1. This module also outlines the various and complicated international conventions and treaties on human rights that affect refugees and asylum seekers.

2. Wessel’s (2015) analysis of the difference between Arendt’s stateless person excluded from her home and today’s refugee is provocative. On at least one point, however, we disagree. Wessel claims that Arendt describes a stateless person as someone whose citizenship is revoked and then is evicted from her home country. She bases much of her argument on the fact that today’s refugees leave their homes voluntarily. The refugees Arendt describes in her most personal accounts also leave their homes “voluntarily” in the sense that, like today’s refugees, they are escaping violence and murder. In fact, Arendt makes a point of problematizing this notion of “voluntary” and describing the prejudice of some in host countries who conclude that leaving voluntarily means giving up rights (see Arendt [1943] 1994). For another discussion of the difference between Arendt’s refugee and today’s refugee, see Rancière (2004).

3. For an insightful discussion of the figure of the refugee as terrorist, see Nail (2016).

4. Tazzioli (2015) uses the phrase rescue politics and gives an insightful and engaged critique in “The Politics of Counting and the Scene of Rescue.” For an implicit defense of rescue politics, see Wessel (2015). See also Tazzioli (2016).

5. See Tazzioli (2015) for a brilliant overview of rescue politics.

6. For insightful contributions to debates over the political status of refugees, see the work of David Owen (2014; 2016a; 2016b; 2016c). Although I am in agreement with much of Owen’s analysis, using a deconstructive methodology, I take a very different approach. Owen does an excellent job defending a radical version of human rights and the need for political solutions to the so-called refugee crisis.

“Rescue Politics”

1. The UNHCR reports that in the first eight months of 2015, more than three hundred thousand refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum in Europe. More than twenty-five hundred died in those months, and in 2014, thirty-five hundred died. See Fleming (2015). Also see Tazzioli (2015) for a discussion of the unaccounted-for dead.

2. See Devon (2015). Thanks to Jennifer Newman for bringing this to my attention.

3. UNHCR (2015b, 47) reports that “some [women] felt detention exacerbated traumas suffered at home and in flight. As Alexa from El Salvador put it: ‘They should help facilitate the asylum process so that one doesn’t suffer in detention centers. They shouldn’t be causing more harm.’ One Mexican woman described experiencing severe anxiety each time the officers closed and locked the doors to her cell. She said, ‘It is better to be free and to die by a bullet than to suffer and die slowly in a cage.’ . . . Women interviewed for this report emphasized that the experience of being detained remains with them far beyond release. ‘The things I lived through in detention have marked me for life,’ said a Salvadoran woman who recently was granted asylum. ‘Please remember that we are human beings. I didn’t want to come here, but for me it was a question of life and death.’”

4. For a more sustained treatment of women refugees, see Oliver (forthcoming). See also Baillot, Cowan, and Munro (2009) and Ferris (2007).

Impossible Testimony

1. I discuss sexual assault and rape in the United States and U.S. rape culture in Oliver (2016b).

2. In her short overview and literature review, Liz Miller (2011) discusses various studies that indicate that sexual violence is a fact of life for refugee women and that reporting rates are very low. In addition, when rapes are reported, authorities rarely find or prosecute the perpetrators: “the most difficult element of ‘rape culture’ for advocates to overcome within refugee populations is the cultural perception of rape. First of all, sexual violence is a difficult and painful topic for victims to discuss because sex is a taboo topic, and to report rape feels like an invasion of privacy. Moreover, in many communities the act is seen as an embarrassment to the community and the victim’s family” (78; see also Baillot, Cowan, and Munro 2013).

3. For a sustained discussion of the paradox of testifying to your own trauma and oppression, see Oliver (2001).

4. Meyers (2016) calls for an alternative approach to victims’ testimonies that does not reduce them to pathetic or heroic victims but rather considers human rights abuses within a political framework in which criteria are set out for what counts as an abuse. Her analysis powerfully demonstrates that victim testimonies can make a difference and that human rights discourse can be effective in transforming both policies and realities.

Humanitarian Warfare and Humanitarian Aid

1. For an extended analysis of walls, fences, and checkpoints as evidence of the failure of state sovereignty, see Brown (2014). For a discussion of “the wall” between Palestine and Israel, see Weizman (2007).

2. For documentation of the close relationship between the military and humanitarian aid, see Neuman and Weissman (2016), Weiss (2013), Barnett (2013), and Weizman (2011).

