The (Im)possibility of Human Rights in Asian/American Studies

  • Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (Editor), Guy Beauregard (Editor) and Hsiu-chuan Lee (Editor)
    The Subject(s) of Human Rights: Crises, Violations, and Asian/American Critique. Temple University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Keva X. Bui

Refusing the boundedness of the nation-state that oftentimes constrains Asian American studies, The Subject(s) of Human Rights powerfully centres human rights discourse as a framework within which to develop a transnational, global Asian/American critique. As editors Cathy Schlund-Vials, Guy Beauregard, and Hsiu-chuan Lee provocatively contest, the interdiscipline of Asian American studies, historically, has primarily concerned itself with the proliferation of anti-Asian racism within the continental US—indexing its history as a field of study emerging out of the civil rights movement and Third World Liberation Front (2). Engaging with a larger contemporary turn in Asian American studies towards conceptualizing “Asian/American” as a global formation shaped by transnational and transpacific flows of migration, militarization, imperialism, and racial capitalism, this collection of essays reroutes Asian American studies through an attention to the (il)legibility of the figure of the Asian within international human rights discourse. In doing so, the authors assert that engaging with human rights discourse—and specifically offering a critical consideration of who constitutes the “subject(s)” of human rights concerns—opens up an avenue for reconceptualizing Asian/American critique in the unsettled and contested geographies of Asian America.

The first section of the collection recalibrates Asian American studies towards a sustained engagement with human rights critique, circulating around the constitution of the “human” within the afterlives of World War II and the Cold War. Through an analysis of camptown prostitution in South Korea, Min-Jung Kim urgently addresses the continued deployment of human rights as a juridical discourse that obscures violent US militaristic interventions behind the veil of moral humanitarianism. Christopher Lee’s essay animates “transnational lifeworlds” of Chinese migrants in the early Cold War period, demonstrating how they were both regulated by and posed a challenge to Canada’s human rights regime. Masumi Izumi revives the previously forgotten story of the Vancouver Asahi baseball team—a group of Japanese Canadians forcibly repatriated to Japan after World War II—in order to engage their reintegration into Japanese society, extending their histories beyond deportation from the Canadian nation-state. Similarly, Vinh Nguyen traces how diasporic Vietnamese refugee identity is constructed via the absence of human rights in their homeland, enfolding themselves into Canada’s liberal-capitalist nation-building process wherein “humanity is contingent on subscription to and acceptance of conditions of violence, displacement, and exclusion as part and parcel of social life” (88). In both cases, the authors emphasize how the legibility of Asian subjects as “human” within North American human rights discourse functions to embolden national projects invested in racial capitalism and military imperialism.

The second section builds on the insights of the first to interrogate the “impossible subjects” of human rights discourse—those already rendered illegible as human at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and labour. Yin Wang offers an important analysis of James Baldwin’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, demonstrating how US imperialism employed its disposable, Black subjects in service of a facade of liberation in Southeast Asia. The next two chapters turn to Southeast Asian migrant domestic labourers: Christopher B. Patterson examines the figure of the “matronly maid” to understand the circuits of gendered labour exploitation that undergird the consolidation of Asian capitalism, while Grace Hui-chuan Wu critiques “literary humanitarianism” as a reading practice that renders human rights an abstraction, instead emphasizing the need to “visualize the subject of human rights . . . as an embodiment of particular social, cultural, and historical contexts” (134). Annie Isabel Fukushima heeds this urgent call, reading the failure to facilitate human rights for trafficked human labour across the US, Asia, and the Pacific, propelling the social death of subjects tethered to incomplete dualities of victim/criminal, illegal/legal, and citizen/noncitizen. These “tethered subjectivities,” as Fukushima notes, produce limited imaginaries of migrant workers trafficked under global capitalism, thus, “[t]o untether subjectivities requires not merely new positionalities but rather enacting new ways of witnessing rights violations” (157).

The final section envisions the afterlives and aesthetics of warfare, genocide, and military occupation across various sites of Asia, exposing the limits of human rights discourse for offering justice for those affected. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials opens this section with a powerful critique of atrocity tourism at Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to demonstrate the limits of juridical justice in commemorating victims of genocide and mass violence. Dinidu Karunanayake interrogates the limits of humanitarian interventions in postwar Sri Lanka and argues for the necessity of “mnemonic citizenship,” a humanitarian encounter “where the benefactor has to acknowledge intricacies of the beneficiary’s cultures, identities, histories, and subjectivities that are very much alive and active in mnemonic domains” (194). Mayumo Inoue turns to Okinawa to underscore the limits of a state-centric mode of human rights, a site that requires confrontation with “the triangulation of sovereign, disciplinary, and regulatory powers across the global space, the powers that need to be mediated locally by the nation-state form” (202). Finally, Christine Kim demonstrates how testimonials from North Korean defectors exemplify the Democratic Republic of Korea as a space of exceptional inhumanity, wherein “[t]he inhuman is denied the kind of subjectivity and recognition that the human is assigned not because it is a different species from the nonhuman is [sic] but because it represents the limitations of what can be recognized as human” (226). This powerful argument exemplifies the absolute limits of human rights discourse as an epistemology of Asian/American inquiry: How might we grapple with a history of racialization that has so often excluded particular Asian subjects—the foreign, the communist, the gendered, the sexualized, and the so-called primitive—outside the privileged category of the human itself?

As Madeline Thien argues in the afterword of the collection, central to the constitution of personhood is “unofficial history,” silences that inhabit and haunt the atmospheric geographies of violence surrounding us (234). Indeed, this provocation underscores the necessity for Asian/American critique to develop new analytics for confronting the cacophonous histories of racialized and gendered violence that have constituted the imagined geographies of Asian America, reminding scholars to do the important work of listening as a practice of resuscitating the human from colonial and imperial powers. In this manner, The Subject(s) of Human Rights powerfully opens up important conversations about animating human rights discourse within Asian/American studies, both in its limitations and possibilities.

This review “The (Im)possibility of Human Rights in Asian/American Studies” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 3 Sep. 2021. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.