Made in Washington

Spatial practices as a blueprint for human rights violations

The US Supreme Court’s ruling that the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay violate both American military law and the Geneva Conventions confirms what international human rights campaigners have been arguing for years. Some of the severest criticism has been directed at the spatial conditions in the camp – spaces that might be too hot, too cold, or too small induce in prisoners severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and loss of motor skills. Markus Miessen describes the increasing tendency for governments to create a legal “meta-level” where spatial and physical humiliation becomes everyday practice.

The United States became engaged in two distinct conflicts, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in Iraq. As a result of a presidential decree, the Geneva Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants.

Analysing the relationship between space and power, many questions arise about how far spatial conditions have influenced and continue to affect conscious violations of human rights. A few years into the twenty-first century, decreasing public confidence in political decision-making and its transfer has made way for an overbearing universal ethics of mediated truisms. Post 9/11 in particular, one can trace an increasing habit of politicians to convert the mis-en-scène and tools of spatial planning in order to create microclimates that obey no legal framework. There is evidence that spatial planning has been used as a mechanism to convert spaces into strategic weapons of physical punishment. Simultaneously, one is witnessing the re-appropriation of issues such as representation, psychological framework, and an increasingly monotheistic politics.

In 2004, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben re-interpreted the US “war against all evil” as a symbolic gesture that envisions an alteration of the political landscape. Two months after the September attacks in 2001, the Bush administration – in the midst of what it perceived as a state of emergency – authorised the indefinite imprisonment of non-citizens suspected of terrorist activities. This policy, according to Agamben, should be understood as “The State of Exception”,2. a powerful strategy that enables the transformation of a contemporary democracy into a civil dictatorship. Agamben argues that the state of exception, which was meant to be a provisional measure, has become part of the everyday fabric.

When the American president George W. Bush sent a TV-message to Vladimir Putin,3 claiming that even in times of war one has to obey the guiding principles of democracy, Bush appeared concerned about the fact that Putin, after the massacre of Beslan,4 had announced that the “verticality of power” would be strengthened and fortified.5 Ever since, the American president has made sure to clarify that in “times of war” – which in his present-day sense is an ongoing endeavour – the “old” laws and international agreements on human rights are no longer applicable and can therefore be “temporarily” suspended. This development essentially prepares the ground for a “war” that requires no justification, nor do anti-terrorist measures rationally relate to its prevention. Instead, it strengthens a policy that was already underway before the Twin Towers fell: “‘The war on terrorism’ needs to be read always as if in quotes, because it is not in any conventional sense a war – no national enemy, no troops, no territorial goals as such.”6. Rather than fighting the symptoms, the US administration had blocked multi-lateral politics for too long. This policy finally had a boomerang effect and – propelled by irrational motives due to being caught by “surprise” – conclusions were drawn rapidly.

In such a reinterpreted register of geopolitics, “rights” are exposed to the higher principle of possible war and the response towards international terror. In this sense, military order, which becomes supreme, can temporarily defer international law. Accordingly, military judges replace civil courts and, in the name of national security, the president – as the civil leader of the military – embodies unrestricted powers. It is no news that today the underlying principle of justification is whether or not a particular action takes place in the name of national interest, this very interest being defined by the power that pursues it. In this context, the term “terror” is pollinated with “war”. Consequently, “war” allows all civil rights to be suspended.

Taking such developments into consideration, it is not surprising that the countless individuals imprisoned in Camp X-Ray and Delta (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), the detention centre at Bagram Airport (Afghanistan), Abu Ghraib (Iraq), and numerous third-party penitentiaries, have been transferred to territories that lack human rights monitoring, influenced by a White House directive that “terrorist” suspects do not deserve the rights given to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. But in the General Provisions of the Geneva Conventions relating to the Treatment of Prisoners of War,7 a different code is outlined that claims that one must “ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances”8 and provides a clear definition about prisoners of war. According to the Conventions, prisoners of war “are persons who have fallen into the power of the enemy: members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied.”9 In order to get around the Geneva Conventions, the captured individuals and groups were therefore moved to territories that disobey the Conventions, or to territories that do not fall under their jurisdiction. The US government has therefore set up spatial constructs, which – it believes – are not accountable to any higher authority.

