James Bridle on “The Right to Have Rights”
On the desk in front of me, I’ve got a certified copy of Mohamed Sakr’s birth certificate. Born at Newham Maternity Hospital, Forest Gate, East London, on the sixth of February, 1985, Mohamed Sakr’s birth was registered on the 18th of the same month, and the document gives his parents’ names: Gamal and Eman. Forest Gate is the other side of the city, 10 miles and a number of other measures away from where I was born and grew up in Southwest London. But it’s still my city, my country.
Gamal and Eman Sakr moved to the UK from Egypt 35 years ago and brought up Mohamed and his siblings as British citizens. All of the children possessed British passports. But according to another piece of paper here in front of me, while Mohamed was out of the country in September 2010, the government sent him a letter stating that he was no longer a British citizen: the Secretary of State had “deprived” him.
Sakr is believed to be the first British-born person to be stripped of his or her nationality in modern times. Seventeen months after his citizenship was removed, on February 2012, former British citizen Mohamed Sakr was killed in a US drone strike in Somalia.
If there was a particular time when I realized I possessed a first-class passport, it was probably when, a decade ago, a good friend had to move to another country to be with the person they loved. Their partner was denied entry to the UK. Just a “No: you can’t come in.” It seems terribly naive in retrospect, but the idea that you couldn’t go wherever you wanted because you didn’t have the right qualifications or enough (a lot of) money really shocked me. That’s never happened to me, and with the exception of a few places I probably don’t want to go anyway, it’s unlikely to occur because I have a first-class passport.
I have a first-class passport because I happen to have been born in the United Kingdom, a country that has dominated much of the rest of the world physically, financially, and politically for the past few centuries. While our hard power might be slipping, we’re sticking close enough to the United States to keep fighting (mostly in the same places we abandoned or were kicked out of after long and exploitative imperial adventures over the course of the 20th century), and the “global city” status of London (an honorific based mostly on currency flows) means that a British passport isn’t about to put you at a disadvantage in many places any time soon.
A few years ago I went to Cuba, accompanying my partner who was writing a travel guide. Again, oh so naively, I was horrified by what I found. While my friends who’d visited talked about the music, the culture, the people, the sun, I encountered a place that, at heart, felt like nothing so much as a prison camp. The lucky live well but many others do not, and nobody has a choice because most people can’t leave. I realized that in numerous circumstances, freedom of movement trumps all other freedoms: it may be bad where you are, but as a bare minimum, you could get somewhere else. But this isn’t always possible either. In Cuba, even talking about going abroad without permission can get you six months in jail.
British citizenship is a complex thing. “Nationality”—which is not the same as citizenship—was first codified by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, which specified the ways in which aliens could be naturalized and, if they did anything the State disapproved of, de-naturalized. The British Nationality Act of 1948 was the first to introduce the concept of “citizenship” of the Commonwealth and United Kingdom. Shamefully, this Act was amended in the 1960s to differentiate UK-born or descended British nationals from those outside the British Isles—and prevent the latter from entering the mainland. This legislation made a huge number of nominal British nationals into de facto and de jure “immigrants” within the UK, thus beginning the long-term British style of defining citizenship exclusively rather than inclusively.
If you’re born in the United States, no matter where your parents are from or what nationality they possess, you have the right to US citizenship. This principle is called jus soli, literally the “right of the soil,” and it’s actually quite rare in the world: only the Americas implement it, mostly, without restrictions. In the rest of the world, the principle of jus sanguinis, the “right of blood,” holds sway. What matters is where your parents are from and what rights they hold.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, exposed to the flood of stateless people unleashed by that conflict, Hannah Arendt memorably identified the possession of a defined citizenship as “the right to have rights.” As the state is the ultimate arbiter of all rights, your recognition by any state is the first condition of the protection of your rights. In law, under jus sanguinis, you are who you are because of whom your parents are, and “who you are” determines whether you have any rights at all.
