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The drowned and the saved: Foucault’s texts on migration and solidarity

Sunday 22 November 2015

COLIN GORDON 13 November 2015

This is (along with Islamism and neoliberalism) one of a certain number of global issues on which Foucault can be credited with having shown a degree of prescience; and the future he foresees is sombre.

These two texts, which seem still to speak to our concerns in the year 2015, did not have a high profile during Foucault’s lifetime. The 1979 Japanese press interview about refugees was not translated into French until 1994, or into English until very recently. The interview may have been a delayed result of Foucault’s busy visit to Japan in spring 1978, when he gave several talks and interviews, and visited a Zen monastery. The Boat People do not seem to have been discussed on record during that visit. Daniel Defert records that the Japanese weekly paper’s series was on ’very important people of the world’.

Foucault would have wanted this term to refer to the refugees, not himself. The 1981 Geneva text, though written to be read out at a press conference, seems to have been unpublished, and apparently not even typed, before the week after Foucault’s death. The Libération editors’ comments, when they published the piece in a tribute issue of the paper after Foucault’s death, seem a little fanciful. There is no confirming evidence that it was intended as an outline of a new charter of human rights, or that it was widely circulated to garner reactions and support. Yet it seems increasingly appropriate to consider it as perhaps Foucault’s most important single public statement.

In June 1979, Foucault, together with Bernard Kouchner and André Glucksmann, organized a press conference at the Collège de France, attended by both Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron (thus offering an unprecedented spectacle of ideologically opposed literati shelving their differences in humanitarian engagement), to call for the acceptance of boat-people refugees in European countries, especially France. This was indeed followed by an agreement of the French government to accept all refugees saved from the sea by a rescue ship which Kouchner was involved in organizing. (This incidentally was the period when Foucault is nowadays often said to have withdrawn from public engagements because of harsh criticisms he had received for his newspaper reports on Iran. André Glucksmann had written in January 1979 a series of reports from South East Asia on the boat people in the Italian paper Corriera della Sera, as part of the same series of investigations, directed by Foucault, which included Foucault’s Iran reports.)

Jean-Paul Sarte, Andre Glucksmann, Rayond Aron. Some rights reserved Both of these pieces were included in Dits et Ecrits, the complete edition of Foucault’s shorter writings published in 1994. The 1979 interview was translated back from the Japanese for this edition. I selected the Geneva statement for inclusion (in a translation by Robert Hurley) in volume 3 of the American edition of selections from Dits et Ecrits, and discussed it in my introduction to that volume. It had already been discussed, and translated, by Thomas Keenan in his Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics (1997). The piece has recently been receiving continuing and growing attention as part of a belated academic recognition that Foucault had significant and new things to say about rights.

One fact which seems to be well established: that the Geneva press conference was held to announce the formation of an International Committee against Piracy. Attack and robbery by pirates were one of the hazards which the boat people faced in their risky voyages. Ships dispatched by voluntary agencies could rescue boat people in international waters where no single state has formal jurisdiction or responsibility, though they did not have power or authority to act against pirates. (Foucault, it may be worth noting, had briefly discussed piracy and the international law of the sea in his Collège de France lecture on January 24,1979). There is separate documentation that the International Committee against Piracy was formally created at Lausanne on April 30,1979.

Bernard Kouchner and Medecins du Monde, 1984. Some rigths reserved. Kouchner, the co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, who in 1979 had split off to co-found the separate organization Médecins du Monde, was actively involved in setting up the rescue operations. He afterwards mentioned the Geneva press conference in a contribution to a homage volume after Foucault’s death, and later in an interview in 2010, after he had accepted appointment as France’s foreign affairs minister under Nicolas Sarkozy. Kouchner confirms here that in the spring of 1984, shortly before Foucault’s fatal illness, he had commissioned Foucault, who wanted to take a break from academia, to take charge of the next rescue boat mission to the South China Sea.

