The Desert as Site of Strategic Invisibility

Authors: Danika Cooper*, University of California, Berkeley
Topics: Arid Regions
Keywords: deserts, human rights, cultural landscape
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 5:00 PM / 6:40 PM
Room: Congressional B, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In January 2018, "The Guardian" reported that the Republic of China is detaining nearly 120,000 Muslim citizens in "re-education schools" in the Xinjiang desert. The intention of these detention centers is to curtail the cultural identity of China’s Muslim Uighur minority and to encourage assimilation into mainstream Chinese culture. Since then, satellite imagery has confirmed the existence of many massive, highly secure compounds in the once “empty” desert. Despite non-Chinese media outlets having relatively little information regarding the specifics of the detention of the Uighur community, it illustrates yet another example of the prolonged use of the desert as a space for strategic invisibility, wherein questionable activities are pursued out of sight and beyond the realm of political justification. There have historically been, and continue to be today, countless instances of national governments and their associated institutions using deserts as invisible spaces to infringe upon the rights of citizens and to commit human rights violations. In the American context, the federal government systematically removed members of Indigenous nations from ancestral lands, forcefully relocating many to reservation lands in the desert. During World War II, the United States forced Japanese-Americans into internment labor camps in desert regions under the guise of national security. This paper will illustrate the ways that deserts have been employed as sites to violate human rights for political agendas.

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