According to British law, the Secretary of State may deprive a British citizen of their citizenship “if such deprivation would not render a person stateless,” and they believe that deprivation would be “conducive to the public good.” While he had never held an Egyptian passport, Mohamed Sakr was believed to be technically eligible for one and so would not be lawfully considered stateless—by the British government, anyway. (It’s one of the odd effects of citizenship law that it starts to perform readings of, and make judgments about, the laws of other countries.) His family contests this, and it appears that, whatever the possible legal recourse, he was made effectively stateless.
There has been widespread and justified concern in the US over the killings of Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, US citizens killed by drone strikes in Yemen. But comparatively little has been written about Mohamed Sakr, save for the interventions of a few dedicated journalists—because of the magic paper of citizenship, because the British government declared him, from the position of the state, a non-citizen. Words and law coalesced—and, at the critical moment, de-coalesced—around the person of Mohamed Sakr and allowed him to be killed. They removed the protection of the state, this badge of membership, from which all rights flow. The right to self-determination. The right to liberty. The right to due process of law. The right to life.
Let’s be honest: I doubt Mohamed and I would have got on. He is accused by the British state of “terrorism-related activities” (although no evidence of this has been produced in court, or anywhere else). His holiday destinations of choice were Somalia and Saudi Arabia. But he was born in my city, in my country, and he deserves the rights and protections afforded to any Londoner, any British citizen. (I happen to think everyone deserves those rights, for the record, but the locality really stings. It’s not an excuse not to extend them more broadly though.)
Citizenship is the right to have rights, and our attitude to citizenship, as states and individuals, defines and produces our attitude to other human beings. As we accelerate into the 21st century and the third millennium, citizenship, or the lack thereof, is going to be one of the defining issues. Look at the increasing ethnic and religious fractures of post-Imperial and post-Soviet nation-states, the coming age of sea-level rises and inevitable climate-change refugee crises, the rise of pan-global financial elites, and the increasing individual identification not with the nation-state but with digital space and corporate cloud-services. The cloud renders geography irrelevant—until you realize that everything that matters, everything that means you don’t die, is based not only on which passport you possess, but also on a complex web of definitions of what constitutes that passport. In the new battles over citizenship, those definitions are constantly under attack.
This process is what inspired a recent work, Homo Sacer, exhibited as part of an exhibition called Science Fiction: New Death at FACT in Liverpool. Homo Sacer is a service hologram of the kind increasingly encountered in airports, railways stations, and even greeting you on entering a shop. For me, these holograms are emblematic both of the automation of labor (and particularly affective labor, the additional, unpaid work of looking like you’re enjoying your job), and of the thin but shiny technological veneer applied to politics to give it the appearance of a futuristic, strangely inevitable neutrality. Unlike its retail and transport cousins, the avatar of Homo Sacer recounts a series of phrases taken from British and international law, UN charters, agreements and treaties, as well as written and spoken statements by the British Government, which together amount to a transcript or workflow of how an individual may be moved from a position of security (naturalized, passport-possessing), to one of total insecurity, and eventually death.
I’ve been thinking about these laws much like a software engineer thinks about a changelog. Law is not code, it’s a lot more mutable and subjective than that, but when you approach these things with the eyes of a programmer, you see trends and intentions encoded in the language. What was written into the British Nationality Act of 1981 is overwritten by the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act of 2006, and is this year subject to a set of edits by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who wants to do away with the statelessness clause, giving her and her successors the ability to render anybody stateless at will. (Of the 37 people known to have been deprived of their citizenship under the UK’s present government, two have been killed in drone strikes and another, Mahdi Hashi, another Londoner, was secretly rendered to New York, where he is now held in solitary confinement.)
The parallel of law and software, once made in the changelog, holds true in other ways. Law is the framework that produces the world we live in. Invisibly, it surrounds and shapes our daily lives. Like software, laws quickly become opaque once they are enacted, but they don’t stop running. There are brief periods when we are able to intervene, to prevent future injustice, and to call not only for the kind of law we would like to see made but also the kind of world we would like to live in, which will be inevitably produced by those laws. Making the case for terrorism suspects, for asylum seekers, for stateless refugees, is one of the hardest cases to make. But in these situations we see tested the most extreme cases of our law and our humanity.