Sunday, June 30, 2019
In the New York Review of Books, Andrea Pitzer provides a "chilling exploration of the history of mass detention without trial, particularly before the Holocaust" (NYT culture reporter Michael Cooper). The historical perspective is timely perspective on the recent debate (additional smart commentary here and here) over whether to call the US border detention facilities "concentration camps."
At the heart of such policy is a question: What does a country owe desperate people whom it does not consider to be its citizens? The twentieth century posed this question to the world just as the shadow of global conflict threatened for the second time in less than three decades. The dominant response was silence, and the doctrine of absolute national sovereignty meant that what a state did to people under its control, within its borders, was nobody else’s business.
After the harrowing toll of the Holocaust with the murder of millions, the world revisited its answer, deciding that perhaps something was owed to those in mortal danger. From the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians in 1949 to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the international community established humanitarian obligations toward the most vulnerable that apply, at least in theory, to all nations.
The twenty-first century is unraveling that response. Countries are rejecting existing obligations and meeting asylum seekers with walls and fences, from detainees fleeing persecution who were sent by Australia to third-party detention of Manus and Nauru to blocking Syrian refugees from entering Hungary. While some nations, such as Germany, wrestle with how to —more and more have become resistant to letting them in at all. The latest location of this unwinding is along the southern border of the United States.