This method of creating extra-legal territory also includes a technique known as “extraordinary renditions”.10 In April 2005, Human Rights Watch released a summary of evidence of US abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and other secret CIA detention facilities.11 The US government openly admits that it seeks diplomatic assurances from states where torture is a common phenomenon; this entails requesting that a state make an exception to its general policy of employing torture for single individuals. This technique has deeply disturbing implications. Proactively proposing the creation of such territorial and legal islands of protection illustrates the imperative function of space within the equation and comes close to accepting the hail of abuse that surrounds it.12 In cases where foreign authorities or the UN have condemned such practices of torture, the US has transferred prisoners while simultaneously releasing a flood of new legal documents that allow for particular codes of conduct within the military and the CIA. This technique is neither new nor practiced by the US alone. The government of the UK is reportedly in negotiations with the Algerian and Moroccan governments, countries where abusive treatment and torture is common, to allow the rendition of terrorism suspects.13 In the eyes of the architects of such legal documents, a war against Iraq, for example, is legal because it represents self-defence and, moreover, is acting in the interest of humanity.

A crime and its genesis

How can our government speak with authority about the evil of torture in countries like Egypt and Syria and Uzbekistan when it knowingly makes deals with the worst elements of those regimes to send people to the very dungeons where they torture prisoners?
Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch14

When Giorgio Agamben, both prior to and after 9/11,15 discussed the principles of Western society, he provided a threatening image that gained its power from legal documents going back to the Roman Empire. Influenced by Hannah Arendt’s work on totalitarianism and the institutional form of rights,16 Agamben attempts to trace a historical process, one that is not a singular phenomenon, but a progression towards his primary thesis: there is an unforeseen solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism. According to the Roman legal system, the one who threatened the republic was treated as a public enemy: as “Homo Sacer” – the one without rights – one was reduced to nothing but a living being who could be executed.17

The Patriot Act of October 2001 allows the US government to arrest any individual suspected of threatening National Security. But George W. Bush’s new military order turns those who are incarcerated in Guantanamo into lawless individuals, cut off from any legal support-structure because of their territorial, that is spatial, status. Like so many other political prisoners in the course of history, these individuals have lost their legal identity by having been put through a selection of political and spatial filters. Although Agamben’s critique is radical in the sense that it introduces an oversimplified and accelerated concept of comparison, what he essentially does is to lay bare the danger of nationalistic structures. The videos and photographic footage that came out of Abu Ghraib illustrate the drastic relevance of Agamben’s theory of the Homo Sacer. The naked bodies piled on top of each other, its sadistic choreography blending into a scene that recalls the fatal imagery of the twentieth century.

Throughout history, cultures have projected what they consider “evil” beyond their territorial borders. Historic evidence illustrates that as soon as one realises that the reasons for so-called “evil deeds ” can be located inside one’s own territory, one refers to an existing “cruel” imagery on the outside in order to claim justification.

In the case of Abu Ghraib, we can trace the imagery of the colonial victor, but the space itself becomes exchangeable. And so does its historical reference. One reason for the public reception being so overwhelming could be described simply by tracing an existing imagery. Rather than evoking a shock due to its specific message, the images coming out of Abu Ghraib overlap with an existing twentieth-century imagery, a blend of the death camps of Auschwitz; the pictures of deformed bodies in Vietnam; the death squad killings in El Salvador; the killing of the Tutsi in Rwanda; the genocides in Turkey, Sudan, and Cambodia; and the war crimes of collective punishment in Fallujah. Such excesses would always have two things in common: they were tied to a particular, delineated territory and an imagery of the subordinate subject. In this pornography of violence, the stage would change, but the choreography stays the same. Trying to bridge the gap between associated territories and the mainland, the US is trying by all means to refer back to the outside, to avoid legal focus on their extraterritorial enclaves while simultaneously talking about a “clean war”.18

Specialist structures and spatial torture

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light […]”
Major General Antonio M. Taguba19

Within this imagery, there seems to be a strong link to what Michel Foucault described as the “ceremonial of punishment”:20 “Some prisoners may be condemned to be hanged […] others, for more serious crimes, to be broken alive and to die on the wheel, after having their limbs broken; others to be broken until they die a natural death, others to be strangled and then broken, others to be burnt alive […] and others to have their heads broken.”21 In Discipline and Punish, Foucault illustrates how far physical punishment has become the most hidden part of the penal process; “as a result, justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice.”22 In the twentieth century, Foucault argues, the spectacle of punishment has shifted to the trial. But if there is no trial, there is no scene. The disappearance of public punishment goes hand-in-hand with the decline of spectacle.

