BISA at 40 workshop – impunity, security and the colonial frontier

This article was written by Jan Wilkens, University of Hamburg
This article was published on
CPD Group members at the BISA at 40 workshop

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of BISA, a series of workshops were held at the 2015 conference in London on June 16th 2015. The CPD WG sponsored one such workshop on the subject of ‘Impunity, Security and the Colonial Frontier’. The programme and a report are given below.


The purpose of this workshop is to allow scholars working within different sub-fields of international studies, including international law, international security and history, to collectively discuss the deployment of violence in the name of the (post)colonial state. We begin with the shared sensibility that the modern global state system has been profoundly shaped and constituted by colonial dynamics, which have multiple manifestations in the present. These manifestations include security and legal regimes, which often intersect in practices of militarised law enforcement and legalised military action. Such practices may implicitly or explicitly rely on hierarchies of gender, race and class in attaching value to what is to be protected. They often also take place within a ‘frontier mentality’ – the conception of a political ‘border’ which is contested, expansionary and wild, and which must be settled or dominated. Spaces subject to settler colonialism have been particularly apposite sites for thinking about these questions.

From these starting points, we seek to interrogate the logic and functioning of global security practices and legal regimes. Methodologically, we seek to go beyond the official textual representations of security policies and laws to engage with the variety of practices and experiences that make up these phenomena. We have a particular interest in looking at these across different times and places to think about commonalities and differences in how global (post)colonial order is reproduced and transformed.

The workshop is topically resonant, inspired by a cluster of violent state actions taking place in the summer of 2014 in the Gaza Strip, Missouri, and elsewhere which have had explicitly colonial and/or racialised dynamics. Indeed, the advice offered by Gaza residents to Missouri residents as to how to handle tear gas, and the apparent training of the Missouri policeman in Israel is but one small indicator of the global resonances of these seemingly disparate incidents. Moreover, the global political frameworks and networks in which they are embedded come into view. These events are located within a larger historical cluster of global political unrest and uprisings in East Asia, the ‘Middle East’, South America, Africa and elsewhere, to which states are responding with new and old strategies of counter-insurgency, law-making, punishment and impunity.

These questions animated the Working Group’s well-attended Business Meeting at the 2014 BISA conference as future directions of collective inquiry, and our proposal is a direct response to the desire to discuss these issues in a focused way.

Session 1

9.00-9.15: Introduction and agenda-setting

Chair: Meera Sabaratnam

  • Introductions by facilitators, participants to each other / research interests / themes of day

9.15- 10.30 Reading Group – Frontiers and Borders

Speakers (5-6 min interventions)

  • Martin Bayly
  • Tahseen Kazi
  • Xavier Mathieu


Manan Ahmed (2011), ‘Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination’, Economic and Political Weekly, 46:13, 60-65

Achille Mbembe (2003), ‘Necropolitics’, Public Culture, 15:1, 11-40.

Sudipta Sen (2002), ‘Uncertain Dominance: The Colonial State and its Contradictions (with Notes on the History of Early British India’, Nepantla: Views from the South 3:2, 391-406

Session 2: 11.00-12.30

Work in Progress Panel – Impunity and Disposability Within Contemporary Regimes of Violence

Chair: Martin Bayly


  • Elisa Wynne-Hughes
  • Lara Montesinos Coleman
  • Louiza Odysseos
  • Shubranshu Mishra

Reading: Working papers . Presenters – up to 10 mins initial presentation

Session 3: 13.30-15.00

Work in Progress Panel – Governing at a Distance through Law and Security Regimes

Chair: Mustapha Kamal Pasha


  • Samar Al Bulushi
  • Corrina Mullin
  • Freya Irani
  • Jan Wilkens

Readings: Working papers . Presenters – up to 10 mins initial presentation

Session 4: 15.30-16.15

Closing Roundtable: Violence, Dispossession and Accountability in a global colonial order

Summary of themes and questions raised. Opening interventions (5 mins) by:

  • Mustapha Kamal Pasha
  • Meera Sabaratnam

Future planning: 16.15-17.00

  • Identifying future research projects / collaborations
  • Plans for special issues, edited collections
  • Thinking about potential community partners

Event report

The Colonial / Postcolonial / De-colonial working group took the chance, as part of the BISA@40 workshops, to advance the debate on “Impunity, Security and the Colonial Frontier”, organised by Meera Sabaratnam and Mustapha Kamal Pasha and crossing the academic fields of anthropology, international relations, postcolonial studies and international law. Further underpinned by the interdisciplinary composition of the group with critical scholars whose empirical gaze range from historical cases of colonialism to contemporary practices of domination, this workshop brought together important issues for critical scholarship on global politics by focusing on episodes of (post-)colonial dynamics across space and time.

