A. Naomi Paik, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II, 2016, 332pp., University of North Carolina Press, paperback $29.95 ISBN 978-1-4696-2631-4

The U.S. state often uses the declaration that “we are a nation of laws” as a pretext for the its increased reliance on rights suppression, expulsion, and carceral power (c.f. Trump, 2017). Whether in reference to the expansion of strategies for the apprehension and detention of migrants, the intensification of racialized urban policing tactics, or the torture of so-called unlawful enemy combatants, the specter of law paradoxically works to rationalize the removal of legal protections from targeted populations.

This imbrication of the language of lawful rights with the production of rightless populations—those deprived of “the right to have rights” (Arendt, 1976: 296)—highlights the salience and ongoing relevance of A. Naomi Paik’s excellent book Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II. In the book, Paik demonstrates that the production of these so-called outsides to rights are not new nor are they specific to any particular presidential administration. Rather, they are resilient and flexible strategies linked closely with the twentieth-century rise of rights discourses themselves.

The book begins with an exploration of a central contradiction: we “live in a time of expanding individual rights” (2) while at the same time enduring the development of a set of spaces and practices that render an ever-shifting population as rightless. In describing the role that spaces of detainment play in the performance of this paradox, the book offers readers a critical assessment not of a strict legal status, but of a confounding legal condition that sits at the center of liberal societies: “a condition that emerges when efforts to protect the rights of some depend on disregarding the rights of others” (4).

While carceral spaces are key to the production of rightlessness, and are indeed the key spatial fulcrum around which Paik structures the narrative, the book’s critique highlights the voices, testimonies, and art of those that the state has deemed so threatening as to necessitate expulsion from the framework of first-generation human rights. In doing so, Paik makes clear that these imagined outsides produced by the camp are anything but static spaces of exception, because this framing “cannot account for the ways in which these prisoners persistently assert their personhood and refute their representation as bare life” (232: footnote 4). Instead, those deemed rightless and detained in camps continually use the spaces and circumstances of their “subjugation to leverage trenchant critiques of state violence and the limits of rights” (4).

It is perhaps in recognition of the importance of these diverse struggles that Paik never advocates for the abandonment of rights discourse altogether, despite articulating the myriad ways that an imagined universal human rights regime is always insufficient. To do so would be to erase the paths by which the experiences and obligations of people with rights intertwine with, rely on, and can become enmeshed with, the fates of the rightless. As Paik reminds us, “the responsibility for forging these ethical and political connections lies not solely with the rightless witness, but also with the rightful recipient” (2016: 17).

Following the introduction, the book offers a comparative analysis of three case studies. Each of the three sections consists of a short introductory framing followed by two substantive research chapters that explore the myriad conditions and practices utilized in the production of rightless populations and the ways that rightless populations sought to construct a space for redress from the very state that denied them rights.

Part one focuses on the struggles by formerly detained ethnic Japanese and their ancestors as they sought recognition and redress after their internment during the Second World War. More specifically, the first chapter explores the work done by both the state and activists leading up to the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. Despite ultimately securing reparations for the detainees, Paik identifies a change in the focus of the redress movement from a critique of race-based mass imprisonment to the grievances of individual claimants seeking to receive compensation. This, she argues, foreclosed “the ability to expand redress to other aggrieved groups” (33) in ways that led to the denial of compensation to many former detainees. The Civil Liberties Act and the strictures of the commissions leading up to it also enabled the state to position racialized internment as an exception to the norm of democratic rule, “not as its logical outcome” (55). Far from completing the story of internment and confining it in the past, then, the next chapter argues that the Civil Liberties Act marks a shift, not a cessation, which “ultimately facilitated, rather than challenged, the continuance of racist governance under the spectacle of color-blind justice” (68). Here, Paik draws attention to the inadequacies of redress, and through analyses and close readings of poetry, photography, and film made by the internees and their ancestors, demonstrates that rightlessness is an ongoing and embodied practice that continues to refract across generations into the present.

