Islands. The geography of extraterritoriality

Cut apart by linear borders, the state system – a territorially based juridical formation – appeared to dominate all forms of sovereignty over individuals and action. But various fault lines have now fractured this Euclidian political surface. Just as along the Norwegian coasts – fjords, islands and lakes break the coherent continuity of both water and land – the old political order has splintered into discontinuous territorial fragments set apart and fortified by makeshift barriers, temporary boundaries, or invisible security apparatuses. Instead of its edges clearly demarcated by continuous lines, political spaces have now grown to resemble a territorial patchwork of introvert enclaves located side by side, each within the other, simultaneously and in unprecedented proximities.


These shreds are islands- externally alienated and internally homogenized, extraterritorial enclaves – spaces of political void or strategic implants – lying outside the jurisdiction that physically surrounds them. Islands are the territorialized nodes of a de-territorialized power – one distributed through military, political or financial networks. Although and perhaps because the new world-order, governed by super-national and non-localised institutions, is non-territorial, it increasingly relies on the physical infrastructure that only real-space can provide.


Islands are reminiscent of the complex political architecture that dominated Europe before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, characterized by a multiplicity of overlapping quasi-sovereign powers, dispersed control over the use of coercion and organized violence, and the ubiquitous presence of fortifications in an evolving landscape of permanent conflict. Then islands as city-states provided an exclusive citizenship, islands as places of refuge provided sanctuary from persecution, islands as tax-free ports provided financial havens. But within this political landscape of feudalism, the Catholic church provided perhaps the clearest example of power operating a de-territorialized political system; its physical manifestations – churches, palaces and monasteries, much like the present-day Vatican – were placed beyond the reach of the political order within whose territory they rested.


Against this geography of extraterritoriality, the modern state system constructed separate, coherent political units with exclusive control of violence within their borders. The modern political project is made up of two complementary actions: domestication of the state’s interior, based on a disciplinary politics and an idea of cultural hygiene, and exclusion of the outside, with which its finds itself in constant violent engagement.


Islands were simply exported to the margins of European geography, thus extending its frontiers. There they appeared as the ‘outposts of civilization’ floating within the sea of yet un-ordered barbarity. The colonies, themselves – sometimes under quasi-private sovereignty such as this of the British East India Company, sovereign in India until 1856, but in most cases incorporated into the legal body of the motherland – were laid out on the basis of a politics of hygiene and a geography of segregation. Extra-territorial Islands of jurisdiction appeared as well at Europe’s encounter with the countries ‘outside’ of the global colonial order – China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Siam and Ethiopia. Merchants, military personnel, church missioners and new settlers, were not subject to the laws of these quasi kingdoms but lived in enclaves that were legally incorporated into the territorial body of their home nations.


Figures of extraterritoriality returned to haunt current political order. They becomes the nodes of a de-territorialized system that operates across geopolitical networks. They are the physical infrastructure for the distribution of finance and strategic power.
The historical Islands of extra-territorial refuge and sovereignty have evolved into today’s zones of humanitarian intervention – set in responses to states of emergency or extreme humanitarian crisis; military camps – deployed for the defense of foreign investments, natural resources, international transport or on behalf of nationals abroad; or Special Enterprise Zones – set as manufacturing enclaves for the financial exploitation of advancing nations by advanced ones. But the international-law principles of ‘suspended sovereignty’ and of ‘extraterritorial jurisdiction’, on which Islands relay, violate juridical territoriality in a way that sets a clear challenge to the sovereign power of the state in which they exist, and indeed to the Westphalian state system in general.


But there exist as well spaces of another type of interiority, shadowing the more visible economical and political network. These are ‘lawless’ zones in various states of ‘anarchy, poverty, decay and crime’. The refugee camp, the favela and the protected corridors in Afghanistan or Central America are for the drug traffickers and arms dealers what Tax Havens and international banking are to the financial market. Here they are black Islands of disorder floating within the smooth sea of ordered international flows.
Partly retreating, partly forced into isolation, Gray Islands are governed by warlords, private entrepreneurs, clan chiefs, armies for hire, or youth gangs, and are in a state of low intensity, permanent conflict. Indeed of the 70 recognized political conflicts across the world today, only six manifest themselves as war between two or more sovereign state actors, while at least half are carried out besides any juridical framework of any legitimate power. These shadow conflicts most often only come into light when they disturb the official flow of goods, capital and resources.
At the frontiers – when gary Islands meet the space of flow – counter warlords of various types emerge – private security companies and other such mercenaries of various types operating ‘Anywhere, Anytime’ – offering their form of violence to the service of the middle classes as a ready-made product on the market.


Pirates, the natural inhabitants of Islands, learn how to abuse the advantage of their geography – the political voids and legal loopholes help constitute an alternative, faster, deadlier, more efficient systems of flow. Piracy was indeed for trans-oceanic trade what terrorism is for economic globalization. The extraterritorial nature of terrorism (and the narcotics trade) prompted the creation of a legal system aspiring to an equal extraterritorial nature. This form of legal extraterritoriality applies to individuals or activities, such as those of US citizens, regardless of their location outside the territory of their state. Extraterritorial extension of modern American criminal law means in some cases that the US national is legally considered as an embodiment of the State abroad.


United Nations trust territories in the Pacific, the Panama canal, Bosnia Herzegovina, tax havens in the Caribbean, Palestinian refugee camps, no fly zones, international courts, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, gated communities in Orange County, warships cruising the high seas or settlements perched on occupied land may all be extraterritorial spaces designating an exceptional state while being alienated from their surrounding order.
X-Ray camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba lies outside U.S. jurisdiction – the area is Cuban soil – but is under the control of the US military. This combined status of control without jurisdiction turned the site into a unique political and legal laboratory since the beginning of the war on terrorism. A person held in Guantanamo is not protected by neither international nor US law. The US administration refuses prisoners – suspected members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda – the status of ‘war prisoners’, introducing a new category, which is in effect a non-category – one operating only by negation – the ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ has non of the legal rights any other category of prisoner has. The political void in which the prisoners are held is mirrored by a sensual one – photographs of the camp show prisoners, their eyes mouth and ears folded, incommunicado, prevented from sensing and comprehending their surroundings. Thus, without access to neither lawyers nor visitors, in the base on Guantanamo Bay as well as in American bases such as those in Bagram, Afghanistan and on the island of Diego Gracia, British Indian Ocean Territory, that operate according to similar juridical principal, Prisoners may go on floating in indefinite detention. The absence of law has created a new type of space, one in which a person may be reduced to the level of biological life, a body without political or legal rights, a living dead.


Islands are sites of internally regimented order. Utopia has ever been imagined as an island artificially cut off from the land – a place of exile for the perfection of society. In fact, every effort made since for the realization of Utopia began with the establishment of an extraterritorial space surrounded by the ‘social matter’ it aimed to leave behind.


Our project investigates the process by which contemporary political space was shattered, the nature of its various fragments, as well as the different manifestation of its edges – the new barriers, fortifications and security zones. We approached writers, architects and artists, for their contributions in order to set out what will become an expending dictionary of Islands. The Islands presented here are each a fragment of a ‘left-over’ geography, an enclaved space set for the colonization of an internal frontiers from which ‘there is no longer an outside’, their diversity of conditions exemplify the inconsistent behavior and self-destructive impulses of the present political order.


Anselm Franke is a curator based in Berlin, Ines Geisler and Eyal Weizman are architects based in London.

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