I’m not an accomplished Tweeter. When I tried to Tweet about an event I spoke at recently and typed ‘Shamima’, the autocorrect changed it to ‘shaming’.It’s funny how often that happens – some unintended link to a truth identified by autocorrect (my own surname autocorrects to Sikhism – which is part of who I am). It’s a truth of Shamima’s identity – there has been an active shaming of who she is, what she represents, to how she doesn’t belong and is not Britain’s problem/ question to deal with. My question, in the face of this shaming, was: dorights work? The Begum case is about many things; a lack of empathy or mercy, Islamophobia, misogyny and, crucially, everyday violence as Lyndsey Stonebridge identifies– and it is also about a failure in rights. So, I wanted to ask, as a critical human rights scholar: Is our juridical frame of rights actually a distraction from questions of belonging and response(-)ability? Do we need new conceptions of freedom and new structures to make room for livable ways of being together? Should rights be about right treatmentover a necessarily justiciable right – and what could that look like?
Rights don’t recognise (her) belonging. When Quentin Somerville interviewed Shamima Begum and her husband, Yago Riedijk in March, he used the phrases ‘someone undesirableto Britain’, ‘when you say you’re a victim that’s sickening’ – and Shamima’s husband described only now seeing the ‘privilegeof living there (The Netherlands) as a citizen’, and Shamima said, ‘I made a mistake, a big mistake… I got tricked’.Sajid Javid has defended his order to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship as ‘stripping dangerous nationals of their citizenship’ as he referred to the new laws in the 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act.The power to deprive Shamima of citizenship derives from s40(2) of the British Nationality Act – wherein we find that now famous phrase ‘satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good’. In the face of undesirability, citizenship as a privilege and the ‘conducive to the public good’ rationale, we have heard counter-arguments based in rights: Jeremy Corbyn, defending Shamima Begum’s right to legal aid, argued ‘she is a British national… she has legal rights just like anybody else’;Gracie Bradley (Policy and Campaigns Officer for Liberty) has commented that ‘it’s a breach of international human rights law to make someone stateless’;and Michael Spencer from One Crown Office Row points out how the case raises the ‘difficult question’ of whether citizenship should be a privilege or a right, especially given Shamima ‘may not have personally engaged in any violent activity’.That citizenship is a privilege should not, at least, come as a surprise. Since Tony Blair’s Third Way, through David Cameron’s Big Society, now morphed into Theresa May’s Community and Society, we are continually seeing the replacement of rights with responsibility.Community is something we have chosen and for which we are responsible – as active citizens. Active citizenship itself betrays the promise of individual right, replacing it instead with community rights. We are autonomised and responsibilised into active citizens who take part in NCS, community regeneration programmes, help renovate pubs and parks – we don’t riot on the streets of London, we certainly don’t ‘make mistakes’ and join ISIS. All of this is good, isn’t it? I’m not saying it’s bad – but it is dangerous. Responsibility works to distract us from how the political rationality of community and police power produces a new ethic of responsibilised behaviour where the state gets to decide who does and doesn’t belong. Our right to resist, to not take part, even to make mistakes is not recognised.
