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3 June 2009

On extraterritoriality

Eyal Weizman

Conference lectured at the symposium "Archipelago of exception. Sovereignties of extraterritoriality" 10-11 November

The1 symposium Archipelago of Exception-Sovereignties of Extraterritoriality was conceived with the aim of offering a new and suggestive cartographic representation of today's world. This is a departure from the traditional view of a world that consists of a series of more or less homogenous nation states separated by clear borders in a continuous spatial flow. The metaphor of the archipelago is used here to describe a multiplicity of discrete extraterritorial zones, the spatial expression of a series of «states of emergency», or states of exception that are either created through the process of law (through which the law is in fact severely undermined or annulled) or that appear de facto within them. Within these spaces, sovereign power is deposed or challenged. This phenomenon has far-reaching effects not least in terms of human rights discourse, politics and our concepts of space and time. These are issues that Anselm Franke, Ines Geisler and I addressed in an article, «Islands: the Geography of Extraterritoriality», which was published in Archis magazine in 2003. The concerns we expressed are shared by our colleagues at the CCCB and Tom Keenan, with whom Anselm Franke and I subsequently worked to give shape to this conference in which our purpose is to explore and elaborate upon our original arguments with others who are working along these lines in different fields.

The discontinuous territorial fragments we have described are set apart from the world as it is usually portrayed. They tend to be mobile or temporary, protected by makeshift barriers, temporary boundaries or generally invisible security apparatuses, and are the result of a variety of contemporary processes that have caused the splintering of pre-existing political surfaces. They are extraterritorial because they are positioned outside of the sovereignty and jurisdiction that surrounds them, different kinds of «islands» that collectively form an archipelago, although they are not encircled by either sea or ocean.

In international law, the term «extraterritoriality» refers to those instances where a state extends its jurisdiction or effective control over zones, individuals or activities beyond its borders. The concept may apply to military movements on foreign soil as well as to embassies or diplomats in the form of diplomatic immunity. Extraterritoriality is therefore rooted in the concept of sovereignty, although it is usually considered as the violation thereof.

There are other, very different, circumstances, too, in which the term «extraterritoriality » applies, namely when a state fails to exercise its sovereignty over all its territory, in which case fissures and lacunae appear within its formerly coherent geographical order, giving shape to territorial units that are beyond the reach of the mechanisms of state power. In general, this condition of extraterritoriality transforms these extensive, geographically scattered, deliberately-created or newly-discovered, legal loopholes into quasi-utopian spaces to the extent that, in their internal logic, they attempt to create a radically new social order.

Basing themselves on these general principles as to the logic of state of exception, the conference speakers develop different notions of extraterritoriality as they inquire into several manifestations of this protean phenomenon that has become so characteristic of our times. They describe, discuss, debate and detail the political and social implications of extraterritoriality while also distinguishing between the different forms in which it appears. The symposium, then, is more than an interchange of ideas on a contemporary political trend. It is a means both of forewarning of the dangers that extraterritorial conditions pose in today's world and reflecting upon their potential for challenging the related modern concept of biopolitical sovereignty.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben is well known for his writings on the state of exception, which goes hand in hand with extraterritoriality. The state of exception is based on the suspension, overthrow or abolition of the pre-existing juridical order. Within this space, the individual is deprived of his or her prior conditions as citizen, as a political being and, in extreme cases like some refugee camps, life is whittled down to mere biological existence, to what Agamben calls «bare life». For Agamben, the category of legal and spatial exception is exemplified by «the camp», with its most extreme manifestation in the death camp, the place where life does not even have political value and where law is transformed into the cruel caricature of an endless series of arbitrary regulations. He also describes «weakened», «naturalised» sites of exception in other «heterotopian» structures, such as the refugee camp, the military base and occupied zones. These, while differing in their order, embody the biopolitical logic of sovereignty that typifies today's states — totalitarian and liberal like.

Tariq Ali describes the archipelago of the military bases that have been established as selfsustaining, autonomous zones in more than 120 countries around the world. One example showing the extent to which these bases are divorced from the setting in which they appear is the innocuous-seeming — but sinister — fact that, in the Green Zone of Baghdad, soldiers can use mobile phones with their local dialling codes. Guantanamo, Bagram and other sites in Afghanistan were established more than five years ago as incarceration and torture centres where, in violation of international law, CIA «enhanced interrogation techniques» are practised. It has recently been revealed that, besides the bases that are already known to be torture centres, there are many more «black sites» scattered through eight countries including Thailand and several Eastern European democracies.

Stephen Graham developed his notions of extraterritoriality in the book Splintering Urbanism (2001), which is co-authored by Simon Marvin. He redraws the usual cartographic image of urban geography as a series of insular, protected nodes that are fed by infrastructural networks. This insight into extraterritoriality subsequently evolved into his work on the nature of «state-backed infrastructural warfare » as part of the «geopolitics of forced disconnection and demodernisation, within contemporary war and strategy». It is a tactic of urban warfare that can amount to what he graphically describes as «switching society off».