Nowhere is this ability of the past to be iteratively redefined and rearticulated more apparent than in parts two and three of the book. Part two details the detention of HIV-positive Haitian refugees in the late 1980s and early 90s, while part three focuses on the indefinite detention of enemy combatants in the so-called War on Terror a decade later. Here, although the geographic location remains the same—the Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—the strategies that the state uses to free itself from its required rights provision in order to implement the racial logics of rightlessness are quite distinct.

As Paik demonstrates in the third chapter, for the U.S. state, the quarantine of Haitian bodies transformed the island camp into a threshold space that was both inside and outside of their legal jurisdiction, a place for the “assertion of national sovereignty designed to protect the United States from an influx of refugees infected with a feared disease” (112). For the refugees, however, Guantánamo was space “between living and dying—a liminal space that did not kill but did not encourage life” (113). Chapter four details the testimonies by which refugees challenged the argument that the camp was living up to the state’s billing as a humanitarian space, noting the specific forms of violence and disregard directed at their bodies by guards and administrators. Through their interviews and testimony, refugees worked to continually draw attention to the political persecution that led them to flee, and staunchly “refused to have their conditions reduced to the needs of their bodies” (124).

Paik continues this exploration in part three of Rightlessness, which focuses on the indefinite detainment of enemy combatants on Guantánamo a decade later. While readers may perhaps be more familiar with this case study, its connection to the longer historical narrative of the book clearly challenges the idea that the rightlessness of the enemy combatant is somehow an exception to the normal rule of law. In this regard, the fifth chapter echoes and extends Derek Gregory’s observation that the War on Terror is not a war on law, but through the continuous and dynamic use of law (Gregory, 2009). Here, Paik details the work that went into constructing the enemy combatant as a status category, and the testimonies made by those with this status who were subsequently detained. The final research chapter highlights the paradoxes and flexibilities of rightlessness, by noting the way that camp administrators responded when detainees went on hunger strike to protest their own rightlessness. Deploying arguments about humanitarian care, the state used forced immobilization and nasogastric tubes to administer nutrition through a process that many medical ethicists have decried as cruel and degrading punishment (Crosby et al., 2007). Rather than using the language of humanitarian care to deny the existence of state violence, as it had in Haiti, Paik draws attention to the ways that the violence of captivity becomes rendered as a form of “stewardship and care” (201) in the camp. The state utilization of this paradoxical collusion between violence and care remained a violent affront to the wishes of detainees like Shaker Aamer, who, in the face of indefinite detainment, stated his desire to “die quietly, by myself…This is my legal right” (203).

For specialists exploring the complex legal and political geographies of liberalism, human rights, and the carceral state, the three case studies presented in Rightlessness might seem like well-trodden terrain. Scholars of space and power have long-explored the unstable relationships between the state and the camps like those of World War II and the War on Terror. Hannah Arendt, for instance, famously noted that those who survived a rightless life in the camps of the Second World War had already recognized that “the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Arendt, 1976: 300). More recently, work by researchers like Ilana Feldman and Miriam Ticktin (2010), Didier Fassin (2011), and Eyal Weizman (2012) has sought to tease out the intersections of rights, national security, and the dynamic logics of humanitarian care. However, by putting the voices and testimonies of rightless populations into conversation with the very state security practices they struggle against, Rightlessness offers a creative and important new reading of the archives of empire that is both empirically grounded and theoretically inventive. Ultimately it is the often-silenced voices of the rightless themselves who articulate the chief contributions of this book by outlining the ways in which their situations produce a “different way of knowing” that cannot “be captured by appealing to facts alone and cannot be documented any other way (227-28).

