Interview with Al Jazeera on statelessness, human rights, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan

Why are human rights defenders being targeted?” asked Al Jazeera Rajat Khosala from Amnesty International, a specialist for advocacy and policy, Tobi Cadman an International Human Rights Lawyer and myself. Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” draws a bleak picture of the human rights situation worldwide with repression in authoritarian states increasing. Human rights defenders are particularly being targeted. I reported about the current situation of human rights activism in Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar where we have just witnessed a military coup. I also spoke about the situation of the 10-15 million de-facto stateless people worldwide who cannot even claim human rights as they lack a nationality.

“Why are human rights defenders being targeted?” Al Jazeera, February 5, 2021.

I explained the difference between de jure and de facto statelessness and emphasized that the roles of the state system and that of the United Nations need to be rethought when it comes to statelessness in particular and how we can all ensure the adherence to human rights in general. We also touched upon the importance of staying connected digitally as activism is increasingly being carried out online.

In the name of stability. On the coup in Myanmar

Myanmar’s immediate neighbours have reacted very reluctantly in regard to the military coup that began on February 1 2021. Whereas ASEAN member-states have largely declared the coup an “internal affair” into which they would rather not get involved, China said it had “noted” the events and urged the country to uphold “stability”.

Stability, however, is not a neutral or entirely positive concept I argue in this German-language article for the daily newspaper TAZ: it is possible to justify not only repression and coups in Myanmar with it, but even the recent genocide of the ethnic Rohingya.

Stability has been a key metaphor during previous military dictatorships as well: Until 2010, for example, the second out of four so-called “national causes” that the military government under General Than Swe promoted under the title “The People’s Desires” read “Oppose those trying to jeopardize the stability of the state and the progress of the nation.”

It had also been Aung San Suu Kyi herself who, in December 2019 in her role as a member of her country’s delegation at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) left the more legalistic arguments to the specialists for international law, and challenged the legitimacy of the case on the basis of harmony ideology.

In the name of stability,she argued that the principal judicial organ of the United Nations should refrain from interfering in Myanmar’s domestic affairs.

In my recent article, I thus hold that invoking ‘stability’ is more in line with what the military government is advocating than it it is supportive of the civil resistance that is currently beginning to form.

Read the full post in TAZ.

Webinar on legal pluralism in honour of Sally Engle Merry

Sally Merry was an active participant in the work of the project group “Legal Pluralism” at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology over many years of which I was a part from 2004 until 2010. In this conversation, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, my former PhD supervisor, who co-headed the project group at the MPI from 2000 until 2012, and I talked about Sally’s role at the MPI, the importance of her work for legal pluralism in particular, and for legal anthropology in general.

We reviewed some of Sally’s theoretical ideas about the concept of legal pluralism: What was so provocative about it that Sally referred to its history as ‘an intellectual odyssey’? How did she explore it in her own ethnographic work? We also discussed the possibility to think through her more recent themes of research on indicators and quantification in regard to the concept of legal pluralism. To expand the conversation, we invited the audience to contemplate the potential of revisiting the numerous debates Sally has initiated with the concept of legal pluralism in mind.

Here is the full schedule of the webinar series that began on December 11 2020 and runs until May 21 2021.

“Sprechstunde” – neues Interview

Die Interviewreihe “Sprechstunde” der Universität Konstanz stellt ProfessorInnen aller Fachbereiche persönlich vor – als WissenschaftlerIn und als Lehrperson. Hier gebe ich Auskunft über meine Professur, meine Forschungen in Zentral- und Südostasien, mein neues Forschungsprojekt zu Staatenlosigkeit in Europa, sowie über unseren interdisziplinären Masterstudiengang “Ethnologie und Soziologie”, der einzigartig in Deutschland ist.

Interview with me in “Voices on Central Asia”

Snejana Anatova interviewed me for “Voices on Central Asia“, a collaboration between the Central Asia Program (CAP) and the Central Asian Analytical Network (CAAN), both part of The George Washington University‘s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES). In this interview, Snejana asked me about my research interest in law, my fieldwork in rural Kyrygyzstan on the topic of legal pluralism and my recent co-edited volume on practices of traditionalization.

“Traditionalization is a practice that is not related to a particular way of life – be it nomadic or sedentary. It is an inherent capacity of all humans, a way to make sense of and order their world.”

