May 30, 2005

Refugees, human rights, bare life

Should we place the refugee at the centre of a contemporary analysis of political life? If so, should we continue to think in terms of human rights, or the rights of a human being?

Though 'the refugee' is seen to embody the very necessity of the existence of human rights, it is these very rights that are often, and increasingly, denied to those seeking asylum in Australia from torture or death by oppressive regimes. Australia's system of mandatory, indefinite detention imprisons asylum seekers and it can lock stateless people up for the rest of their lives if need be.

In Australia the conservative state attempts to do away with the category of refugee----it is replaced by asylum seeker. With this shift the obvious bearer of human rights, and a prime candidate for the protection of human rights, is excluded from the meaning and enactment of 'right'.

As they are classified as "queue jumpers", asylum seekers are deemed to be 'illegal'. They do not warrant being seen in terms of their human rights as it is an issue of border protection and threats to Australia's national sovereignty. These non-citizens can be subject to a regime of incarceraton; they warrant the severe deprivation of their physical liberty; and are subject to solitary confinement.

Human rights have been displaced, even though some are eventually granted refugee status. What are the latter' status? Temporary resident non-citizens?

If they are denied their rights as refugees and citizen rights, then this denial casts the refugees into a situation of statelessness:they are cut off from their own State's protection and they without the rights of the State in which they are tempotarily resident. They live in a shadow land.

So argue those who defend human rights. But maybe we should question the use of human rights? In her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) Hannah Arendt's says that the problem with human rights is that they are invoked at the precise moment at which the rights of a citizen, the political artifice that bestows human dignity, are stripped away. This leaves us with "the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human"--- a condition that, despite the best-intentioned humanitarianism and the loquacious declarations of human rights, is seen by her as essentially "worthless" (1958:297).

The calamity of human rights is registered for Arendt by the appearance of what is bare life in Agamben's sense. Bare life is not the same as natural life, but is to be understood as the result of an unavoidable political power that blurs the distinction between political and natural. For Arendt bare life is represented as reducing human beings to mere "savages" or "animals." Agamben argues for a need to work through the distinction between working through of the distinction between bios (natural life) and zoe (political life) or nature and culture, rather than following Arendt in reaffirming zoe and accepting the duality.

Agamben's working through gives us the juridico-political category of 'bare life.' Bare life is not natural life, as bare life is what, in view, is produced as the originary (both original and originating) act of sovereignty. The production of this bare life thus establishes a relation that defines the political realm and which Agamben calls, the relation of ban, or abandonment. So 'bare life' is produced in and through this fundamental act of sovereignty in the sense of being included in the political realm precisely by virtue of being excluded.

The asylum seeker in the detention camp in Australia is included the political realm of the liberal constitutional state by virtue of being exlcuded by being incarcerated in the camp.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 30, 2005 10:54 PM | TrackBack
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