3. Ezster Timár (2016) has recently argued, “What is crucial for Derrida here is the apparent contradiction that for saving a life we have to disarm the apparatus whose function is to save the same life by protecting it from external threat. In other words, autoimmunity here, is NOT identified in the way medical science discusses autoimmunity, that is, as a process in which an overly active immune system attacks the cells belonging to the organism it protects as its own, but rather as its very opposite . . . immunology justifies this reversibility” (see also Timár 2015; Timár 2014).

4. Derrida (2005, 46) claims, “Democracy is the only system, the only constitutional paradigm, in which, in principle, one has or assumes the right to criticize everything publicly, including the idea of democracy, its concept, its history, and its name. Including the idea of the constitutional paradigm and the absolute authority of law. It is thus the only paradigm that is universalizable, whence its chance and its fragility.” He also says, “Democracy has always wanted by turns and at the same time two incompatible things: it has wanted, on the one hand, to welcome only men, and on the condition that they be citizens, brothers, and compeers [semblables], excluding all the others, in particular bad citizens, rogues, noncitizens, and all sorts of unlike and unrecognizable others, and, on the other hand, at the same time or by turns, it has wanted to open itself up, to offer hospitality, to all those excluded” (34; cf. 63).

The Christian Roots of State Sovereignty

1. It is noteworthy that in several places in his discussion of hospitality, Derrida suggests that women are sacrificed for the sake of hospitality between men. For example, for better or worse, he ends one lecture with a reference to the biblical story of Lot offering his virgin daughter in exchange for peace among the tribes of Israel. Derrida suggests that our contemporary notion of hospitality is heir to this tradition that sacrifices women, particularly offering them up for rape (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000, 153–55). This suggestion might seem extreme, except for the media and government’s reluctance to address reportedly hundreds of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve 2016 by groups of migrant men against German women for fear of appearing racist or antirefugee. Of course, it is controversial whether gangs of Arab men attacked women, as initially reported in mainstream and right-wing media. For example, see Shams (2016). For the right-wing media, see the Local (2016).

2. For a discussion of the fantasy of instant death, see Oliver (2013; 2016a).

3. For a discussion of drone warfare in terms of Derrida’s Death Penalty seminars, see Wills (2014).

A Brief History of Humanitarianism

1. As in B. Hobhouse’s reply to Rev. Randolph Let in 1792, “some Humanitarians would tell you that the doctrine of the atonement is perfectly compatible with the simple humanity of Christ” (OED Online).

Contemporary Humanitarian Space

1. For in-depth analysis of the business of humanitarian aid, see Weiss (2013), who discusses the $18 billion business as of 2011, the way aid agencies train operatives to pose with children for publicity and “disaster pornography” generally, the collaboration between security forces (both government and private) to protect aid workers, and the connection between new humanitarian warfare and humanitarian aid. Overall, he concludes that humanitarian aid has become big business, with agencies competing for markets, planning advertising campaigns, and taking in big bucks in what Naomi Klein (2007) calls “disaster capitalism.”

Human Rights Discourse as Alibi for Humanitarian War

1. On refugee rights in particular, see Boehm (2015). It is important to note that neither Arendt nor Agamben considers the gender of refugees when criticizing human rights discourse. And the figure of the refugee that Agamben imagines as the starting point for a new political philosophy is either without gender or assumed to be male. For women refugees, formal equality without attention to gender differences, whether in detention centers or camps, leads to increased gender-based violence, along with lack of medical care and hygiene needs specific to women, which affects women’s access to other resources as well (e.g., education, work). In their study of the relation of gender to humanitarian aid, Hilde van Dijkhorst and Suzette Vonhof (2005, 34) found that “a lack of gender awareness in humanitarian aid can lead to many unwanted, even unsafe, situations for women. There is clear evidence that for instance poor thought-out infrastructure of refugee camps can lead to an increased risk of gender-based violence.” Feminist theorist Wendy Brown discusses the paradox of women’s rights as either basing rights on characteristics specific to feminine or female identity, and thereby reinforcing a subordinated or abjected identity, on one hand, or basing rights on universal characteristics associated with masculine and male identity and thereby continuing to devalue femininity and female identity, on the other. She contends, “The paradox, then, is that rights that entail some specification of our suffering, injury, or inequality lock us into the identity defined by our subordination, and rights that eschew this specificity not only sustain the invisibility of our subordination but potentially even enhance it” (Halley and Brown 2002, 423). For a discussion of human rights discourse in relation to refugee women, see Oliver (forthcoming).

2. For an insightful discussion of the value of human rights discourse, see Meyers (2016).

3. For a discussion of how women’s rights in particular have been used to justify war, see Oliver (2007).

4. Recently, following Arendt, David Owen (2016a) has argued that refugees should not be a matter of humanitarian aid but a political responsibility in an international community where states have differing degrees of political responsibility to refugees. Also see Owen (2016c), where he argues that justice requires more than fairness; in particular, he argues that justice may require taking more than one’s fair share of refugees on the part of nation-states.

