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From Unicorns to Mules: Phillip Pettit, Hannah Arendt, and the Liberal Human Rights Regime

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Version 1 2021-11-22, 15:32
posted on 2021-11-22, 15:32 authored by Bierema, Sebastiaan

The research presented here is an effort to interpret the discrepancy between the theoretical inalienability of human rights and the ease with which they are alienated in practice; a paradox Hannah Arendt regarded as the most conspicuous and cruel contradiction of human rights discourse. Proponents of the contemporary human rights regime have recognised that two principal characteristics of liberal human rights politics—namely, the double appellation of the Rights of Man and Citizen and an insistence on sovereignty and power-politics—directly contribute to this paradox. Nonetheless, they deem the current approach to combating rights violations to be ‘the best we can hope for’. After discussing this pragmatic liberal approach, this paper continues by analysing the alternative approaches championed by two republican traditions which criticise liberal human rights—Pettit’s neo-republicanism and Arendt’s participatory republicanism. The former of these proposes an institutional commitment to the rights of the citizen, whereas the latter deems the direct action of political subjects to be the most effective form of guaranteeing written rights in practice. Finally, in agreement with Arendt’s thought, this paper argues that while liberal power-politics and neo-republican institutionalism have their place in human rights politics, rights are at their most secure as expressions of autonomous action.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Political Science

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Marquez, Xavier