Tag Archives: postcoloniality

Law's Slow Violence Guest Post: Usha Natarajan on visibility and changing the deal

As part of the Law’s Slow Violence workshop hosted by Osgoode Hall Law School on June 14 2013 (complete information here or at the bottom of this post), we solicited guest posts from academics attending the workshop and interested in the issues. 

Find the other posts here.


Today, international law specialist Professor Usha Natarajan of the American University in Cairo, where she is assistant professor in the Department of Law and the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, offers us her thoughts.


image of a puddle of dark oilAs aphotograph of Usha Natarajann international lawyer living in Riyadh and Cairo over the past four years, certain passages in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor had particular resonance for me. Most memorable was Nixon’s quote from Abdallah Tariki, former Director of Petroleum and Mineral Affairs of Saudi Arabia, who said, ‘We are the sons of the Indians who sold Manhattan. We want to change the deal’.[1] There are a number of reasons why someone like me – a postcolonial international lawyer interested in environmental issues – would find such a statement thought provoking: Did Tariki really relate himself so closely with those indigenous peoples, in a remarkable imagined alliance across disparate times, spaces and cultures? What is the deal that he wanted to change? Has he changed it?


We could read various meanings into his statement. My interpretation understands the sale of Manhattan as one where indigenous peoples sold to the colonizers what they desired at a low cost. When the land’s value increased hyperbolically, the original owners were excluded from the benefit. Indeed, the purchase and subsequent development of that land had a role in materially, culturally and symbolically disempowering the indigenous peoples.


Have the Saudis changed this deal? Saudi Arabia is the central cog in an oil industry that, through anti-market mechanisms and monopolies, can sell their product at more than a hundred times the cost of production. Unlike those who sold Manhattan, the Saudis, through possessing a resource desired by the United States, have established a relationship that allows Saudi Arabia to enhance national power and wealth. Some non-western states now play the game of industrialization and capitalism and – by the game’s own measurements – they win. They have, in common parlance, ‘emerged’. In this sense, the deal has changed.


But the Arab uprisings give lie to this claim, reminding us of those who are sacrificed to this narrative. While they may not have articulated it in this way, for many in this region the uprisings were an outpouring of resistance to slow violence. Whether a drought-displaced Syrian farmer forced to move to the nearest city, a fisherman or farmer trying to cope with increasing industrial pollution in the Nile delta, a street-vendor harassed by police in Tunisia, or a Bahraini or Saudi Shia disenfranchised in their own land, for a while they made their everyday sufferings and injustices visible and spectacular. The unthinkable had happened.


Saudi Arabia continues to put down long-standing resistance from Shia inhabitants in its Eastern Province as well as in neighboring Bahrain. While they live on top of most of the oil and gas – indeed they are a majority there – the Shia population remain not only impoverished but despised. The alliance with the United States brought to the Kingdom economic growth, but this alliance is also central to maintaining a rigid monarchy allied to a strict Islamic sect. Saudi society has fissures along many lines, including wealth, gender, religion, and province. But whether rich or poor, man or woman, Sunni or Shia, the commonality is a society deeply traumatized by the strange contradictions of life in an ultracapitalist strict Islamic state, an ultra-Americanized monarchy, unimaginable luxury alongside destitution, the holiest site in Islam overshadowed by the adjacent gigantic 7 star luxury hotel and shopping mall.


Attempts to ‘change the deal’ were rife in the region and throughout the third world in the decolonization era. The New International Economic Order and the doctrine of permanent sovereignty over natural resources were normative efforts to do just that. Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno, Nyerere, and other non-aligned leaders asserted that the resources of the former colonies were no longer available freely: our resources are ours and we set the conditions for access.


But in the Arab region, doctrines such as permanent sovereignty simultaneously helped bolster the power of domestic tyrants. By asserting strong and centralized state control over natural resources – resources that provided the essentials of life such as water, food and energy – post-independence rulers could establish swift control over their populace and territory. Thus, the discourse of resistance put forward by third world international lawyers arguing for a New International Economic Order not only failed, but the very same discourse became a tool of dispossession and profound unsovereignty for most Arab peoples, who did not equitably share in the wealth generated by natural resources.


In the context of the struggle over Arab natural resources, it is difficult to identify an independence moment: a clear postcolonial rupture with past patterns of dependence, subordination and exploitation. As Nixon states, ‘for if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post’.[2] Hence for many, especially the region’s youth, the uprisings felt like independence movements, and in Tunisia and Cairo where leaders were overthrown there was the promise of long-desired postcoloniality.


In this place and at this time the bringing together of two discourses, postcolonialism and environmentalism, as Nixon does, may prove strategic and useful. The discontent underlying the uprisings are linked with environmental issues, natural resource management, unequal access to water, food and energy in the region where inequalities are grotesque (for example, 100 per cent of Kuwaitis have access to electricity compared with 25 per cent in the Sudan), land degradation, desertification, drought, and severe onset of climate change.


Post-revolution regimes have not focused on environmental issues, seeing them as something to be addressed after the important work of elections, constitutionalism and development is done. However, as grassroots movements in other regions have realized, environmental issues are one of the few ways to disrupt dominant economic paradigms, because they can pose a clear and rational challenge to the fundamental assumptions that underpin capitalism and development. Such a discourse is helpful in a region where people are struggling to imagine their way out of the destructive development patterns of the past – a development that bred widespread discontent through multiplying the sites of slow violence.


For an international lawyer participating in this reimagining effort, one of the difficulties is that our discipline’s dominant discourse understands life in a way that makes environmental violence difficult to identify and source, let alone resist. For instance, our understanding of the economy – what it is, what is inside and outside it, what we count and what we discount – has compromised our ability to spot and define an environmental problem and has also circumscribed our ability to offer solutions. How have environmental issues become fragmented, specialized and marginalized within international law? What is our role as lawyers in defining the limits of the economic? And does it matter what we lawyers do? Interestingly, in a region familiar with the complicity of law – domestic and international – in the disempowerment of the masses, Arab peoples still look to the law for salvation in the post-revolutionary moment, asking for constitutional reform, human rights, reform of the judiciary as legal constraints on state power. Law continues to be an important instrument both for those asserting their power and for those resisting it.


Law, lawyers, and our way of understanding life, is an intimate part of the process whereby nature is made ‘abstract in order to extract’.[3] Arundhati Roy describes that, ‘[a]t The Hague I stumble on a denomination, a sub world, whose life’s endeavor was entirely the opposite of mine. For them the whole purpose of language is to mask intent … they breed and prosper in the space that lies between what they say and what they sell’.[4] International lawyers have participated in creating a world inattentive to environmental violence through universalizing particular concepts at particular times. Whether the definition of sovereignty and laws of title to territory, private property and the concept of eminent domain, the development myth feeding the illusion of limitless growth everywhere all the time, or asserting the human as a possessor of inherent rights, each of these international law concepts brings with it underlying assumptions about the natural environment – assumptions that may tie us to perpetuating certain types of slow violence.


Critical international lawyers have focused on retelling the story of law to reveal how it participates in perpetrating or obfuscating slow violence. This is an ongoing project and what is interesting to me, as Nixon relates with regard to his own discipline, is how postcolonial international lawyers – long wary and skeptical of environmentalism – are tentatively approaching environmental issues, as we come to realize that such an engagement is both strategic and indispensable to us if we indeed want to change the deal.

[1] Nixon 68.

[2] Nixon 8.

[3] Nixon 41.

[4] Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (2001) 43 as quoted by Nixon 169.