In our introduction to this special issue of Central Asian Survey (later published as an edited volume with Routledge in their Central Asia series), Peter Finke and I show how a shift occurred in regard to how the concept of tradition has been employed in the region: while it was framed as the conceptual enemy that needed to be fought and ultimately overcome during the colonial expansion, it became an important tool of nation-building in the post-Soviet era. But the concept is also an emic category of non-elites. It is an important argument that people across Central Asia put forward in order to justify their actions or to contemplate their own and other’s behavior. It is a so-called ‘members’ category’ and needs to be understood from the perspective of the people we work with in the field. In our edited volume, we want to move beyond probing the ‘authenticity’ of particular ‘traditional practices’. Rather than deconstructing tradition in order to do away with it, we see here a site of necessary engagement. Tradition does matter in Central Asia, as it does in Africa and in Europe: it aggregates people, motivates individual and collective action, informs policy, public debates, law, and representation, and is – despite its often enough strategic inception – effectively powerful.

You can access the full interview here.

 

“Deutsch” in Gänsefüßchen – Artikel in der TAZ

In Deutschland hat jede/r vierte Deutsche Migrationshintergrund. Wenn die Polizei bei Tatverdächtigen denselbigen gesondert erforscht, lohnt es sich zu fragen, wozu diese Information eigentlich dient. Wenn daran konkrete Präventions- und Integrationsmaßnahmen geknüpft sein sollen, wie dies im Fall von Stuttgart und auch Frankfurt von Polizei und Regierung artikuliert wurde, nachdem es in den Innenstädten zu gewalttätigen Ausschreitungen gekommen war, dann kann man weiter fragen warum diese Maßnahmen bereits als Argument in die Debatte gebracht werden bevor die “Hintergründe” der meist jugendlichen Tatverdächtigen überhaupt ermittelt sind. Wenn dann die Polizei Videoüberwachung und Alkoholkonsumverbot im öffentlichen Raum ins Spiel bringt, muss man sogar fragen, ob das Einschränken von Rechten eine sinnvolle Integrationsmaßnahme ist.

Für die TAZ habe ich einen kritischen Gastkommentar verfasst, in dem ich argumentiere, dass “Präventions- und Integrationsarbeit […] auch in den politischen Institutionen selbst stattfinden [muß]. Das Gewaltmonopol eines demokratischen ­Staates kann nur dann nach­haltig von allen respektiert werden, wenn Prävention und Integration mehr sind als Kontrollinstrumente des Staates.” Wenn jedoch der Eindruck entsteht, “dass dem Migrationshintergrund ein besonderes oder isoliertes Interesse entgegengebracht wird, so ist nachvollziehbar, warum in den Medien seither über „Stammbaumforschung“ debattiert und der Polizei struktureller Rassismus vorgeworfen wird, auch wenn die Ermittlung ja erst im Nachgang der Tat erfolgte.”

Hier geht es zum Volltext aus der TAZ.

Towards an anthropology of statelessness

As part of my tenure-track evaluation I held a public lecture at the end of April 2020 at the University of Konstanz on the topic of statelessness. I am currently in the process of drafting a funding application that would enable me to work towards developing how an anthropology of statelessness could look like.

I’d like to mention a couple of thoughts here to help me think through this potential new subdiscipline and to raise awareness of what I think is a structural lack at two different levels:

1) within the very concept of the nation-state and

2) within the anthropology of the state.

While the first concerns the prime object of analysis of the anthropology of the state, the second concerns a structural lack within how we have up to date researched that prime object.

I argue that statelessness has so far been approached as something ‘lacking’ in the constitution of those who do not have a nationality — for whatever reason (and there are many). Thus, activists, practitioners, (I)NGOs and other global actors have focussed their attention on ‘fixing’ the lack of the stateless by trying to make sure they, too, receive nationality (or citizenship; I won’t go into details here as to where these concepts overlap and where they don’t). In doing so, statelessness has remained an ‘anomaly’ — something that needs ‘fixing’. But we have neglected (almost entirely) in our scholarly analyses (these are mostly legal, political and almost none anthropological up to date) that it might not be the stateless who need ‘fixing’, but the nation-state itself. This argument has been made by the political theorist Phil Cole (2017), for example,  but needs to be taken seriously and thought through in legal and political anthropology as well for it might provide novel insights into the anthropology of the state.