In order to narrow down the common themes for the group, get insights into the state-of-the-art of ongoing research that ultimately result into scholarly output from the group, the workshop was broadly divided into three main sections. First, the group set out with presentations of selected contributions that highlighted different aspects of frontier and border constructions under imperial and colonial conditions. Martin Bayly, Tahseen Kazi and Xavier Mathieu aptly pointed out crucial issues of the readings[1] that constituted the framework for the discussion within the group: a critical enquiry of language that reproduces imaginations of legal structures that are often seen as ‘neutral’ and often come in the guise of (positive) law, but rather shape the context for violent practices that remain uncovered. Further, the production of uncertainty and liminal space as conditions of domination by colonial powers in non-Western regions continue to be a major problem for societies until today, as for example in global security practices. Crucially, and in contrast to these hegemonic discourses advanced by dominating powers through the language of law, is the ‘will to forget’ and silence when it comes to the question of access to law by dominated and colonised people. Against this background the group identified contexts of ‘impunity’ as a third major issue critical scholarship on global politics needs more in-depth research.

This discussion constituted a perfect framework for the second section in which the participants presented their work (in progress). In the first panel Elisa Wynne-Hughes, Lara Montesinos Coleman, Louiza Odysseos and Shubranshu Mishra explored ways in which contemporary forms of representation, as in the development of tourism in Non-Western regions, and the ‘grammar of rights’ creates dominant notions of justice and legitimacy on a global scale that not only neglects local discourses but also turns legal practices into tools that legitimise impunity and subjugation. In particular, the presentations pointed out that understanding the relationship, and the absence thereof, between law and justice as well as impunity and lawlessness is under-theorized and empirically often overseen due to the lack of (post-)colonial and critical perspectives. Especially in the effort of de-colonising notions of justice and legitimacy these issues need to be addressed in the future.

In the second panel, Samar Al-Bulushi and Corrina Mullin shifted the focus towards national security practices in the context of the global war-on-terror discourses. With critical reflections by Freya Irani and Jan Wilkens, these papers provided theoretically informed research on current cases of how global neoliberal and military structures enable national security states to reproduce borders and oppression through the construction of threats. With anthropological and language focused approaches their research constitute insightful reconstructions of ‘Islam’ as a threat construction and the ways dominant national actors were able to re-narrate local acts of protests and contestation by young activists and the youth against hegemonic structures by depicting these actions as illegitimate forms of “Islamic terrorism”. In sum, this section underpinned the need to understand the different forms of violence, domination and contentious politics in local contexts that emerge within and are constrained by global discourses and notions of legality that are framed in benevolent terms.

Crucially, this variety of research with regard to their empirical and methodological orientation have illuminated the divers ways in which contexts of impunity and the production of borders and frontiers can be analysed in international politics. Accordingly, the group benefited extremely from this workshop in respect to their individual projects but also in order to formulate ideas for the group as a whole. Hence, in the final section, the participants discussed ways to realise future output in form of publications. The workshop, further, helped to maintain the continuity of the working group that will come together in various forms at different conferences and workshops following soon.

The growing interest in colonial, post-colonial and de-colonial aspects of international politics is remarkable. The workshop was an in-depth conversation of (post-)colonial conditions in contemporary politics. Although a lot of question remained unanswered, it became clear again that these approaches are crucial to understand modern politics. The revision of key terms that get normalised in present day politics is fundamental. Mbembe’s radical re-interpretation of sovereignty arguing “that the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die“ exemplifies this idea. Notably, the presented papers as well as other pressing issues like the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”, enforced within current legal regimes and presented in the language of international law show the importance of the group’s focus and offer different paths for future research.

By Jan Wilkens

[1] Ahmed, M. (2011) ‘Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination’. Economic and Political Weekly, 46 (13), 60-65. Mbembe, A. (2003) ‘Necropolitics’. Public Culture, 15 (1), 11-40. Sen, S. (2002) ‘Uncertain Dominance: The Colonial State and it Contradictions (with Notes on the History of Early British India)’. Nepantla: Views from the South, 3 (2), 391-406.