Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S Prison Camps since World War II



Time to read

4 Minutes

Post by Afonso Bento, PhD Student with the Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA-IUL). Afonso is currently writing a thesis on the role of abstract moral meanings in Portuguese prison contexts.

Review of Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S Prison Camps since World War II by Naomi A. Paik (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016)

What does it mean to be a rightless person? And how is rightlessness produced? In this well-crafted book, Naomi A.  Paik engages with these issues by analyzing three separate prison camps of U.S history: the Japanese prison camps used during the Second World War, the Guantanamo prison camp used to detain HIV inflicted Haitian refugees during the 90’s, and the Guantanamo prison camp that currently detains “Enemy Combatants”. Through this analysis, the author reveals how the production of rightlessness has established itself as a condition of American governance and is embedded in its deep history of racial and social discrimination.

To be rightless, Paik argues, is to be excluded from a larger political community on the basis of being considered an outsider, a menacing racialized other. Throughout the book the author demonstrates how racism served as the condition and reason for the exclusion of either Japanese, Haitian or Arab populations. Paik concludes that rights, far from being inalienable, rely upon the recognition of a political community. Rightlessness itself can become a condition for rights when a given political community systematically tries to ensure its safety by excluding and discriminating others.

Each part of the book is divided into two chapters and focuses on a separate internment camp. In each chapter, Paik aims to reveal, on the one hand, the specific historical and political conditions that rendered the exclusion of each population possible and, on the other, the resistance and agency displayed by that same population in face of internment. Furthermore, although being rightless also means being voiceless, Paik sets out to show that people who were imprisoned in these camps persistently found ways to be heard. To do this, the author draws upon what John Beverley (2004) calls testemonios:  narratives of marginalized groups that bear witness to a collective condition of oppression and epistemological denial. The author uses empirical resources such as trial hearings, press statements or poems to assemble these testimonies.

The first part of the book focuses on the deportation of ethnic Japanese men and women following the events of Pearl Harbor. Perceived common racial features linked these individuals, and suspicion fueled by “long-established anti-Asian sentiment” (p. 33) led to their mass imprisonment by U.S authorities. In 1980, President Reagan signed the “Civil Liberties Act”, persuaded by a report that contained testimonies of survivors gathered through truth commissions. Although this law granted redress to the families affected by the camps, Paik argues that it didn’t achieve historical or practical justice. While discourse surrounding redress framed the deportations as an exceptional historical event, it ignored the systemic racism of the American state. Furthermore, the commissions prevented the witnesses from testifying their profound experience in their own terms. In the second chapter, Paik condemns these limitations and explores how forms of aesthetic expression can articulate in a more comprehensive manner the enduring subjective experience of being detained in a prison camp.

Part II analyses the detention of Haitian citizens that fled to the U.S due to fear of political persecution in 1991. These refugees were allocated in a camp in Guantanamo Bay and screened either for asylum or repatriation. However, after this process was over, 297 Haitian refugees, although having been screened-in for asylum, were prohibited from entering U.S territory due to having tested positive for HIV. The ambiguous legal status of Guantanamo enabled the creation of what Paik called a “carceral quarantine” (p. 113), a place where people are kept between life and death for an indefinite period. This indefinite detainment, Paik argues, was the product of multiple and converging factors: American imperialism (which interfered in Haitian politics and claimed Guantanamo as a site to exercise authority), fear of HIV contagion (a disease which was still largely misunderstood and was spreading panic) and racist xenophobia (which labelled Haitians - a nationality - as a source of contagion). In the second chapter, the author reveals how these remaining Haitians resisted and protested their imprisonment; first, by staging peaceful protests and later, when these actions proved futile, by organizing collective hunger strikes.

Part III focusses on the imprisonment of “Enemy combatants” in Guantanamo following the events of 9/11. Paik sets out to show that racist state action is also responsible for these deportations: although most detainees are not dangerous terrorists, they are all men of Muslim faith. In spite of this continuity, the author argues that the way rightlessness is being produced during this specific period signals a clear shift in governance. This time around, Guantanamo is not being used solely as a “legal black hole” (p. 155), but also as a site for the enforcement of legal innovations that expand American executive action. By creating the legal status of an “Enemy Combatant”, which aims at avoiding international restrictions, the Bush Administration set a pattern by which the law is something that can be circumvented instead of followed. This same logic enables the current Guantanamo administration to reach such repressive heights that detainees are not only deprived of living a meaningful life, but also of the choice of death. As Paik vividly describes, when even hunger strikes are countered with force feedings, the body itself becomes the site of a political struggle where dying is the only way of escaping state power. In contemporary Guantanamo, bio-politics becomes intertwined with the politics of death.

In this book, Paik illuminates the (increasingly pervasive) paradox that emerges when an international power, while claiming to act in the name of rights, produces sites of rightlessness. The book, however, does not fully illustrate the conflictual nature of this contradiction. Although the author acknowledges that the “state is not a singular entity but an intricate, multidimensional assemblage of forces” (p. 13), in most depictions it appears as a Machiavellian subject that, through its agents, uses human rights solely as an alibi for an imperialistic agenda. Nevertheless, the book is a valuable resource for researchers in the fields of law and various social sciences as it shows how rightlessness is increasingly becoming a way for states to assert authority and how the above paradox has become a feature of globalized governance.

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