Commenting on space and power, Paul Hirst has defined such politics as “a much contested concept: it has many different meanings and possible spatial locations.”23 Foucault’s treatment of the relation between a new form of power and a new class of specialist structures saw this both as the consequence and the condition of the rise of forms of “disciplinary power” from the eighteenth century onwards: “Power is thus conceived of as a fundamentally negative, as a punitive relation between the dominant and the subordinate subject.”24 This form of power based on surveillance, which individuates and transforms, is defined by the penitentiary prison with its cells spatially isolating its inmates, with a central structure of inspection. What Hirst describes as the essential characteristics of Bentham’s Panopticon – “an idea in architecture”25– that is to say the principle that the many can be governed by the few, can be traced through the history of penitentiary construction. This is probably best exemplified by Abu Ghraib’s “Liberty Tower”, a central inspection structure overlooking the territory: a space that enables both a certain correlative perspective and power relations. Although Foucault’s writings on the Panopticon originate from the 1970s, his work seems more relevant than ever.

In order to illustrate the effect of institutional space and its power-relations, Philip Zimbardo carried out an experiment in 1971 to test a simple question: what happens if you put “good” people in an “evil space”? To run the experiment, student volunteers were randomly assigned to play the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison. Although all participants had been examined and were confirmed as mentally healthy, guards soon became sadistic and prisoners showed severe signs of depression. After six days, the study had to be stopped in order to prevent further abuse. The experiment clarified how the power of social and spatial constructs distorts personal identities and values as students had internalised situated identities in their roles as prisoners and guards. When Zimbardo gave an interview to the Edge Foundation in 2005, he argued that “understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that little shop of horrors”.26 According to Zimbardo, his experiment illustrated the competition between institutional powers versus the individual’s will to resist. Humiliation provided regular occasions for the guards to exercise control over the prisoners, illustrating that the relationship between pleasure and pain, in a territory that is spatially independent and functions under its own set of rules, is no longer based on a framework of human reasoning.

Spatial autonomy as the blueprint of evil

Camp X-Ray is an island, on an island, on an island. It is a sealed off zone […] which is itself sealed off from the rest of the island of Cuba. That is one of the reasons the US chose to bring suspects here: it is impossible to get to, unless the US military flies you in.
BBC report, 200427.

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba is essentially a territory where prisoners can be held indefinitely beyond the scrutiny of US courts. Some of the prisoners have been held there since 2001. Since it is not considered US territory, those imprisoned there have none of the rights of someone brought to American soil. Unlike military bases on US territories, Guantanamo is central to the strategy of preventing judicial review of the legal status of prisoners. Located on Cuban territory, it is the “legal equivalent of outer space”; mainland locations were ruled out as prison sites because they fall under the jurisdiction of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.28

Amnesty International has compared the territory to Soviet Gulags, where resistance was legal proof of the need for “treatment”. The US government does not accept the inmates’ status as prisoners of war, because, according to US authorities, they have not fought in uniform or represented a delineated, governed territory.”29

The spatial construction of Camp Delta consists of a maze of fences, razor wire, and observation towers. Walls are made from chain-link and cells are protected from the elements by corrugated metal sheets. Prisoners spend most of their time in their cells, sitting on the floor or lying on foam mats. At night, the entire territory is lit up so the guards can see the prisoners’ every move. The construction of additional detention units was completed by mid-April 2002, carried out by Brown and Root Services (BRS) – a subsidiary company of oil-venture Halliburton – approximately five miles from Camp X-Ray. Each detention unit is eight feet long, six feet eight inches wide, eight feet tall, and constructed with metal mesh on a solid steel frame. Alongside the foam mats, each detainee is provided with a blanket and a half-inch-thick prayer mat.30  These conditions have been meticulously designed in order to alter the behaviour of inmates and cause symptoms such as chronic depression, suicide, interpersonal rejection, psychiatric disorder, and trauma. The physical design is intended to force confession. Imperative to the conditions in Guantanamo is that spatial components are used as a tool to punish and coerce. As soon as the aim – the detainee’s confession – is achieved, spatial conditions are altered. Detainees who are willing to comply and confess have the chance to become “level one” detainees and live in Camp Four, where prisoners are housed in communal settings. The implications of this type of outsourcing of torture and extraterritorial incarceration at Guantanamo are enormous. There is a reality to space that introduces both physical conditions and a framework that facilitates its existence: part of the suffering of those men is because they are in a specific space that might be too hot, too small, or enforces severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and loss of motor skills.

