Settler Colonial Sovereignty: Some implications of Jasbir Puar’s conception of the sovereign right to maim

The fourth contribution to our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim comes from Darcy Leigh and Cynthia Weber. Dr Darcy Leigh currently teaches decolonial and queer legal perspectives, as well as interdisciplinary ‘widening access’ programming, at the University of Sussex Law School. She has previously been a Teaching Fellow and/or Research Assistant at the universities of Edinburgh, Ottawa and Alberta. Dr Leigh has also worked as a facilitator, researcher and/or consultant with decolonial higher education projects Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning and the Akitsiraq Law School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in Scotland. Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

State sovereignty, as a central analytical category in the field of International Relations (IR), has been too often uncontested (Walker, 1993). In spite of a wave of critical sovereignty studies in the 1990s (Ashley, 1988; Bartelson, 1995; Weber, 1995; Biersteker and Weber, 1996; Walker, 1993), with few exceptions those debates largely skirted or ignored altogether how state claims to sovereignty are woven through and require specific relationship to race and sexuality (Doty, 1996; Peterson, 1999; Weber, 1999). Only very recently have IR scholars come to recognize the centrality of sexuality and race in sovereign state formation (Anievas, Manchanda & Shilliam, 2015; Agathangelou et al 2008; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Leigh, 2017; Manchanda, 2015; Rao, 2012, 2014; Richter-Montpetit, 2007, 2015, 2016; Sabaratnam, 2017; Shilliam, 2015; Weber, 2016). More recently still, IR scholars are beginning to recognize the centrality not just of sexuality and race, but also of settler colonialism and disability (Beier, 2005, 2009; Crawford, 1994, 2007; Howell, 2011, 2018; Leigh, 2015; Shaw, 2008).

Jasbir Puar’s challenging and provocative new book, The Right to Maim, pushes these discussions further, demonstrating the inextricability of state sovereignty from settler colonialism as configured through racialized and sexualized relations of debility, capacity and disability. In so doing, Puar contests the function and meaning not only of sovereign statecraft, but also of settler colonialism.

In this short piece, we focus on the implications of Puar’s reworking of sovereignty and settler colonialism.

Sovereignty, Safe Citizens and Never-To-Become-(Safe) Citizens

State sovereignty is too often defined in IR, as an absolute authority over a territory occupied by a relatively fixed population, supposedly necessary to protect that territory and its citizens from external threats. However, the exercise of state sovereignty also requires specific (and often violent) racialized, sexualized, and abilized technologies to produce its citizenry and to keep its citizenry aligned with the aims of the state.

Those familiar with Puar’s and Amit Rai’s work will know that, separately and together, they have charted how some of these technologies function in the production of docile patriotic US citizens who must be secured against the ‘monster, terrorist, fag’ (Puar & Rai, 2002). In The Right to Maim, Puar, focusing now on Israel’s occupation of Palestine, continues this line of analysis in several additional registers. These are not just debility, capacity, disability, race, and sexuality but also sovereignty, settler colonialism, occupation, and modern liberal state formation. One way to access Puar’s current contribution is to consider how her arguments engage with and extend discussions about the features, formation, and effects of safe citizenship (Weber, 2008).

Conceptualisations of safe citizenship suggest that states divide their populations into those who can never become valued, patriotic ‘safe’ citizens and those who can. The violent mechanisms through which these divisions occur are as varied as states themselves. What they all have in common is their reliance not just on legal arrangements of citizenship but also upon the practical packaging of citizenship as part of a nation-state’s sovereign design for safe living.

Each of three dominant modes of liberal state formation – found in classical liberal, disciplinary/biopolitical, and network society – produce safe, unsafe and non-citizens in different ways by attaching claims to sovereignty to a specific ‘design principle’ for safe citizenship. These include requiring citizens to die for their country, care for their country, and immerse into their countries disciplinary/biopolitical/control networks. These modes of safe citizenship accumulate, overlap, and intersperse with – rather than displace – one another as they compete for dominance within a particular state. Safe citizenship appears to become a less violent relationship between the state and the citizen as we move from classical to disciplinary/biopolitical to network societies, because immersing and caring are seen to be less violent than dying. This ability of the state to make the violence that always exists in state/citizen relations invisible is crucial to its success.

