Thursday, June 18, 2009

Abdelrazik: a defeat of sovereign power

Abousfian Abdelrazik is coming home.

After withering pressure from the media (kudos especially to the Globe and Mail's Paul Koring), MP Paul Dewar's persistence in the House of Commons, a growing cross-Canada grassroots movement, endless pro bono work by sympathetic lawyers, and a hard-hitting Federal Court decision a few weeks ago, the Harper regime has finally knuckled under.

As a citizen, I greet my fellow citizen's return with pleasure and relief. Besides the government, only a shrill minority in Canada were willing to condemn him in the absence of the slightest evidence that he had ever done anything wrong. Bloggers who called him a "terrorist," a "terror-supporter," even a "fascist," can be dismissed, of course, as the loonies they are, but for some time it appeared as though similar people were running our government without let or hindrance.

There is more to this than a narrative of official racism and Islamophobia. What we saw here was the joint appearance of the Sovereign and the exile, a trope explored at length in Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Abdelrazik was a classic example of an exile, deprived of rights and excluded from participation in society, reduced to what Agamben calls "bare life," or mere biological existence. And his exile, his being placed in a very real sense outside the law, was dependent upon the exercise of a sovereign power also outside the law, exercised by the Harper government.

Agamben is instructive reading. He argues that human rights are not, as he puts it in a short article called "We Refugees," "
eternal, metajuridical values that bind legislators to respect them," but depend upon civil rights as their ground. The removal of the latter extinguishes the former: it is no accident, he says in Homo Sacer, that Jews under the Third Reich were formally stripped of their citizenship before being consigned to the camps.

In this instance the separate power of the courts, depending for their very existence upon the law, refused to tolerate this exercise of absolute sovereignty. And the government, properly cowed by the courts and by public opinion, has, at long last, agreed to abide by the law of the land.

Welcome back, Abousfian Abdelrazik, and may the rest of your life be secure and happy. But a thought is causing me concern in the midst of my celebration: just how many more of you are out there, marooned in other countries, but as yet undiscovered by reporters and activists?

It's time, in any event, to turn our attention to other cases now: Omar Khadr, abandoned to torture and kangaroo justice in Guantanamo by a government arbitrarily refusing to act on his behalf; Bashir Makhtal, jailed in Ethiopia; Abdihakim Mohamed, stranded by Foreign Affairs in Kenya; and any other citizens exiled by the extralegal exercise of sovereign power. And let us press without delay for a public inquiry about the disgraceful treatment of Abdelrazik, and for federal legislation, as suggested by Amir Attaran and Gar Pardy in today's Globe and Mail, that unequivocally requires the Canadian state to protect its citizens--all citizens, no matter what their colour, creed or social status--when they venture beyond our borders.

More from Chris Selley, who's on a tear.

UPDATE: (June 19) The American connection. [H/t]

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