A lot is being made about the rights nations have, but everyone seems to overlook one thing: nations don’t have rights.
Only individual humans have rights, and nations exist solely to preserve them.
At some point, it seems humanity has become confused. We have blurred the line between a nation and a person to the point that, looking at current events, it seems to have disappeared.
A critic of a nation and/or that nation’s government is taken to be a critic of the people who comprise that nation. A critic of US foreign policy, such as myself, is said to be anti-American even though it is objectively in the interests of the American people to spend less on foreign military bases, less on foreign wars and meddling, less on surveillance, less on just about everything regarding foreign policy (except peaceable, voluntary trade), and focus on the domestic well-being. Things like healthcare and education and the human capital that truly makes a nation great. How we do that can certainly be debated, but that we should prioritize it over eternal war should not be controversial.
Conflating a nation with it’s people is an intentionally deceptive propaganda tactic by the oligarchy, because the “national interest” is, in fact, their interest. Those interests often run counter to the interests of normal, everyday people. This is true in the US. It’s true in Israel. And it’s true in Gaza with Hamas. The vast majority of living, breathing people everywhere just want to live a decent life in peace, raise their kids and pass the torch to them in a world that’s better off, and then die with dignity.
Consent or Violence?
The right of a nation to exist, in theory, comes from the consent of the governed. However, in highly polarized, contentious, oppressive, or exploitive environments such as those the world currently finds itself embroiled in, that consent is highly questionable. For instance, how many on the left of the American political spectrum could honestly claim Trump represented them? And how many in the MAGA camp recognize Biden as their Chief? In reality, the right of a nation to exist extends strictly to its ability to violently enforce its claim to power against potential usurpers. Period. It’s simply a case of “might makes right” and has little to do with being morally or logically superior.
Put simply, a nation itself has no rights of any kind. No right of self defense. No right to any kind of ethnic or religious composition within it’s arbitrary boundaries. No right to make religious claims the law of a diverse land. No right to keep anyone out. No right to keep anyone in. No rights at all. A nation is a collective of individuals, and those individuals have rights. The sole duty of nation is to preserve those rights, chief among them the right to life inherently bestowed to every human for the simple fact of existing. As is often said, in the modern, multicultural, highly fluid world of today a government’s duty is to preserve the rights of its people, especially its minorities, and the smallest minority of all is one.
Has Democracy Failed?
Democracy has clouded our understanding of this fundamental function of modern governments, replacing it with the idea that whatever the majority determines is just. Clearly, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the just action is to go against the majority, to protect the minority from proposed oppression by the majority. This isn’t to say democracy is a failure. It’s the best political system we have implemented at scale for decentralizing power closest to where it belongs: in the hands of individual humans. However, across the globe it has been coopted and centralized by the oligarchy, so that every few years the house gets remodeled but the same sh*tty foundation remains.
The inconvenient truth of decentralized power, in this case democracy, is that a state’s “identity” can be legitimately and legally challenged at the ballot box if the nation affords full civil and voting rights to all the diverse individuals that call it home. This is why there’s always been such a furor over voting rights in this country, and why Israel doesn’t just grant citizenship and full civil rights to Palestinians. It’s the entire idea behind “conservatism”; that there is a national identity and tradition worthy of being preserved against changing demographic and cultural norms. This same identity based framework also helps explain many progressive positions as well, and the degree to which you find it palatable to enforce either correlates directly with your ability to tolerate political authoritarianism.
This is why personhood language cannot be applied to nations: they don’t have identities because they aren’t people. There can be groups in a nation, and those groups can have shared ethnic, religious, and cultural heritages worthy of recognition and preservation, but it is not for the State to enshrine those in the legal framework of the land. States are more just when they focus on preserving the rights of individuals to hold these diverse heritages and beliefs. People will change. Demographics will change. Codifying any kind of heritage into law is only going to lead to oppression of those who do not share that heritage, and oppression is to be categorically rejected; whether it comes from the “right” or “left.” The duty of a nation is only to foster an environment where everyone can feel secure in the private expression of their personal beliefs and heritage.
Of course, just because nations don’t have rights or identities doesn’t mean that the personhood rhetoric is going to stop. And it’s true that, in some cases, a nation might act against another sovereign nation in an effort to preserve the rights of the individuals living within its arbitrary borders. Therefore, it’s useful to look at why personhood language it’s being used in any specific case. This is especially relevant in the unfolding drama of todays international political situation.
The framing of the Israeli nation’s right to self-defense, for instance, must be understood as an attempt to question or erode international confidence in the standards of the Geneva Convention and it’s explicit prohibition on targeting civilians. But first, let’s not forget that the international standards of what constitutes a war crime and what does not were created in the aftermath of WWII and are largely intended to codify how nation states are supposed to act during times of war, so that the horrors of the Great Wars would not be repeated in any future campaigns. These standards were not, by and large, designed to make any judgement on whether a specific non-state actor is justified in its actions when it claims the right of resistance against an oppressor. There is no standard by which to judge such claims as written. Thus by it’s nature, the Geneva Convention suffers from a bias toward existing, often colonial, power structures.
Put simply, the Israeli state position is that Hamas is a foreign sovereign that Israel is at war against. If this claim is accepted, and if Israeli claims of Hamas using civilian shields and critical civilian infrastructure for military operations is true, this position would alleviate the Israeli state from the consequences of it’s indiscriminate bombing campaign and puts the onus of war crimes in Gaza squarely on the shoulders of Hamas. If it’s not accepted however, and is instead determined that Hamas is a non-state, non-sovereign actor fighting a resistance campaign, then the burden of war crimes falls to the Israeli state for it’s clear targeting of civilians and their infrastructure. It really just depends on which premise you accept, and no matter how inconvenient it might be depending on your worldview, both positions have valid points.
All this is to say, the events of the day are simply playing out what is should be self-evident and instinctual: in a highly interconnected world, possessed with rapid travel and instant communication, it’s simply impossible to implement any kind of codified national identity based on ethnicity, religion, culture, or heritage. Attempts to do so, as in the lingering case of US systemic discrimination against the Black community, or in Israel against Palestinians, or in the Sudan, or China, or or or…ends with marginalization, oppression, war, and eventually, slaughter.