Foucault’s short text has been subsequently interpreted as a charter or manifesto for humanitarian NGO groups. Kouchner, more controversially, stated that he understood it as a justification of ingérence, the right of international humanitarian intervention even without the consent of the relevant territorial state authority. Kouchner was certainly looking for such a vindication, but it takes some effort of imagination to see a basis for this in Foucault’s words. I am not aware of Foucault ever having discussed or taken a position on ingérence, as in the question of military intervention to prevent acts of genocide.

Foucault never himself drew a connection between these two texts, or commented on record on either, but it does not seem arbitrary today to consider them together. The interview on refugees is notable perhaps mainly for the clear, blunt terms in which Foucault states the problem and its sources, the difficulty of solving it, and its liability to recur and grow in years ahead.

This is, as it were, the supply side of humanitarian emergency. This is (along with Islamism and neoliberalism) one of a certain number of global issues on which Foucault can be credited with having shown a degree of prescience; and the future he foresees is sombre. The Geneva statement and its associated initiative clearly addresses itself to formulating new principles and initiatives capable of, at least in some degree, addressing this problem and others: the type of emergency, crisis or disaster calling for such new interventions is not delimited, and the Boat People are not specifically mentioned. The text is not addressed to any specific audience – state, organizations or individuals. We can certainly say it is intended to be addressed, via the media, to a global public. Despite or because of its brevity, its (apparent) simplicity and (apparent) obviousness, it has been found to carry a perceptible force which intervening time has not yet dissipated.

Some people have seen a linkage between this text – what it says and how it says it – and Foucault’s later research work on the notion of parrhesia, of free and fearless speech – which some, though not Foucault himself, have linked in turn to the (originally Quaker and pacifist) formula of speaking truth to power. There is certainly something in this, although perhaps this should not be over-egged, as the press conference, contrary to Foucault’s definition of parrhesia, and unlike some of the humanitarian rescue work, does not seem in itself to have been a high-risk action.

And what the text indeed says is that the point is not speech but action: to affirm the rightfulness and necessity of forms of action, and to acknowledge and affirm the creation of new rights as an effect of new action. And this may indeed involve not just an affirmation of new rights, but an extension or mutation of the notion of rights themselves.


It has been noticed that Foucault does not very often address, or use, the notion of citizenship (this reticence is certainly linked to the particularly close linkage in French political culture between notions of citizenship and revolution). One occasion when he does do so is in order to distinguish between how intellectuals are to conduct themselves as professionals and experts, and how they conduct themselves as citizens.

In this short text Foucault is not re-theorising existing conceptions of existing citizenship roles and relationships, within a state or political society; one might even think that he is inventing something more like a counter-citizenship. He is proposing a new role which is additional to those existing political relationships and which, by definition, crosses the boundaries of the state community. It is a supplementary citizenship with is not based in anything, on any condition or qualification. One does not, as I understand it, even need already to be a citizen of any state, and subject of the rights and duties contingent on that status – rights and duties with which Foucault does not concern himself here. One needs only to be one of the governed, and everyone meets that qualification, for even the stateless (indeed they least of all) are unable not to be governed.

The rights and duties of international citizenship have no precondition, and are not conditional on any prior event of conferral or permission; they exist, on Foucault’s account, solely by virtue of the fact of general solidarity among the governed. The rights and duties of international citizenship have no precondition, and are not conditional on any prior event of conferral or permission; they exist, on Foucault’s account, solely by virtue of the fact of general solidarity among the governed. Richard Rorty himself, one might think, could not have found fault with their perfect lack of foundation. Conversely, if international citizenship does not duplicate, it also does not supersede or substitute for ordinary citizenship rights - either for those who have these, or those who do not.

The rights and duties of international citizenship are rights and duties of individuals (and for non-state groups in which they may associate themselves for this purpose), they are not those of state actors. Nevertheless they are conceived within, and address themselves to a world of states, and of the tasks and obligation of states. The questions which thus come to be posed are questions of will, responsibility, capability, performance and negligence, variously and respectively on both state and non-state sides.

The key act of veridiction or truth-telling as spelt out in Foucault’s text is the double negative statement that it is not true that the suffering which international citizenship brings to the attention of governments is something for which governments can deny responsibility. This alethic double-negative recurs in Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu’s joint intervention the following year, over military coup in Poland: it is not the case that (as France’s foreign minister stated) the situation in Poland is an internal affair of no concern to European governments and citizens [1].

