Decolonising statelessness: unpacking colonial legacies and deconstructing forms of epistemic violence

by Malak Benslama

January 2021

In this blog entry, Malak Benslama-Dabdoub, PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London (School of Law), calls for decolonising the academic field of statelessness.  She explores the concept of decoloniality as both a theory and methodology, and explains how this concept can serve as a critical tool in understanding and analysing statelessness.

Decolonising statelessness: unpacking colonial legacies and deconstructing forms of epistemic violence

European colonialism has played a huge role in creating stateless communities, whether through the forced displacement of large populations, the creation of artificial borders, or the introduction of gender-based discrimination in national laws of former colonies. The legal concept of nationality (and therefore lack of nationality) is a product of the imperial notion of nation-States theorised by European scholars. Africa had no borders, passports, nor nationality before European colonial powers came and divided the continent among themselves in the Berlin Conference. Likewise, victorious European colonial powers dislocated the Ottoman Empire (which covered large parts of the Northern Africa and Western Asia) by creating artificial nation-States in the secret Sykes-Picot agreements. Despite the significant historical responsibility of colonialism in creating stateless populations, a massive gap persists in the application of de-colonial scholarship to statelessness studies. This blog calls for the value of decoloniality as a tool to understand and critically analyse statelessness.

Decoloniality as both a theory and a methodology

Decoloniality in academia can be defined as both a theory and a methodology that aims at deconstructing colonial discourse and the (re)production of epistemic violence. It is first and foremost a theory that builds upon the work of anti-colonial and post-colonial scholars such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Gayatri C. Spivak. This theoretical framework criticises colonial discourse that systematically represents colonising countries as superior and colonised people as inferior.

Césaire and Fanon are both anti-colonial scholars from the late 20th century who were calling and advocating for the decolonisation of territories occupied by European colonial powers. In their work, both writers deconstruct the idea that colonialism brought "civilisation" to "primitive peoples".

Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, considered as the founder of post-colonial studies, exposed how the production of knowledge by European scholars misrepresented Eastern cultures in order to dominate them. Through a critical analysis of the relationship between power and knowledge, Said demonstrates how European writers have created an artificial dichotomy of West versus East, civilised versus uncivilised, modern versus backward, rational versus chaotic. This discourse is part of what paved the way for the European colonisation of around 85 % of the globe.

Spivak theorised the useful concept of "epistemic violence", which she defined as violence inflicted through discourse. Through this notion, she explains how the representation of the "subaltern" as inferior and uncivilised is a form of epistemic violence. She furthermore criticises privileged groups (including academics) who silence less privileged groups by speaking in their names. She demonstrates how oppressed people are not allowed to speak for themselves and are robbed of their voices by the elite.

But decoloniality should also be understood as a methodology, and not just an abstract theory. 'Decolonising' as a method means deconstructing colonial discourse by unpacking concepts, questioning taken-for-granted knowledge, and interrogating notions framed around supposed 'universality'. This methodology pushes us to question and move beyond Western-born theories.

Decolonising Statelessness

Early scholarship on statelessness was primarily based on the premise that statelessness was a "legal anomaly", one that could be simply fixed through legislation. This premise is reflected in the UN Statelessness Conventions (both the 1954 Convention and the 1961 Convention) which assume altogether that statelessness is either a result of arbitrary deprivation of nationality, or conflict of nationality laws. Nothing in the Conventions mentions colonial legacies or the struggle for self-determination of indigenous populations who have been robbed of their right to independence by European colonialism. Therefore, a re-interpretation of the statelessness conventions, through a de-colonial lens, appears essential in order to overcome colonial legacies and challenge epistemic violence.

In applying the work of Edward Said, one could ask, is there a presupposition that the reason Africa and Asia host large stateless communities is because they are lawless – as opposed to Europe, a law-abiding and ordered space. Indeed, UNHCR's international #Ibelong campaign to end statelessness by 2024 assumes that one of the main solutions to "eradicate statelessness" is to increase State ratifications of the UN Statelessness Conventions – one might say, to restore law and order. Applying a de-colonial theory/methodology exposes how international treaties and campaigns are a reflection of cultural hegemony and power imbalances. The dominant discourse on statelessness remains dominated by Western-centric understanding of citizenship and law.

A compelling case for the value of using decolonial approaches in statelessness is that of Palestine. UNHCR decided to exclude Palestinians from its statistics and global campaign to eradicate statelessness, despite the fact that Palestinians represent the largest de jure stateless group in the world. UN Secretary-General justified this exclusion on the basis that Palestinians "require a political solution". Palestinians indeed require a political solution, but so do other stateless communities. The denial or absence of citizenship is, in such cases, intrinsically political and directly related to colonialism, (and historical). Palestinians are stateless because they were stripped of their right to an independent State by European colonialism (just like the Sahrawis and the Kurds – ‘non-State nations’ communities). Palestinian statelessness has still not been resolved because of Israeli occupation and the failure to stop the establishment of Israeli colonial settlements. The example of Palestine undermines UNHCR's belief that increasing the number of State ratifications to the Statelessness Conventions can eradicate statelessness. Furthermore, the Palestinian example demonstrates how the dominant framework can reproduce forms of epistemic violence. By excluding Palestinians from its #Ibelong campaign, UNHCR is reproducing the same discourses of "non-belonging" and exclusion that the organisation claims to fight against. It reproduces the colonial discourse that Palestinians do not "belong".

By applying de-colonial theory and methodology to our analysis of statelessness, we can work toward overcoming colonial discourse, challenge forms of epistemic violence, and move beyond Western-centric knowledge that is presented as the "norm" or "the universal truth".

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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