As the refugee crisis worsens and mass surveillance becomes commonplace, a panel of experts, academics, and leaders convened at New York University to discuss the status of European and American democracies. The conference, aptly named Towards Dystopian Democracies in Europe and the USA?, began with some ominous assertions from Jean-Philippe Dedieu, a research fellow at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CIRHUS). According to the UNHRC, the world is currently experiencing the highest displacement of peoples since World War II due to persecution and conflict. Masses of people are crossing national borders throughout Europe and countries like Turkey that border areas of conflict, forcing many countries to address the physical effects of this displacement and its roots.
Many countries have not empathetically and adequately responded to the crisis and some have even taken repressive measures against refugees, particularly those fleeing the Syrian conflict. Nils Muizneks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, delineated these repressive measures by reporting on the “campaign to immunize the population against empathy” through sensationalist advertisements and xenophobia. In Hungary, Islamaphobic fear mongering has been rampant, while in Slovakia, xenophobia has prompted the government to declare that they will only allow Christian refugees to cross their borders. Slovakian leaders have also suggested that Muslim refugees could not cohabitate with the existing Christian population due to allegedly ingrained cultural differences.
Sally Engle Merry, Silver Professor of Anthropology, described the slow responses to migration as a “fear of the Other” and the fear of losing sovereignty due to porous borders. The discourse surrounding the conflation of Muslims with terrorists or the naturalization of resolute differences between the Middle East and the Western world has led to a demonization and Othering of Muslim refugees. This vilification has led to a slow international response to the refugee crisis as well as a means for fostering discrimination within these states. The growing and dangerous wave of racism and xenophobia in the Western world isolates non-Westerners and, in generating an antagonistic relationship with new migrants, may also contribute to the rise of jihadis and radical Muslims, Merry continued.
Merry also analyzed international human rights standards and their application through the lens of state sovereignty and the desire to retain that sovereignty. Merry demonstrated that adherence to international standards often acknowledges an override of state autonomy, as the international community can police a state and have the ultimate authority. This has led certain governments to resist the implementation of these human rights standards in order to retain sovereignty. In addition, borders often represent the physical delineation of state power and control so regulating who is allowed over those borders is an essential part of the state’s influence.
International human rights standards have been especially neglected in the “War on Terror” as “black sites” and prisons like Guantanamo Bay have gone largely unregulated. Muizneks illustrated how twenty-five European countries have been entirely complicit in the human rights violations of Guantanamo Bay and questioned the efficacy of international oversight on torture when powerful countries like the United States are involved. While no clear solution to this problem was defined, Larry Siems, a writer, activist, and editor of the Guantanamo Diary, added to the discussion on US torture procedures by examining the global archipelago of intelligence prisons or “black sites” and their complete erasure of human rights. Human rights recognize the validity of individuals’ entitlements to certain privileges and while “black sites” are a place of torture, they also are a complete and literal erasure of the individual. By essentially kidnapping and often killing or imprisoning individuals indefinitely, these intelligence prisons are removing the person without leaving a trace, Siems pointed out. This is especially harrowing when accompanied with the realization that none of these people are afforded a fair trial and that many prisoners found not guilty or set for release in sites like Guantanamo Bay are still there years after being absolved of the allegations against them.
While human rights are being abused by the U.S. abroad, constitutional rights are being trampled domestically. Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), depicted the overreach of mass surveillance as a reversal of the foundations of American democracy. Herman argued that the core values of the American Constitution — transparency of government and the protected privacy of citizens – are reversed by the Patriot Act, a legislative assault that has naturalized the scrutiny of citizens’ private lives and the opacity of government agencies. The Patriot Act allows the government to learn everything from whom Americans are calling to what they research or read in a library, which can lead to fear and self-censorship, ultimately curtailing the right to free speech.
Even though American discourse on mass surveillance is often explored domestically, the rights and recourses of foreigners targeted by the U.S. government are extremely limited; Siems described how this is especially true in relation to the overreach of mass surveillance internationally. People living abroad do not have a means of enforced recourse if they find themselves being targeted by the U.S. government. This is a major gap in the average U.S. debate surrounding surveillance policy. As governments ignore sovereignty by transgressing international borders through surveillance, refugees fleeing their war-torn homes are not afforded the same mobility even if they are internationally recognized asylum seekers, Siems elucidated.
Although international standards often sort economic migrants and refugees into different exclusionary groups, Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, warned that this dichotomy does not acknowledge the nuances and validity of “distress migration.” As “post conflict and conflict bleed together” Bhabha claims that economic migrants cannot be deemed voluntary migrants and that invalidity is extremely harmful to the dialogue surrounding the refugee crisis. The growing indisctinction between peace and war has created an international environment where migration will be a defining issue of our age. However, Bhabha concluded, if the international community can “develop solidarity and investment in integration” that comes “from the bottom up,” there is hope for a world where human rights are fully recognized and inclusion becomes normative governmental practice.