Instead, we might become someone else’s problem. Sajid Javid, in his speech to Parliament on 18 March, claimed it is ‘morally right to export the problem’ to Bangladesh.As Bradley and others have commented, this capacity of the state to strip people of their citizenship is ‘by its nature very racialised’;similar to the Windrush Scandal, the Begum case reveals the tendency of the British to turn citizens, often like Shamima, born in the UK – but specifically black and minority ethnic citizens – into immigrants. It strikes me that the descriptors ‘undesirable’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘not conducive to the public good’ apply to the mistaken actions of our recently sacked Defense Secretary (Gavin Williamson) and his leaking information from National Security Council meetings.Yet here there is no sign of prosecution, let alone revoking of citizenship. The revoking of state responsibility and active state abandonment is a forgetting of colonial pasts, a continued demonisation of the black and brown ‘other’. Change the word to ‘response-ability’, as Donna Haraway does, and this is no responseat all – ‘response-ability’ refers to a ‘learning to staying with the trouble’, learning to be truly present, to make kin – because we need each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations; we become with each other or not at all.In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway explains: ‘The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent responseto devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and to rebuild quiet places.’How could we have responded? For those who have read Kamila Shamsie’s vivid novel Home Fire, the parallels between fiction and truth are astounding. Shamsie’s British home secretary, Karamat Lone is speaking to the Pakistani High Commissioner (in Punjabi, because it allows a breach of etiquette) about a situation not dissimilar to our case – ‘The issue is, my government has no reason to intervene’, the High Commissioner says (just as Bangladesh do not want Shamima). To which Karamat replies, ‘Intervene on decency’s behalf’.Decency is rich coming from the Home Secretary here; and, decency is not in the rights handbook.
Rights are the current discursive framework within which to ask for decency, or more correctly, human dignity to be respected, protected and fulfilled. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects nationality as a right in article 15 (as does the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to list a few more); domestically, this may find realization through the negative impact depriving Shamima of her citizenship would have for the right to private and family life protected in article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But these instruments contain no right to decency, no right to make mistakes, no right to come home. Critically informed debates on the troubled future(s) of rights ask do rights ‘work’,are rights the ‘last utopia’,are rights at an ‘endtimes’,do we need to use rights in a more strategic way to ‘play a different game’,andmaybe our way to escape the neoliberal fishbowl is if we were to resurrect our concern with spirituality and explore other ways of expressing freedom (as Ratna Kapur argues).But what the Shamina Begum case shows is that rights are a distraction from the lived reality of what belonging and conditional acceptance of your status means.
We need to ‘make trouble’ (as Haraway suggests) by inventing new ways of thinking how to make room for livable ways of being together. The focus is on the makingwhen we talk, as Haraway does, of making kin; this is about forging ourselves not as individuals with rights, not as communal but as relational beings. As relational beings, we can have relational rights; these are not associative rights that belong to a particular group – relational right refers to ‘a right to gain recognition in an institutional sense for the relations of one individual to another individual, which is not necessarily connected to the emergence of a group.’The concept challenges the limited juridical conception of rights. A relational right ‘permits all possible types of relations to exist and not be prevented, blocked or annulled by impoverished relational institutions’.Relational rights are ethical not juridical concepts – about a way of being and behaviour, and performing a right rather than just being able to claim a right that exists only because it is written down. For example, why not have a right a right to be treated decently? A right to make mistakes? A right to come home? Response-ability becomes then not about rights but right treatment.
Who is the ‘we’ who will ‘respond’? I’m reminded of something that Lowkey said when he visited Sussex recently to speak on Grenfell:I asked him who the ‘we’ in the lyric, ‘Until we face, what they face we will never know what fear is’, from Ghosts of Grenfell,referred to.He said he meant those who were immediately there; but went on to describe a relation in which we are (all) ‘intimate but simultaneously distant’ in our desire to respond to Grenfell. This is powerful message. It speaks to the possibility of innovating impersonal and yet intimate bonds between ourselves that are based in a kind of shared estrangement. We can’t all feel the immediate fear of the fire, or its aftermath. But we can relate, at a distance, to it. We can be at once intimate with the pain but we will always be distant from it, because we (at least, I) weren’t there. But despite our impersonal connections, we can be open, we can be hybridly human, we can do incremental resistance that ‘breaches the boundaries of gender, race, class and generation and that encourages radically democratic forms of citizenship and civic participation’.At a juridical level, we do not have a rightto belong; but we know what belonging is because we practice it. Shamima Begum has repeatedly stated her desire for a family, ‘the perfect family life’.Can we allow her to practice it? Not based on a justiciable claim but a performative, relational one – that is impersonal, estranged and uncomfortable because institutionally we can’t recognise the performance of a right to make mistakes, to decent treatment, to come home? Can we call this estranged relation ‘friendship’– can we do friendship as a challenge to the limits of rights?