Understanding statelessness as a structural lack of nation-states

In my tenure lecture, I have argued that statelessness cannot be researched at the ‘heart of the state’ (Fassin) or at its ‘margins’ (Das and Poole) where anthropology has so far located its objects of inquiry when studying the state in a transversal or tangential (Harvey) manner. It rather points to what I – with Lacan – would define as a structural lack in how nation-states are set up and operate. As such, this type of lack is not meant to be ‘filled’. As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up statelessnesswithin the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’. It is there on purpose, I argue. Treating statelessness not as anomaly, but as an intentional product in the way the state operates allows for new insights into the state as much as it will move our engagement with the phenomenon of statelessness beyond appeals of ‘fixing’.

As much as statelessness is not a mode of being that could be ‘fixed’, the structural lack that statelessness opens up within the concept of the nation-state is not meant to be ‘filled’.

Despite the fact that we have international conventions in place since the mid 1950s, and despite the fact that more and more states have ratified these conventions and are closing legal loopholes: statelessness continues to exist and in many parts of the world, including Europe, its numbers are increasing. It remains one of the most overlooked human rights violations and it won’t go away, no matter how much the UN wants it to. The project I am currently drafting would bring legal scholars, anthropologists and practitioners together and study the structural lack of statelessness as an intrinsic component of the nation-state.

From stateless societies to stateless individuals

Anthropologists have historically dealt with stateless societies as part of Europe’s (and America’s) colonial politics of expansion and exploitation. Most ethnographic monographs centred on ‘acephalous’ ethnic groups or tried to grapple with understanding how groups organized and interacted with one another without a clear leadership or someone ‘in power’. After the demise of colonialism, such work has almost completely come to a halt; the state has come to tighten its grip on ethnic groups to such an extent that there is, by now, no place on earth that would not feel its eery presence. This includes hunter-gatherer societies (Sapignoli 2018) and sedentary tribes (Girke 2018) in rural Africa as much as agrarian groups in Southeast Asia (Scott 2010). However, statelessness has remained an immanent phenomenon worth anthropological attention. My argument is, however, that nowadays we need to focus on stateless individuals (in the sense of an anthropo-logy) more than on stateless societies (in the sense of an ethno-logy). While many groups are de facto stateless (e.g. Rohingya), the de jure status of statelessness is granted to individuals only. In line with an existential anthropology (Jackson and Piette 2015), my aim is to research statelessness not as a historical leftover of group encounters with the (colonial) state, but as an existential human condition that allows us to understands a structural lack of the contemporary nation-state.

Stay tuned …

 

 

#corona On being prudent

In a recent post for Allegra Lab, I ask what we can do from our homes, to which we are confined these weeks, being overwhelmed, seeing the problematic and political nature of  all these facts and narratives that are presented to us in the Covid-19-crisis.

I have elaborated on three tasks:

First, we can join public debates and be a voice of prudence. This is to help de-escalate discussions where people – sometimes out of sensationalism, sometimes out of hurried obedience and often out of fear – demand that their states take extreme measures of surveillance, deprivation of liberty and sanction. The term “state of exception” has been used to such an extent that we have gotten used to it already – exactly what Giorgio Agamben warned us about.

Second, we can engage with our students and address their sense of insecurity by adapting our upcoming or ongoing courses, seminars and lectures in a way that allows the topic to influence whatever subject we had intended to work on. Since few things are as pervasive as a global pandemic, there is hardly any subject (in anthropology and beyond) which we could not reconceptualize by taking account of COVID-19. As we will have to teach digitally, it is also important to discuss the pitfalls that come with online learning, while making use of newly available resources.

Third, we can practice writing our fieldwork diaries in our homes: Note down how the virus has already impacted our own personal everyday lives, how it has led to a restructuring of our daily schedules, how it has decreased and altered the amount of time we spend with colleagues and friends and how it might have increased the number of hours we spend with members of our household. For those of us who have children, we can observe how they, too, struggle to adapt to a physical world that has suddenly shrunk and to a digital world that has suddenly expanded. We can look outside our windows and correlate how changes in governmental policies become observable in the very way people physically move in the streets. And we can honestly record our own feelings from day to day. We can then come back to these notes at a later stage – just as we do when we come home from the field.