In March 2005, after heavy criticism regarding the camp’s spatial conditions, the Pentagon announced the shipment of inmates at Guantanamo to prisons in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Yemen, despite fears they could face even worse human rights abuses in those contries. These transfers were similar to the much-criticised practice of rendition by which the CIA had moved prisoners to Syria and Egypt.31 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the Pentagon as early as 2002 that detainees would suffer such conditions, which are shockingly similar to earlier examples, starting with the disappearances in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the Chinese prison camps that still exist in a political system of one-party rule.

Of the 759 detainees that have been held in Guantanamo since its initial construction in January 2002, only 10 have been charged before a US tribunal for conspiring with al-Qaeda. On 29 June 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled what the majority of international human rights campaigners have argued for years: that the military tribunals violate both American military law and the Geneva Conventions. As the Supreme Court prepared its ruling on 29 June 2006, The New York Timesreported a conversation with the commander of Guantanamo’s military detention centre; when asked what impact the Supreme Court’s decision might have on its operation, he replied: “If they rule against the government, I don’t see how that is going to affect us. From my perspective, I think the direct impact will be negligible.”32 The US Defense Department repeated that view, underlining that the court’s ruling did not undermine the government’s argument that it can spatially detain suspects indefinitely and without charge, as enemy combatants in its declared War on Terror. Although the decision itself was described in The New York Timeseditorial as a “victory for the rule of law” and the most significant setback for the Bush Administration since 9/11,33 construction workers and engineers went to work as usual at Camp 6, the US$ 24 000 000 concrete structure that is to be a permanent facility for terror detainees.

Returning to Agamben – totalitarianism strikes one as extremely modern because it proposes the omnipotence of a single person. Under these conditions, the individual bureaucrat only has to follow orders, often resulting in the plea that the individual is therefore not accountable. This implies renouncing one’s own capacity to act, ultimately turning any act of cruelty into banality, pretending that “there is no alternative (TINA)”34 At Abu Ghraib, spatial conditions were disturbing. Imprisoned in 12 by 12 foot cells that were “little more than human holding pits”,35 detainees waited for their call. What Foucault, through Bentham’s Panopticon, explained as the subtle form of political control in the microclimate of a prison turned into a scenario in which there was neither political control on the micro-scale he describes, nor a fully operative legal framework able to deal with this parasitic relationship between politics and space. Although one can trace these territories on a map, they have been hoisted to a juridical meta-level on which humiliation through spatial and physical practice becomes part of the everyday fabric.

Although the “camp” should by no means be understood as a possible answer to political questions that are continuously raised by the “architects of power”, at least the camp offers a spatially defined framework, which can be judged and held responsible as a physical condition. Instead of further renditions that isolate human targets by withdrawing them from any evident physical environment, tomorrow’s politics of de-escalation should strive for an architecture of human rights. In an ideal world, such an application of spatial standards would prevent future scenarios in which architects commit crimes against humanity. Crimes regarding the organisation of the built environment through the deliberate misuse of spatial components are in desperate need of further analysis, not by politicians or human rights groups, but architects and planners trying to dismantle and understand the physical relationship between space and power. Both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are a showcase in the failure of ethical planning and a manifesto of power, a blend of physical and non-physical components that create an overall fabric of control-space. The question therefore needs to be: do we need a Geneva Convention for the built environment, a court of justice to persecute spatial war crimes?

Somewhere between the flood of human rights documents, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zacarias De La Rocha’s “is all the world jails and churches?”,36 and Salman Rushdie’s claim that “we need more teachers and fewer priests in our lives”,37 one starts to trace the failure and bitterness of geopolitics. But zooming out of the spatial enclaves, there is hope: breaking the stoic narrative that suggests the return to pre-enlightened vision, resisting the re-introduction of moral truisms, turning inside-out the model of the world in which religion is part of the public realm, the answer – on a larger scale – can only be the return to secular politics.

This text is an amended and updated version of an essay published in “5 Codes – Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror” (Basel, Boston, Berlin: Birkhäuser 2006).