Behind this, here no doubt lies an issue about NGOs which had been made apparent before, and not only after the date of this press conference (the first NGO dates at least from the French-Prussian war of 1870-71 [2]) – their liability to cooption by, and compromise or complicity with state actors.

Kouchner and others split from Médecins sans Frontieres (created during the Biafra war in Nigeria, and which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999) and created the separate organization Médecins du Monde, over this precise issue. Foucault defines rights and duties of international civil solidarity as acting along two tracks: intervention and contestation/demand. The right and duty of private intervention refuses the state its monopoly of concern and care, in the face of its manifest incapacity or negligence. The right and duty of private intervention refuses the state its monopoly of concern and care, in the face of its manifest incapacity or negligence; the right of contestation/demand means enjoining the state to fulfil its duties where its action is indispensable. An NGO rescue ship can save people who states have left to drown, it cannot issue the entry visas for the state territory where they will be able to live.

From about 1977 on, the theme of government, the principles of government, the relations of government to the governed, become core to Foucault’s research and his practical thinking. The Geneva text is one of a series in his public comments and interventions where these notions and their associated combination of political and ethical concern are critically involved. The interpellation of governments is integral to the action plan Foucault describes: in this specific case, there were meetings with the French president and ministers, publicised through the involvement of intellectual and other celebrities, to agree a deal on refugee visas. (The 1979 Japanese interview refers also to cases where state collapse or failure are a factor or effect of disaster, that is to say where, as in Cambodia, a state interlocutor has been more or less incapacitated. This foreshadows, of course, the morally ambiguous problem-space or non-man’s land of interventions where NGOs will assume or be invested with quasi-state or para-state, a.k.a. “governance” functions, sometimes in contexts of “humanitarian” and peacekeeping intervention, sometimes in contexts where NGOs can be suspected of involvement in the neoliberal hollowing out of post-colonial states. These are characteristically the areas of refugee “supply”, which Foucault in 1979, in the case of the boat people, judged inaccessible to NGO intervention). An important if not essential component of what Foucault identifies as the performatively enacted (to put it terms which are now favoured, but which have only become current since Foucault’s time) right of international citizenship, understood as a solidarity of the governed - is a dialogue of the governed with (implying in turn some form of access to, and de facto recognition by) governments, mediated via an international public space (such as that of a press conference in Geneva).

I propose here briefly to review some other occasions in this period when Foucault publicly addressed this governmental relationship, in its reciprocal and dialogic aspects.


In November 1977, in an open, “Letter to some leaders of the Left”, Foucault invited the leading opposition politicians of the Socialist/Communist Union de la Gauche to comment on the prosecution of two women accused of having given shelter to a fugitive German lawyer, Klaus Croissant, who had sought asylum in France after being charged in Germany with involvement in the terrorist group for which he was acting as defence lawyer.

Asking the politicians for their opinion on this prosecution, Foucault wrote: “You aspire to govern us, and that is why we are asking you for your position. You know that you may have to take responsibility for an important problem: how to govern one of our modern states which claim to offer their population not so much territorial integrity, victory over an enemy or even general enrichment, but security”.

In April 1979, Foucault published another open letter, addressed to Mehdi Bazargan, the recently appointed prime minister of the Iranian Islamic Republic, who had taken office two months previously, following the fall of the Shah’s regime. In the letter, Foucault refers to their meeting in Qom the previous September, at a time when Bazargan had been a human rights activist under house surveillance by armed police. Referring to Bazargan’s conception of a democratic Islamic government where state power would be limited by the precepts of religion, Foucault comments: “This idea seemed to me important. Personally I am a little sceptical about the spontaneous respect which governments can be expected to pay to their own obligations. But it is good for the governed to be able to stand up to give a reminder that they have not simply ceded rights to those who govern them, but that they also intend to impose duties on them.”

Foucault proposes a set of universal issues of concern applicable to every form of government, and whose respect is a legitimate matter of universal concern: among these, the restraint of the arbitrary power to take life; due and accountable process in justice; and the rights of the accused to a legal defence. “Governing is not something that goes without saying, any more than condemning someone, any more than killing them. It is a good thing that someone, anyone, even at the other end of the world, can stand up and protest because they cannot bear to see another person tortured or unjustly condemned. This is not an intervention in internal affairs of state. Those who protested about a single Iranian tortured in the depths of a Savak prison were intervening in the most universal cause there is.”

In 1981, when the parties of the Left in France for the first time won a general election in the Fifth French Republic, Foucault suggested that their victory was linked to a commitment to a new “logic of the Left”, inspired by the post-68 radical movements, which involved a readiness for closer and more equal dialogue between government and governed: “A relation which will not be of simple obedience, but one in which working together plays an important role.” (DE III [296], p 179) On the new government’s abolition of the death penalty, he comments:

“It is comparatively easy to give up chopping off a few heads, because the blood makes a mess, because this is something that is no longer done in polite circles, and because there is the risk one may occasionally kill an innocent person.

One gets into a more serious and difficult debate when it comes to giving up the death penalty in terms of establishing the principle that no public power (no more than any individual) has the right to take anyone’s life. At that point you immediately come to the questions of war, the army, compulsory military service, and so on.” (DE III (300) p 206).

In an extended 1983 discussion of social security and health policy with Robert Bono, national secretary of the CFDT trade union, Foucault proposed an effort to reduce the “decisional distance” between policy-makers and citizens; in May 1983, interviewing the CFDT leader Edmond Maire, after remarking that Maire was “today invested with the function of truth-teller [homme véridique] , a very important role in our public life!”, Foucault asks whether the CFDT can act to provide a function of “direct challenge” [saisine directe] to hold government to account “on behalf of public opinion on issues of general interest”.


Foucault speaks in the Geneva text of the duty of international citizens – that is, of the governed – to take back from governments, step by step, their claimed monopoly of responsibility for humanitarian action. (One might remember that he had been lecturing that spring on policies to regulate market monopolies). This of course leaves open for the reflection of subsequent thinkers the issue of determining the proper allocation and coordination of responsibilities in a non-monopolistic regime where governed and governed, state and non-state actors undertake to share the tasks of solidarity.

Foucault wrote in his almost definitive 1982 position statement, “The Subject and Power”, that “the guarantee of freedom is freedom: freedom is a practice”: freedom’s possession depends on its exercise, rather than the other way around - though this process does not take place outside of processes of deliberation and contention, of what Foucault indeed terms the formation of a collective will.

In the Geneva text he says something similar about the formation of rights, or of certain rights: NGOs have established certain rights of the governed, precisely by exercising those rights. By the time he wrote “The Subject and Power” Foucault had spoken and acted in support of the banned and jailed trade unionists in Poland, working with the French support network for Solidarnosc and accompanying a (probably symbolic) delivery of medical supplies, practising the solidarity of the governed in support of Solidarity. It is possible that his thinking in the “Subject and Power” could have been part-inspired by what Adam Michnik called the politics of “as if”: that if Poles began to act as if they were free, the reality of freedom could thereby gradually come into being [3].

Sometimes, it seems, this approach can work, though there is still much to learn about how its successes can be replicated.


[1] Concerning Foucault’s remark in the Geneva text that governments are not permitted to write off the suffering of refugees in their balance-sheets of profits and losses, one may note that the economics of migration is one of the new areas of application of neoliberal human capital theory which Foucault mentions in his 1979 lectures.

[2] NGO’s are not new in modern history, and neither of course are massive refugee flows and other planned and involuntary mass population movements. The period after 1945 witnessed such movements on a scale which dwarf even the current exodus from zones of war and terror. See the valuable surveys in several books by Mark Mazower: Dark Continent, No Enchanted Palace, and Governing the World. Some of the refugee camps set up during that period, of course, remain in existence to this day.

[3] See Stephen Kotkin, The Soviet Collapse Since 1970 (Oxford University Press).

See online: The drowned and the saved: Foucault’s texts on migration and solidarity