This too, to me, is public anthropology. One directly engages with the media, the second takes up current topics and reworks these with our students for whom we are responsible, and the third collects data diligently in order to be able to draw from this source later on when we have the capacity and the psychological distance required to take a long hard look at what is happening in front of our eyes right now.

Read the full post here. My intro is part of an ongoing series which we have labelled #corona thread.

#corona: Views from an anthropology of the state

This is from my twitter thread which I started on March 9, after having returned from Singapore and Myanmar. I am saving it here for better readability and for those, who do not use social media.

Here are my thoughts on the corona virus from the perspective of an anthropology of the state: Having just returned from 2,5 weeks of short-term fieldwork in Southeast Asia (Singapore and Myanmar) I noticed the following:

When we look at the policies of authoritarian states such as Singapore and Myanmar we can see highly diverse tactics in how to deal with an epidemic or pandemicSingapore: closes its borders, monitors its citizens, checks every persons temperature at the airport and at hotels. Provides sanitizing gels everywhere, cleans public spaces regularly several times a day. Informs on all media channels how to wash hands, keep distance, when to stay home and whom to call. The population not only cooperates, but even copies the state’s measures (e.g. in restaurants, in gyms, and malls). Singapore reports all cases early. As a result, the growth rate of new cases has slowed down and the number has almost remained the same since February.

Myanmar – in contrast: no checking of temperature at airports, no entry denial to travellers from high-risk countries, no information beyond a couple of posters in downtown Yangon. No cases reported until today. No trust in the government, but a lot of rumours.

Then I return to Germany and I find: people buying toilet paper (?) and pasta in large quantities. People still not understanding how to sneeze and when to stay away from crowds. People stealing sanitizing gels even at my university – with the result that none are provided. Due to Germany’s federal system, there is no centrally communicated measurement in place, but an endless trickle-down of bits and pieces of news – all in the form of recommendations, none binding, in many cases not adhered to. There is a lingering sense of defeatism. There is also a slight sense of panic. The hoarding of toilet paper and the sanitizing gels standing in for trying to substitute danger with purity. The buying of pasta seems to be a post 2WW phenomenon, though. None of it is rational behaviour, but driven by fear.

Authoritarian states such as Singapore, China, but also Israel switch into command mode, and its citizens obey as there is no other option. They fear the state more than the virus. In authoritarian states such as Myanmar (and the current US) there is politics by denial: Business as usual, nothing to see here or to report. And in democratic states such as Germany, it takes an epidemic such as the current one to see where the limits of governmental agency are:

The downside of upholding individual freedom is that we are on our own.

While China’s effort has been written about as “collective”, as in this article, it was really a top-down decision by a few officials that was adhered to because people fear the state. While we in Germany are still enjoying our individual freedom to ignore governmental recommendations, an unintended side-effect of surveillance and micro governance in authoritarian states is that it ultimately aids health care measurements and helps curb epidemics and pandemics. And a side-effect in democracies and other authoritarian states is that the upholding of individual freedom comes at a prize, as does the complete denial of the issue. The two are actually close. That is, when it comes to epidemics, Germany and Myanmar have a lot in common!

March 24: I’ll continue: “Queremos o melhor para população. Se o governo não tem capacidade de dar um jeito, o crime organizado resolve” – This is a statement from organized crime in Rio, Brazil who enforced a nightly lockdown because they would take care of the population, in contrast to the government. Also, ISIS has warned its people not to enter “the land of the epidemic” (aka Europe ) and layed out a “sharia directive” that includes how to wash your hands properly.

We live in interesting times when organized crime and terrorists care more than the state.

tbc…

 

 

In honour of Baiyz Apa (1927 – 2020)

On January 27, 2020 at 4.20am, my  beloved Kyrgyz grandmother, Baiyz Apa, passed away. She had been waiting for this moment for the last five years, asking Kudai (Allah) to please bring her home. I lived in her home for one and a half years between 2005 and 2006 and have frequently returned in 2008, 2010, 2015 for further ethnographic research and whenever it was possible. The last time I “saw” her was in December 2019 when her great-grandchildren recorded an Instagram videomessage of hers for me. Who would have thought this to be possible? I carried out research at a time when there were only two telephones in the  village: one at the mayor’s office and one at the peregovornyi punkt – the post office. Both almost never worked. When I wanted to talk to my parents or grandparents in Germany, I needed to travel for 40km into Talas town and hope for either a mobile signal or use one of the telephones there … Now Baiyz Apa was on Instagram, telling me that we have not seen each other in a long time. She was right. I could see that she was very weak but her mind was sharp as always. I showed her message to my son, whom she named when he was born. She gave me two options — Aralbek or Zhangybek — the first indicating the child to be the  “leader” of Aral, the village we all lived in, the second meaning that of a “new leader.” Of course I chose the second.

