopping the violence.  By uniting, collaborating and working together in accordance with the principle of solidarity within the local context of the Arakan state, we will collectively arrive at a solution towards ending the atrocity against the Rhoingya. I therefore wish to close with the words of Nelson Mandela who once said, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love , for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” By acting in accordance with love and the principle of human solidarity with these oppressed Rohingya, I believe the Arakanese will experience a paradigm shift towards tolerance and respect for all humanity that will spread across Burma like wildfire, lead to the termination of these atrocities, and help the moral arc of our world bend towards justice.

Works Cited

The Avalon Project. N.p., 2008. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <;.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2nd ed. / Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann In Jerusalem : a Report On the Banality of Evil. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2006.

Arendt, Hannah, and Peter Baehr. “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man.” The portable Hannah Arendt. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. 31-45. Print.

“Frontline: Interview Carl Wilkens.” PBS. PBS, 1 Apr. 2004. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;

Head, Jonathan. “The unending plight of Burma’s unwanted Rohingyas.” BBC News. BBC, 7 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

“Home-page.” Heroes Serving Humanity. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

“Outer Voices Homepage.” Outer Voices. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

Parekh, Serena. “Between Community and Humanity: Arendt, Judgment, and Responsibility to the Global Poor.” Philosophical Topics 39.2 (2011): 145-163. Project MUSE. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

Smith, Matthew. “all You Can Do Is Pray” : Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims In Burma’s Arakan State. [New York, NY ]: Human Rights Watch, 2013.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UDHR, Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Declaration, Human Rights Charter, The Un and Human Rights.” The United Nations. UN, 10 Dec. 1948. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <;.

“UNHCR – Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.” UNHCR News. N.p., 1954. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <;.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Greece.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. Accessed on [December 13, 2013].

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