The Human Rights of Non-Citizens: A New Unified Domain? Book Review of David Weissbrodt's 'The Human Rights of Non-Citizens'
American Journal of International Law, October 2010
11 Pages Posted: 21 Oct 2010 Last revised: 15 Feb 2015
Date Written: October 20, 2010
David Weissbrodt, professor of international human rights law at the University of Minnesota and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of noncitizens from 2000-03, begins The Human Rights of Non-citizens with a provocative thesis: the human rights of noncitizens should be viewed not as an amalgamation of the rights of various non-citizen subgroups (refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers, etc.), but rather as a unified domain (p. 5). Weissbrodt makes a strong case for (1) new international standards governing the rights of all noncitizens, as well as states' implementation of these rights, and (2) a unified movement to protect all noncitizens.
After discussing the content and structure of a number of Weissbrodt’s eloquently written chapters, this review unpacks several aspects of the book’s thesis. All groups of noncitizens are, no doubt, subjected to many of the same social, political, and legal perils associated with being a foreigner in a world defined by nation states and their boundaries. Amalgamating the advocacy strategies and resources of disparate noncitizen groups may therefore sometimes be advantageous. But this is not always the case. On other issues, different groups of noncitizens may obtain greater social and political support (and in turn, greater protection of rights) by focusing on their particular, distinct attributes that are likely to attract public sympathy. For example, the recent trend toward the treatment of migration as a law-and-order issue has, in many countries, resulted in the strong social privileging of legal noncitizens and the demonizing of illegal noncitizens. Similarly, refugees or victims of trafficking have on occasion attracted greater sympathy (and rights-protection) by differentiating themselves from other noncitizens.
The review concludes that the Human Rights of Non-citizens provides a useful starting point for thinking about noncitizens' rights issues in the post-9/11 world -- an area of legal scholarship that, like the advocacy community itself, is siloed into the same categories as the diverse groups of noncitizens that populate Weissbrodt's discussion. But despite its strengths, the book stops short of offering the reader a nuanced analysis of the law or of possible solutions to the most difficult law and policy quandaries related to noncitizens' human rights in our contemporary world -- for example, how to balance national security, policing of migration, and human rights; how to guarantee economic and social rights to noncitizens, both in developed and developing countries, in times of global financial crisis; how to distinguish discrimination and xenophobia from legitimate concerns relating to citizenship and state sovereignty; and, more broadly, the extent to which the international community has collective responsibility for improving country conditions, and thus promoting human rights, in migrant-sending countries in the developing world. The strengths of the book ultimately lie elsewhere: in breaking down the distinctions between noncitizen groups and in challenging the reader to see what is common in the efforts of all such groups to protect and promote their rights.
The final version of this article was published in the October 2010 issue of the American Journal of International Law.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation