While working on my recent work, Muslims and the Western Conception of Rights, I struggled with the application of the systems thinking framework to the topic of human rights. I wanted the framework to yield practical recommendations that promote and foster fundamental rights. By the end of the project, I realized that such expectations are a limiting burden, not indicative of the utility and usefulness of the approach. The utility of the framework should not be judged by one’s ability to successfully apply it, but by its capacity to explain. Reading Border and Rule underscored the importance of nuanced understanding of the analysis framework over its application to critical human rights issues, such as migration, labor, and economic rights.
Among the fundamental features of systems thinking framework are its capacity to exploit the properties of dynamicity and interconnectedness of systems to identify determinant forces that shape human rights as lived experience and as a conceptual discourse. Harsha Walia, perhaps without explicitly identifying these properties, masterfully identifies the structures, instruments, and actors involved in the displacement of persons and peoples and exposes the systems that produced them.
For instance, Walia disputes the qualification of migration as a crisis in and of itself in favor of presenting it as “the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.” She explains migration, as a global event by linking it to national issues such as labor, prisons, and domestic policies. She traces the cause of mass migration to settlers’ and colonizers’ projects that seem to many as distant, unrelated to migration today. For Walia, there should be no distinction between domestic policies and foreign policy, no distinction between Saudi Arabia’s Kafala system and Canada’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program; systems of exclusion are the same be they developed and deployed in liberal or illiberal societies, today or hundreds of years past.
Walia passion for addressing historical wrongs and compassion for the vulnerable manifests itself in her powerful writing style and deliberately selected examples, which allows the readers to tether the idea of human rights as an abstract to historical and ongoing events as lived experiences. Walia rejects the normalization of the colonial border based on or resulting from racialized ideas, which ended up racializing people and erasing Indigenous nations, reproducing racialized and ethnicized social order. However, Walia’s aim to advocate for Indigenous peoples is informed by how powerful nations have managed and continue to manage borders, which led her to reject borders altogether. Her rejection of borders is based on her reasoning that “the borders of settler states are illegal; human beings are never illegal.” If this generalization were true in all times and in all places, colonization of the Americas and Africa could be made legitimate and defensible.
The extraordinary value of this work is in the level of analysis of data and explanation of the functions of borders; Walia’s ability to place ostensibly disparate structures, processes, and events in the same framework is original and commendable. However, at the end of it all, the reader might be left with the impression that the solution to these critical and complex problems lies in advocating for a world with no borders. Walia, I presume, would hope for a world without border, but only in a world where the power structure is reconfigured; when equality takes hold; and where the power differential is brought to a near neutral level. I don’t foresee such a world, for imbalance and disequilibrium are likely to endure in the future as they have endured in past. Through systems thinking, we can imagine a world that focuses more on the selective permeability of border–the selectivity that Walia brilliantly brought to the forefront–than on border in and of themselves; and create systems that achieve such an imagined world.
Identifying the systems that produce disparity and deprivation should not always lead to the conclusion that no system is better than any system. In this case, where migration is the issue, borderless world does not necessarily remediate the historical deprivation and genocide to which Native Americans were subjected. A Borderless world would make the colonialization of the Americas legitimate and therefore legitimating the consequences of the death and destruction experienced by Indigenous peoples and inflicted by settlers through violence and diseases.
The Systems Thinking Framework establishes that all events are outcomes of systems, some intentional and direct and some unintended and indirect. Therefore, the elimination of systems cannot be a solution; and there lies the challenge: creating, figuring, and/or reconfiguring systems that would enable us to remediate historical injustices and abuses and reduce the harm when abuses and injustice take place anew—which will likely continue to happen as long as humans continue to authorize and tolerate violence in all its manifestations.