It was through her blessing, I believe and she believed, that he came into the world. I remember very clearly how I had asked her in 2010 to please give me a bata so that I would give birth to a child. And she did. But beyond her blessing, Baiyz Apa has given me many other things: It is through her that I truly came to understand what growing up in one of the remotest parts of the Soviet Union must have meant for a woman. It was through her that I understood that as a woman one can do ANYTHING. She gave birth to 11 children … the first 4 died. After the fourth death, she consulted with the village imam at a time when “being a Muslim” was forbidden in Kyrgyzstan. He advised her to pray — so she began to learn to “read namaz” five times a day and thanks to Allah, her fifth child — a boy — lived. After him, she had six other children and also adopted a daughter.

It was probably half way into my fieldwork (which was devoted to understanding legal pluralism in Kyrgyzstan) that I realized how interesting Baiyz Apa’s life history was. And I asked her whether she would like me to write it down for her. She said “if it helps you with your work, I will.” And so it was not out of self-interest, but of generosity that she agreed to dig deep into her memories and tell me story after story after story for weeks on end.

I had been smart enough not to impose a linear structure onto the way she was telling her life story by not asking her to go back as far as she remember and start from there until we would have reached the present time. In contrast, I had asked her to start from the most important event in her life. What was she most proud of? And she began to talk about how she had managed to marry off all of her children as a single working mother. Her husband had been much older than her and had died early, so that she was left with the burden of not only working full time in the Kolchoz, but also raising her children alone, being responsible for her household and —  everyone familiar with Central Asia knows how difficult this is — finding money and ways to participate in the life-cycle rituals: births, birthdays, graduation ceremonies, marriages, funerals, mourning rituals, to only name the most important ones. I also vividly remember her story about how much she wanted to go to school and how she walked for hours on end from the pasture down to the valley each morning in the dark to attend the village school there, together with only boys. How she was married to a man much older than her since all younger men had gone to the war — partly fighing in Germany — maybe against my own grandfather at the time.

I will always remember  Baiyz Apa for her straightforwardness. In Kyrgyzstan, it is sometimes not customary to tell things as they are — something I learned the hard way, being extremely straightforward myself. But we were very much alike in this way. She would speak out and she would speak up. When once a thief stole the potatoes out of her house’s cellar during spring, she faced him after the villagers had caught him; and while he had returned all the sacks and wanted to ask for forgiveness, she made him take them back and plant them on his own land. Her family was not happy about this as these potatoes had been meant for planting and it is on the potato harvest that villagers in Aral base their life-cycle economy. But she would no longer have what a thief had touched, she said. She was strong- willed and proud, that way …

Baiyz Apa refused to speak Russian during the Soviet Union although she perfectly understood. She never bowed down to authorities. When she worked in the Kolchoz as an accountant (schetchik), she managed to go around ‘the system’ without entering into moral conflict with her religious belief to which she sticked no matter how unusual it must have been for a woman to pray while the state preached atheism. She worked on an opium plantation in the mountains, she drove a tractor, she flew to the southern part of the country at a time when many women had never even set foot outside of their villages.

Most of all, however, she was the kindest, funniest person I came to know in Kyrgyzstan. I will never forget how the night before one of my departures from Aral, she had worked until the morning hours  to finish a shyrdak and a töshök — two traditional Kyrgyz carpets and cushions — for me to take home. Her daughter-in-law had told me how she dripped black tea into her eyes to “stay awake.”

Baiyz Apa is home now. I am happy for her. She told all of us not to cry for “an old woman.” Usually I listened to her, like a good daughter or granddaughter would. But in this case I cannot. I will always miss her and I am grateful to have met her.

Her life history which I wrote down was published in Kyrgyz in 2010. I release the pdf-file of her book Baiyz Apanyn Zhashoo Tarzhymaly here – in honour of Baiyz Apa and for everyone to read, beyond Aral and the other villages where the book has been distributed to.

Anyn arty kairluu bolsun!