In his documentary Aqabat-Jaber, Passing Through (1988) the Israeli filmmaker and writer, Eyal Sivan, highlights not only the spatial dimension of extraterritoriality but also its extratemporality. In this symposium Eyal Sivan describes the «permanent and provisional solution» of refugee camps, both Palestinian and African, as places of exception and abandonment that are also subjected to a regimented militarised order that acts de facto as «an agent of social and political transformation». Within this context, he describes the power and potential of diaspora.

We have been fortunate, too, to hear and engage in first-hand debate with Shimon Naveh, director of the Israeli think-tank Operational Theory Research Institute of the National Defence College. Shimon Naveh has spoken on this occasion about «Fighting the Urban Enclave», presenting the State and military perspectives on the self-governing enclaves and semiautonomous zones that appear around refugee camps and describing the new military technology and tactics that are employed to counter the forms of resistance that arise within these spaces.

In 2003, Keller Easterling organised a conference on extraterritorial enclaves in Yale, dealing with some deep-sea ports and airports, export-processing enclaves such as the inland «offshore» maquiladoras in Mexico, Special Enterprise Zones and some gated or fenced-in communities of nationals abroad. Like offshore tax havens in otherwise valueless islands, these zones are established in order to liberate economic transactions from the restrictions imposed by the laws of nation states.

Teddy Cruz discusses two faces of extraterritoriality, describing the almost selfgoverning informal neighbourhoods, ghettoes and shanty towns and the exclusive gated communities that surprisingly come together on the two sides of the Tijuana — San Diego border.

Humanitarian intervention — the response to states of emergency or extreme crisis — is the concern of Rafael Vilasanjuan, director of MSF Spain. Here, he discusses the other, generally overlooked face of the ongoing crisis because of the plea of migrants that try to get to the Spanish implants of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast.

This sort of situation links up with the idea of extraterritoriality as a site of the body, as José Luis Pardo explains when he discusses «Life at Stake».

Thomas Keenan refers to the contradiction that, in wishing to be free of territorial constraints and to work without borders, humanitarian workers frequently create their own encysted space that is ignorant of, or simply ignores, local specificity.

Zygmunt Bauman has described what he calls «extraterritorial power on the move», in which extraterritoriality resides in mobility and speed rather than in any particular space. The world, he says, is divided into «a multitude of sovereign units and sites of authority, with no horizontal or vertical order, either in actuality or potency», which evokes George Steiner's idea of extraterritoriality as «a strategy of permanent exile». At the same time, the extraterritorial nature of narcotics, terrorist and security laws has literally — perhaps too literally — extended the reach of modern American criminal law to such a degree that the US national is legally considered as the embodiment of the State abroad.

The speakers in the symposium are architects, spatial thinkers and practitioners, and writers who strive to understand in theoretical terms what appears to be a geographical or sometimes architectural phenomenon, thus testifying to the formal, physical dimension that politics has once again assumed (as well as reflecting our own professional bias).


The geography of extraterritoriality is by no means new. It recalls the complex political architecture that dominated the pre-modern (pre-Westphalian) political landscape of a multiplicity of overlapping quasi-sovereign powers, scattered fortifications in an evolving, shifting setting of permanent conflict. Europe's encounters with realms «outside» of the global colonial order also produced extraterritorial «islands» of jurisdiction in China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Morocco, Persia, Siam and Abyssinia.

In the nineteenth century, capitulations or «unequal treaties» were the principal expression of the subaltern status of non-European powers. Under the capitulation system, merchants, military personnel, missionaries and new settlers enjoyed liberty of trade and religion along with immunity from local jurisdiction and taxation. Beyond the reach of the laws in the countries in which they chose to reside, they generally lived in enclaves that were subject to the legal and social norms represented by the leaders of the expatriate communities — consuls or, in the case of Constantinople, ambassadors — according to the laws of their nation states. These places were the «outposts of civilisation», in a sea of as-yet «unordered barbarity» and their spatial layout expressed a geography of segregation and exclusion, and a politics of hygiene. The English extraterritorial zones that spread across the colonial world were described by Jane Austen as «a retention of an England outside itself».

Capitulations began with the concessions granted by the Ottoman Empire to Venice in the sixteenth century. The demise of the system began with the first demand for liberation. Japan freed itself of this extraterritorial jurisdiction in the 1890s, Turkey in 1923, Egypt in 1936 and China in a gradual process that stretched from 1924 to 1946. The system finally ended as recently as the 1960s when the Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, ceased to exercise jurisdiction over Commonwealth citizens in the Persian Gulf Emirates.

Contemporary islands

There are many different forms that come under the heading of «extraterritorial zones» and it would be erroneous to view them as part of a single phenomenon. It is important to differentiate between and characterise the various kinds of extraterritoriality in their own terms.

There are places set up by the state, either within its own territory, within the territorial space of other states, or in areas it occupies or controls and where sovereign law is suspended. Then there are sites that are within the body of the state but over which it has lost control. Selfgoverning enclaves that arise from the failure of the sovereign power can become agents of change. Again, there are «lawless» zones such as refugee camps in Lebanon, or the Jenin and Balata camps in the northern West Bank, not to mention Sadr City and Fallujah in Iraq, which the military have not yet been able to submit to their control.