I knew the risk of this sounding ludicrous, and given the fact that institutions cannot recognise complex affective bonds that exceed practical utility and institutional codes. I know the conversation – and response-ability – is interrupted by anxieties and frustrations: like the tedious and vexed administration of PREVENT policies, the labour of speaking about ‘belonging’ as brown women. And of course rights are an important tool in the response to these anxieties, in the fight for liberation and against shaming– as Gayatri Spivak famously said, ‘we cannot not want rights’. But they can’t be the only tool. We have to, at least as complex individuals and scholars doing radical thinking, look further – we have to look to how we practice not (just) rights but right treatment.
Bal Sokhi-Bulley, Senior Lecturer in Law & Critical Theory, University of Sussex
‘Conditional Conditional Citizenship & Belonging: Britain’s ‘Muslim Question’ after the Shamima Begum Ruling’, Sussex Centre for Migration Research, Friday 3 May 2019 – my thanks to @scmrjems for the invitation, to fellow panelists Moazzam Begg and Amanda E Rogers and to the audience for their thought-provoking contributions.
L Stonebridge, ‘Shamima Begum and the Logic of Everyday Violence’, 4 March 2019, Prospect Magazine, available: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/author/lyndsey-stonebridge
Q Somerville, ‘Shamima Begum: What was life like for the IS couple in Syria?’, 3 March 2019, BBC News, available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47435039
O Bowcott, ‘Jeremy Corbyn defends Shamima Begum’s right to legal aid’, 15 April 2019, The Guardian, available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/apr/15/jeremy-corbyn-defends-shamima-begum-right-to-legal-aid
G Bradley, ‘Stripping Shamima Begum of her Citizenship is Racist and Dangerous’, 22 February 2019, Vice, available: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/8xyv5k/stripping-shamima-begum-of-her-citizenship-is-racist-and-dangerous
M Spencer, ‘Shamima Begum: is striping her of her citizenship the right response?’, 1 March 2019, UK Human Rights Blog, available: https://ukhumanrightsblog.com/2019/03/01/shamina-begum-is-stripping-her-of-her-citizenship-the-right-response/
B Sokhi-Bulley, Governing Through Rights (Hart Publishing, 2016) Chapter 4.
‘Sajid Javid on Shamima Begum’, above n 4.
Bradley, above n 6.
H Stewart, D Sabbagh and P Walker, ‘I was tried by kangaroo court – then sacked’, 1 May 2019, The Guardian, available: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/01/gavin-williamson-sacked-as-defence-secretary-over-huawei-leak
D Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Duke University Press, Durham and London 2016) 2, 4.
K Shamsie, Home Fire (Bloomsbury, London 2017), Kindle Edition, Location 3066 and 3074.
As per Sikkink, who insists there is ‘evidence for hope’ – K Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21stCentury (Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 2017).
As asks Samuel Moyn, in uncovering an alternative history for rights – S Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History(Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2010); see further S Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World(Balknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 2018).
Questions Stephen Hopgood, in The Endtimes of Human Rights (Cornell University Press, Ithica and London 2013)
As Ben Golder suggests in Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford University Press, Stanford 2015).
R Kapur, Gender, Alterity and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fishbowl (Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham 2018) 180-20.
M Foucault, ‘The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will’ in Ethics: Volume 1: Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984(P Rabinow, ed; R Hurley, trans) 157, 162.
Lowkey, ‘Grenfell: From micro to macro and back again’, 11 March 2019, University of Sussex (event organised by the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies and the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies).
T Roach, Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, Aids and the Politics of Shared Estrangement (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2012), 12.
Q Sommerville, above n 3.
M Foucault, ‘Friendship as a way of life’ in Ethics: Volume 1: Subjectivity and Truth: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984(P Rabinow, ed; R Hurley, trans) 135.