Tag Archives: human rights

What is the most fundamental human right? A lesson from North Korea

The title of this post may be a trick question, considering that the name of this website is Open Borders: The Case. I recently finished reading Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea (Amazon link), authored by former British ambassador to North Korea John Everard. Everard lived in Pyongyang and built relationships with many North Koreans in the professional class, which is how he came by the information in his book.

The book is interesting for many reasons — how often do we get a look inside the world’s most secluded and arguably most oppressed society? But from an immigration standpoint, one passage on page 82 of the paperback edition caught my eye:

The attraction of the West was its much higher standard of living, not the ability of Western citizens to speak freely or to vote. The only real freedom that I found my contacts did want was the freedom to travel — to be able to visit relatives without the cumbersome bureaucracy of travel permits, and (among some of the less poor ones) the ability to travel abroad. Cheju Island, off South Korea (where South Korean newlyweds used to aspire to spend their honeymoons before honeymoons abroad became fashionable) was a particular draw; it seemed to have caught the imagination of young North Koreans as a place of great beauty, and I was scolded more than once when I had to admit that I had never been there.

One can argue that North Koreans don’t really understand the value of other freedoms, some which they’ve never experienced at all. But North Koreans have experienced the most closed borders regime in modern history; it seems absurd to argue that they have a significantly better grasp of what it means to have freedom of movement than they do with freedom of speech or the ballot. Yet in one paragraph, Everard captures the burning North Korean desire for freedom that burns brightest: open borders.

Closed borders keep people from working in the legal and social regimes which foster economic prosperity. They keep people from living in legal and social regimes which protect and promote the rights and dignity of human beings. They keep people apart from their most loved ones. They keep people away from the beauty of new experiences, new sights, and new sounds.

The complaints most of us have about our lives and our governments pale in comparison with most anything a North Korean has the right to complain about. And yet the one freedom North Koreans seem to want most is the freedom most of us lackadaisically dismiss as one not worth thinking about. Modern passport and visa regimes force people to live under unjust governments or hollow economic systems. They tear people away from their friends and family. They prevent people from learning new things about the world, prevent them from experiencing new wonders of life and nature.

You may argue that allowing people the presumptive right to travel where they wish is too much of an imposition on you. Fair enough. But you need to show reason to believe that this is the case — that we can reasonably believe a sojourner or immigrant to your country will prove an imposition, and that the cost of this imposition is too much for society to bear. You cannot simply say “I just don’t care about you — go on and suffer, because you weren’t lucky enough to be born in my country”, unless you wish to disclaim any pretense of common humanity with those foreign to you.

There is an argument to be made that untrammeled freedom of movement for literally all people would be too much of an imposition to bear. But in some sense, this is a strawman: I think most open borders advocates believe that a single country which immediately opened its borders today would likely face significant costs enough to outweigh the benefits to humanity from its open borders. And I think most open borders advocates are open to revoking the presumptive right to freedom of movement for individuals who constitute proven or likely threats to public order or health. It remains that the focus of our conversation on borders should not be: “Why should we have to let them in?”

After all, most people are not thieves or criminals. Most people don’t carry contagious diseases that threaten public health. We should be asking ourselves: “Why should we have to keep good human beings out?” The burden of proof has to be on those who would deny to any human being, born in North Korea or not, a most fundamental human freedom, a freedom that is perhaps second only to the right to life itself: the freedom of movement. Without movement, we have no agency in our lives; without movement, we lose all that makes life worth living.

What do governments owe non-citizens?

A common intuitive response to the case for open borders is, “What do I owe someone I’ve never met, who shares no creed, affiliation, or allegiance with me? What does my government owe someone who isn’t even a citizen?” Co-blogger Nathan has already addressed this line of thought in his own way, but I would like to further grapple with the assumptions underlying this citizenist logic.

The problem I see with this intuition about immigration is it totally denies the existence of any human rights. It presumes that all rights must flow from the existence of a nation-state, and that without the state, one would have no rights. From a law enforcement perspective, this is trivially true: the state is the instrument by which human beings mutually guarantee our rights. But from a moral standpoint, it hardly follows that states only owe anything to their constituents, and owe nothing to anyone else.

Suppose it is true that governments’ only role and mandate is to maximise the welfare of their citizens. Would that justify the hostile annexation of a neighbouring state? Would that justify permitting the theft of non-citizens’ property, or assault against non-citizens? Clearly not.

One can argue that the reason modern states prohibit crimes against foreigners is because of the threat of retaliation from foreign states. Does that imply that it would be fine for any one of us to rob, rape, or kill a stateless person, since we have no retaliatory threat to fear?

You could argue then that this would still be a net welfare loss for the nation, because other states might refuse to protect my nation’s citizens in their jurisdictions, unless they see that my nation too upholds the sanctity of human rights. Precisely! Many rights do not flow from the state; they flow from the innate worth and dignity of every human being.

When the topic of open borders comes up, skeptics are quick to say: “But we can’t let everyone in! What do we owe foreigners? We can’t afford to give everyone welfare! And look, not everyone is entitled to be a citizen of my country.” But welfare, suffrage, the privileges of citizenship — those are all political rights, which obviously and by necessity flow only from a state. Beyond political rights, there are fundamental human rights, which the international community and all reasonable human beings recognise derive from no earthly governing body.

Defenders of the status quo love to say “the law is the law; it must be followed” when it comes to immigration. When asked to defend the law on its merits, they insist there is no need to, because every sovereign nation is entitled to its own immigration policy. That may be true, but every human being is entitled to rights of their own too.

We accept that governments have the right to kill people. We accept that they have the right to coerce people. But we would not take it lying down if tomorrow our government told us “I’m going to kill 5,000 people, because I feel like it.” Americans would not be happy if their government said “I’m going to reinstate the draft, because I have the right to do that.” Even the most hardcore restrictionist would probably be unsure about defending the merits of an immigration policy that executes all illegal border-crossers on sight — even though illegal immigrants supposedly have no rights which a foreign state is bound to respect.

None of this is to say that human rights dictate that sovereign governments have no right to an immigration policy, any more than most understandings of international trade would suggest that sovereign governments have no right to a trade policy. But human rights create a strong presumption that governments must rebut before implementing policies that restrict human rights. If a government wants to conscript its residents, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.” And if a government wants to tear families apart, or prevent people from looking for gainful employment, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.”

When government policies destroy families and destroy jobs, there is a clear obligation to justify these policies. You can argue that the benefits of denying certain rights outweigh the costs. But you cannot suggest that the costs are irrelevant. It is amply evident that every human being has rights, and yet that all these rights can be infringed as long as nation states exist. But we must be clear about why we make the difficult choice to declare some human beings’ rights not worth respecting.

Were the UK and US right to deny visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? Is it right for the UK or US to prevent a native-born child from living with his mother, because she is an unauthorised immigrant? Maybe — there’s a plausible argument that what these governments did and do here is right. But it is not an easy, slam dunk argument to make. The conventional response is that there is no need to make such an argument: governments have no obligations to foreigners; foreigners have no rights or dignity as human beings that are worth respecting. I think this conventional response does not actually make the difficult questions around these policy decisions go away.