If sovereign law is deliberately suspended, we are likely to find dangerous sites of biopolitics but, in the case of state failure to extend its control, the formation of selfgoverning societies in these spaces can be a source of encouragement in that they represent an opportunity for individuals to reaffirm their existence as political beings. Sometimes these distinctions are a matter of perspective. A humanitarian space, for instance, can represent both the perilous and the socially encouraging aspects of extraterritoriality, depending on the aspects one is scrutinising. Making distinctions between the different guises of extraterritoriality can help to reinforce the positive, ethical potential of some forms of the phenomenon while exposing the evil practices that characterise others.

Humanitarian zones are temporarily set up around sites of «natural» or «manmade » catastrophes (although the difference is not always clear), frequently evolving at times into cordoned-off, improvised islands where normal sovereignty is suspended. Ad hoc tent cities mushroom and even the law of a day-and-night rhythm in human existence is revoked, leaving time itself suspended in one never-ending day with the incessant 24-hour floodlit humanitarian activity. Disaster management is a technically and organisationally complex operation that is akin to the military operation. Rescue technologies, relief distribution of medical aid and food, the loading and unloading of planes, delineation of the perimeter of the disaster zone and the division of the space into lots and blocks of tents have strong military overtones. To add to the sense of military takeover of people's lives, humanitarian operations frequently take place in militarised zones, involving ad hoc deals with whoever is in control at the moment.

Humanitarian spaces become small universes operating by their own rules that invoke vaguely formulated international laws and agreements, while not necessarily abiding by them. The French doctor and activist, Rony Brauman, who founded Doctors Without Borders in 1971 famously, and more or less felicitously, coined the metaphor of the «humanitarian bubble»:

«Trucks, four-wheel drive vehicles, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, and computers create an artificial environment, whose perverse effect is to put the teams in a quasi-virtual world where time and space are measured in different units from those of the country where they find themselves. So they find themselves, almost without knowing it, in a bubble, a "nonplace", a humanitarian mission which could be everywhere and which is nowhere.»

Several people who have worked with MSF have remarked that this out-of-time-and space dimension of their work in fact exposes the supposedly apolitical humanitarian intervention to a variety of forces that do not figure in formal declarations and deals. True, political and ethical responsibilities are blurred and masked but there are also possibilities for humanitarian work becoming an agent of transformation that is capable of subverting existing orders.

One example is that after the Marmara earthquake in Turkey in 1999, national governments and local government bodies, along with the Turkish military, so patently mishandled the relief operations that local and informal action networks took almost complete control of the catastrophe zone. The Search and Rescue Association (AKUT) was the most prominent among these emerging organisations. In its work of searching for victims, supplying food and medical aid and building shelters for the displaced, it became the unofficial authority, eventually causing a grave crisis of legitimacy and threatening the very foundations of the Turkish political system.

When extraterritoriality is imposed by the state (or new imperial power) to create a site of exception, intrinsic to the situation is the fact that legal and political protection is lost when loopholes are employed to expand sovereignty. The ambiguity of exception appears when these spaces intrinsically take on the aspects of self-governing enclaves, and they acquire the potential to challenge the absolute authority of the state. To some extent, humanitarian action, under certain conditions, may influence this wielding of sovereign exception by disclosing the limits of sovereign power. Hence, the «humanitarian bubble», with all its contradictions, could perhaps turn its moral component into a challenge to political sovereignty and signal the possibility of a radical transformation of the relations between power, law and morality.

The modern state creates extraterritorial islands but does not tolerate any that it has not itself engendered. It takes upon itself the right to designate the reach and limits of sovereign power—  using the ultimate resort of negating its own laws if deemed necessary —  and acts to eliminate challenges to this power. The legal (in terms of national international law) and de facto principles of «suspended sovereignty » violate juridical territoriality in such a way as to become, willy-nilly, a clear challenge to the sovereign power of the state in which they exist.

Pirates very well understood the potential of these islands of alternative power, taking advantage of their geography to set up political and legal havens in order to achieve swifter and deadlier systems of flow, without hindrance from the established order. The parallels with globalization are suggestive. Janice E. Thompson, in her book Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns (1996), which has the suggestive subtitle State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe, analyses how pirates and buccaneers lurked at the fringes where the coherent functions and sovereign power of the European empires had broken down. A further example is what Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) calls «pirate utopias» in his eponymously titled book (1995). Using historical examples, Hakim Bey also describes Temporary Autonomous Zones that, as temporary spaces, elude formal structures of the state and create new territories outside the dominant structured system. This, he says, is «a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves control».

The spaces in our «archipelago» might be likened to the result of a kind of geographical slippage that produces new sites of potentiality. As the starting points from which the logic of the system fails, they seem to be almost the only places from which resistance may be offered. They are perhaps an alternative or complement to the idea of networks or multitudes because they constitute sites of autonomous exception and singularity with the potential of becoming engines of radical critique and change. We can set up our own enclaves and we, too, can walk through walls.


1 This is an edited transcript of the introduction address by Eyal Weizman.

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