US prison camps demonstrate the fragile nature of rights, says author

May 24, 2016

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The U.S. has been a leading voice for human rights. It's also run prison camps, now and in the past, that denied people those rights.

A. Naomi Paik wanted to explore that contradiction - finding out why these camps were organized, how they were justified, how prisoners have been treated and their response to that treatment.

The result is her book "Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II," published in April.

Paik, a University of Illinois professor of Asian American studies, looks at the detention of three different groups at different times: Japanese-Americans during World War II (their detention redressed in the late 1980s); HIV-infected Haitian refugees at Guantánamo, Cuba, during the 1990s; and suspected enemy combatants from the War on Terror, also at Guantánamo, since 2001.

"The point for me in looking at the United States is that we believe ourselves to be the world's champion of civil rights and human rights, but nevertheless the U.S. still creates these populations of rightless people and makes sure they stay rightless," Paik said.

The U.S. has not been the only democratic nation to do this, or to justify it out of fears of enemies, disease or terror, with racism a central factor, Paik said. Shades of rightlessness can be seen today in the plight of many Syrian refugees, she said.

"I think we have this kind of misconception that we're all born with this thing called human rights, and that rightlessness is produced when we are deprived of those rights - but I don't think that's, in fact, the case," Paik said. It's less a matter of rights being taken away and more a matter of losing the political community that will guarantee them, she said.

"At that very moment that you need this thing called human rights, you find out you don't have them," Paik said. You find "you don't have the right to have rights," as one Guantánamo detainee described it in a postcard to his family. You're either isolated from the community that can ensure your rights, or that community lacks the will or power to ensure them.

Paik describes how each of the three camps was established and justified, citing legal documents. She then describes the nature of the detainees' treatment and their response - and for some, their later redress - by reading testimony from affidavits and depositions, trials and hearings, as well as personal letters, opinion pieces, poetry and video.

"Part of what defines rightlessness for me is not being listened to, not being heard, not mattering," Paik said, and that isolation comes through in the detainees' stories. But their stories also show determination to protest and be heard.

"All of these people continue to try, they continue to find new ways to get their message across, to try to break through that 'not-mattering,'" Paik said. They went on hunger strikes, refused to bathe, forced negotiations with camp administrators and exercised other means of protest.

Paik argues that the example of these camps demonstrates that our concept of universal human rights is flawed. "I think the way that we've conceived of it now is not in fact universal, that it's actually very particular, and it's left out whole swaths of people who we presumed should have been included, but in fact historically have not been," she said.

To change that will require political imagination, but that potential for change first requires understanding the present, Paik said. "I wanted to understand where we are right now really thoroughly so that we can get to the place where we can imagine something else."

Paik said she sees prison camps as "intense laboratories of rightlessness," but thinks we also need to see rights on a spectrum, with all of us aware that we can become rightless, even when it seems unimaginable.

"I'm trying to look at how the concept of rightlessness might help us see how our fates are connected with the fate of the Guantánamo detainee or the Haitian refugee. We need to see ourselves as sharing a kind of condition."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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