5. For a sustained analysis of the use of women’s rights to justify war, see Oliver (2007).

Rethinking the “Worst”

1. For his part, Derrida (2005) gives the example of suspended elections in Algeria when it was clear that the nondemocratic candidates would win: “They decided in a sovereign fashion to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good, so as to take care of it, so as to immunize it against a much worse and very likely assault” (19).

2. For a discussion of what Derrida means by the end of “the world,” see Oliver (2015) and Naas (2014).

A New Form of Genocide

1. While some may find my definition of genocide too broad, even in its inception, genocide referred to much more than mass murder. Here are some examples of attempts to define genocide that take us beyond mass murder: “genocide is the extent of destruction of a social collectivity by whatever agents, with whatever intentions, by purposive actions which fall outside the recognized conventions of legitimate warfare” (Thompson and Quets 1987, 17); “genocide is the deliberate, organized destruction, in whole or in large part, of racial or ethnic groups by a government or its agents. It can involve not only mass murder, but also forced deportation (ethnic cleansing), systematic rape, and economic and biological subjugation” (Shaw 2015, 34; cf. Dobkowski and Wallimann 1989); “genocide is any act that puts the very existence of a group in jeopardy” (Midlarsky 2005; see also Levene 2005).


1. For example, against Kant’s limited hospitality, Derrida (2000, 14) argues, “At bottom, before even beginning, we could end our reflections here in the formalization of a law of hospitality which violently imposes a contradiction on the very concept of hospitality in fixing a limit to it, in determining it: hospitality is certainly, necessarily, a right, a duty, an obligation, the greeting of the foreign other [l’autre étranger] as a friend but on the condition that the host, the Wirt, the one who receives, lodges or gives asylum remains the patron, the master of the household, on the condition that he maintains his own authority in his own home, that he looks after himself and sees to and considers all that concerns him [qu’il se garde et garde et regarde ce qui le regarde] and thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of the household, oikonomia, the law of his household, the law of a place (house, hotel, hospital, hospice, family, city, nation, language, etc.), the law of identity which de-limits the very place of proffered hospitality and maintains authority over it, maintains the truth of authority, remains the place of this maintaining, which is to say, of truth, thus limiting the gift proffered and making of this limitation, namely, the being-oneself in one’s own home, the condition of the gift and of hospitality.”

2. For a sustained discussion of Kant’s notion of hospitality and Derrida’s criticisms of it, see Oliver (2015).

3. For example, he says, “The law of absolute hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right, with law or justice as rights. Just hospitality breaks with hospitality by right; not that it condemns or is opposed to it, and it can on the contrary set and maintain it in a perpetual progressive movement; but it is as strangely heterogeneous to it as justice is heterogeneous to the law to which it is yet so close, from which in truth it is indissociable” (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000, 25, 27).

4. For example, Derrida says, “We will always be threatened by this dilemma between, on the one hand, unconditional hospitality that dispenses with law, duty, or even politics, and, on the other, hospitality circumscribed by law and duty. One of them can always corrupt the other, and this capacity for perversion remains irreducible. It must remain so” (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000, 135). Consider also this passage: “It is a question of knowing how to transform and improve the law, and of knowing if this improvement is possible within an historical space which takes place between the Law of an unconditional hospitality, ordered a priori to every other, to all newcomers, whoever they may be, and the conditional laws of a right to hospitality, without which The unconditional Law of hospitality would be in danger of remaining a pious and irresponsible desire, without form and without potency, and of even being perverted at any moment” (Derrida 2001, 22–23).

5. For example, Derrida (2000, 8) argues, “Hospitality is owed to the other as stranger. But if one determines the other as stranger, one is already introducing the circles of conditionality that are family, nation, state, and citizenship. . . . It is doubtless necessary to know all that can be known of hospitality, and there is much to know; it is certainly necessary to bring this knowledge to the highest and fullest consciousness possible; but it is also necessary to know that hospitality gives itself, and gives itself to thought beyond knowledge.” Consider also this passage: “The foreigner is first of all foreign to the legal language in which the duty of hospitality is formulated, the right to asylum, its limits, norms, policing, etc. He has to ask for hospitality in a language which by definition is not his own, the one imposed on him by the master of the house, the host, the king, the lord, the authorities, the nation, the State, the father, etc. This personage imposes on him translation into their own language, and that’s the first act of violence” (Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000, 15).

6. For a discussion of earth ethics in relation to the home, see Oliver (2015).