This article is published as Eurozine’s contribution todocumenta 12 magazines, a collective editorial project linking worldwide over 70 print and online periodicals, as well as other media (

Schlesinger Report.Schlesinger, J. R., "Final Report of the Independent Panel to review DoD Detention Operations", Arlington (VA), August 2004, 79

Agamben, G., State of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

Lersch, P., "Demokratie im Ausnahmezustand – Die Verhüllte Freiheitsstatue", in: Spiegel Online, 27 October 2004.

On 1 September 2004, terrorists captured more than 1300 hostages at a School in Beslan, South Russia. This act of terror was directed specifically at children. Hundreds of children spent 53 hours without water and food in an overcrowded and hot gymnasium, wired with explosives. They witnessed the beatings and murders of family members, friends, and teachers.

Strong presidency and presidential administration; president's appointees in the Federal Districts; appointed governors, party formation from above, selective justice; state-controlled TV.

Marcuse, P., "The 'War on Terrorism' and Life in Cities after September 11, 2001", in: Graham, Stephen (ed.), Cities, War and Terrorism – Towards an Urban Geopolitics, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, 263

The Geneva Conventions consist of four documents passed in Switzerland in the aftermath of World War II. They present the international treaties setting rules about the conduct of war. They form the centrepiece of humanitarian law and seek to protect people from the sorts of assault endured in the fight against Nazism. Almost every country has ratified all four of the conventions, including the United States., "Geneva Conventions relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War", General Provisions, Article 1.

ibid., Article 4 (A.2).

"Renditions and Diplomatic Assurances – Outsourcing Torture" [see:].

"Getting Away with Torture? Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees", Vol. 17, No. 1(G), April 2005 [see:].

Yuval Ginbar, legal advisor to Amnesty International, cited in "The Tacit Acceptance of Torture" [see:].

"Diplomatic assurances allowing torture – Growing trend defies international law", 15 April 2005 [see:].

Malinowski, T., in: "U.S. State Department 2004 Human Rights Reports – Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives", Human Rights Watch document, 18 March 2005 [see:].

In Homo Sacer(1995, Italian original version) and The State of Exception(2004).

Arendt, H., The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1958.

See Agamben, G., Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press 1998.

See also: Zweifel, S., and Pfister, M., "Die 120 Tage von Abu Ghraib", in: Cicero, June 2004.

Hersh, S. M., "Torture at Abu Ghraib", The New Yorker, 3 May, 2004 [see also:].

Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison(trans. Alan Sheridan 1977), New York City: Vintage Books (Random House) 1995, 8.

Soulatges, J. A., Traite des crimes, I(1762), cited in: Foucault, M., Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison(trans. Alan Sheridan 1977), New York: Vintage Books (Random House) 1995, 32.

Foucault, M.,Discipline & Punish – The Birth of the Prison(trans. Alan Sheridan 1977), New York City: Vintage Books (Random House) 1995, 9.

Hirst, P., Space and Power - Politics, War and Architecture, Cambridge: Polity 2005, 26.

ibid. 167.

ibid. 169.

Zimbardo, P., "You can't be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel – a talk with Philip Zimbardo", in: Edge, 19 January 2005.

Lister, R., "Grim life at Guantanamo", in: BBC, 7 February 2002

Bush lässt Alternativen zu Guantanamo prüfen", in: Spiegel Online, 9 June 2005.

See Goldenberg, S., "US faces Cuban prison crisis", in: The Age, 13 March 2005.

Golden T., in: The New York Times[online], 30 June 2006.

See: The New York Times[online], Editorial, 30 June 2006.

Term coined by Pierre Wack, a French oil executive, arguing that strategy as it had been practiced (straight-line extrapolations from the past) did little to frame the choices that would define the future. The true role of strategy in his sense of the world was to describe a future worth creating, and then to reap the competitive advantages of preparing for it and making it happen. Strategy, in other words, was about telling stories.

Hersh, Seymour M., "Torture at Abu Ghraib," The New Yorker, 3 May, 2004, [see also: ].

De la Rocha, Z. M., "Vietnow", in: Evil Empire(recorded by Rage Against The Machine), 1996 (Sony Music).

Rushdie, S., "In Bad Faith", in: The Guardian, Monday March 14, 2005.

Published 30 June 2006
Original in English

© Markus Miessen, Eurozine


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