What can we learn from taking this different way of knowing seriously? First, in drawing attention to the ways that an ever-evolving set of strategies employed by the state interacts with an equally dynamic suite of assertions and demands made by the rightless, readers encounter what Paik occasionally calls “their truths.” These truths often sit in tension with state narratives and truth claims, and frequently disappear by way of the limits of legal discourse or behind the walls of the prison camps themselves. However, we should not, the book argues, understand rightlessness or rights as discrete legal statuses, but rather as mutually constitutive subject positions that have lived implications long after a person leaves the camps. This expands the spatial and temporal fields for political contestation about rights beyond the purview of law, ethics, or even national security. As such, these truths and their provocations offer readers a valuable addition to the existing scholarship.

Second, while the book centers on camps, spaces often imagined as the physical manifestation of racialized logics of bodily removal, in highlighting “their truths,” Rightlessness also makes evident that rightless populations are not simply people captured and discarded into monolithic camps to live out their days as bare life in a stagnant, silent state of exception. This desire to render camps as spatially, temporally, and politically diverse is one of the key geographic contributions of the text, and goes a long way towards living up to Paik’s claim, citing Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that the “prison is not a building ‘over there’ but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere” (7). Further, the articulation of these truths and their ghostly afterlives prove vital to Paik’s conclusions about rightlessness, which, rather than sitting at the margins of liberal power, “foretell[s] what may lie ahead for all of us” (229). If rightlessness foreshadows our collective future, then struggling against it is not a peripheral pursuit, but an act of “solidarity organized around a shared vision of a future that we fight for together” (229).

Finally, the choice of case studies here is instructive, but it also draws attention to some of the book’s inevitable limitations. While no doubt beyond the scope of the project, practices of immigrant detention in the U.S. and its military detainment practices overseas receive little attention in Rightlessness save a few paragraphs in the conclusion. While there Paik does describe the expansion of practices of rightlessness into new spaces and towards other racialized populations, given the increasing centrality of migrant detention to the long-term management of the U.S. state, the lack of a sustained engagement with migrant truths and testimonies is noticeable. If nothing else, these sites and subjects offer a substantial terrain for future work. Similarly, the production of rightlessness is not only about reimagining the management of the territorial insides of the U.S. (or, in the case of Guantánamo, its administrative jurisdiction), as the extra-territorial practices of detainment deployed by the state are also deeply involved in making and remaking spaces and polities beyond its borders. Paik does allude to facilities like CIA black sites and the detention facility at Bagram in Afghanistan. However, as detainment practices like the recently-reported ‘floating Guantánamos’ (Wessler, 2017) of the War on Drugs demonstrate, a more extensive engagement with this dynamic and transnational suite of practices, as well as an articulation of the myriad truths of those for whom the right to have rights has been perhaps indefinitely curtailed, would enrich and extend the discussions framed in the book.

Again, these comments point towards issues that are situated well beyond the scope of this outstanding book. Nonetheless, they hopefully emphasize the significance of the book’s intervention and highlight the pervasiveness of rightlessness and the shifting strategies unfolding to meet, challenge, and redress it. At times in Paik’s text, the contours of rightlessness manifest as the racialized production of statelessness. At others, they emerge through specific tactics of epidemiological management. At still others, they trace along the margins of a logic of humanitarian care. In reading the book, it becomes clear that rather than legal absolutes, there is a dynamic continuum by which and through which the privileges of those who have rights are both constituted by and constitutive of the deprivations of the rightless.



Arendt H (1976) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Crosby SS, Apovian C, and Grondin M (2007) Hunger strikes, force-feeding, and physicians’ responsibilities. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 298(5): 563–566.

Fassin D (2011) Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present 1st edition. University of California Press.

Feldman I and Ticktin M (eds) (2010) In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Durham NC: Duke University Press Books.

Gregory D (2009) Vanishing Points: Law, Violence, and Exception in the Global War Prison. in: Boehmeressor E and Lecturer SMS (eds) Terror and the Postcolonial. Wiley-Blackwell, pp 55–98.

Trump DJ (2017) Statement from President Donald J. Trump.

Weizman E (2012) The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso Books.

Wessler SF (2017) The Coast Guard’s ‘Floating Guantánamos.The New York Times, November 20.

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