The Right to Maim works against this sort of ‘making invisible’ desire of the state, to reveal a complex new assemblage of violent relationships in Israeli settler colonial sovereign statecraft. For Puar, the functioning of Israeli settler colonial sovereignty is now articulated through the racialized and sexualized triad of debility, capacity, and disability. The Israeli state, Puar argues, shoots to maim but not to kill, debilitates infrastructure as well as people, and algorithmically regulates the caloric intake of Palestinians. If the design principle for safe citizens in classical sovereignty is for the soldier/patriot to die for their country, then the design principle for Palestinian never-to-become-(safe) citizens under Israeli occupation is not to be allowed to die. If the design principle for safe citizens in disciplinary/biopolitical sovereignty is for citizens to care for their country by caring for themselves, then Puar suggests the corresponding principle for Palestinian never-to-become-(safe) citizens is to be kept in need of care without being able to sufficiently access it. If the design principle for safe citizens in network society is to immerse themselves in state/societal networks as their way to become one with and for their country, then the sovereign demand placed on Palestinian never-to-become-(safe) citizens is to become so fully immersed into bodily, infrastructural, and algorithmic debilitations and disabilities that they become increasingly immobilised. All this underscores the aim of designing safe citizens and never-to-become-(safe) citizens from the state’s perspective: it is about keeping states safe from citizens, by keeping safe citizens ‘safe enough’ from never-to-become-(safe) citizens and their potential resistance, while (in the specific case Puar reads) also increasing the value of never-to-become (safe) citizens in the state’s relationship with disaster capitalism.

Puar’s analysis expands our understanding of settler colonial sovereignty. By describing the right to maim as a sovereign strategy of settler colonial occupation, she adds another vector to Foucault’s types of biopolitics – ‘making live, making die, letting live, or letting die’ (Puar, 2017:137). She also shows how this targeting for incapacitation simultaneously capacitates the settler colonial state and its safe citizen, and how resistance itself can be made a target of debilitation and disability. Most importantly, both in the context of Israeli’s occupation of Palestine and more broadly, Puar demonstrates how and why the subject of occupation has no path to (safe) citizenship and how and why occupying settler colonial states relegate occupied people to the interminable status of never-to-become-(safe) citizen.

 Settler colonial sovereignty in and beyond the Israeli occupation  

The place of Israel and Palestine in Settler Colonial Studies and Indigenous Studies is contested, and The Right To Maim has faced a backlash from some Zionists who reject the categorization of Israel as an occupying and settler colonial state. However, part of the power of Puar’s book is that it circumvents any “exceptional” (Puar, 2017:144) analysis of Israel which might echo the exceptionalism through which Jewish Israeli sovereignty is often articulated.

What then does Puar’s analysis of Israeli sovereignty as the implicit right to maim do for understandings of settler colonial sovereignty more broadly?

Puar’s analysis broadens our understanding of settler colonialism to include not only elimination but also debilitation. As Puar explains: The understanding of maiming as a specific aim of biopolitics tests the framing of settler colonialism as a project of elimination of the indigenous through either genocide or assimilation” (Puar, 2017: 144). Puar here references Patrick Wolfe’s influential definition of settler colonialism as “the elimination of the native” (Wolfe, 2006:387). While Wolfe’s definition has been pivotal in our understanding of settler colonization, Puar suggests it risks obscuring other forms of violence, especially the violence of debilitation, at work in settler colonial contexts.

Revising our understanding of settler colonialism to include the sovereign right to maim may, Puar suggests, “… revise our thinking on other times and other places…. Examining the role of maiming not only in Palestine but also in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States” (Puar, 2017: 144). In Canada, for example, the state fails or refuses to provide Indigenous communities with clean running water, basic healthcare or sufficient housing. Lack of housing debilitates through overcrowding, for example by spreading tuberculosis. The systematic abduction, psychological abuse, rape and murder of Indigenous children by the state during residential schooling has also resulted in debilitating cycles of PTSD, familial violence and alcoholism in Indigenous communities. Many ‘remote’ communities have been impacted by waves of famine as settlers have disrupted their food sources (e.g. by over-hunting or environmental degradation) and/or forcibly relocated communities to areas without food for strategic reasons (e.g. the assertion of state sovereignty through the relocation of Inuit ‘citizens’ to the high Arctic during the Cold War). Thus far Settler Colonial Studies and Indigenous Studies scholars have generally viewed these practices as efforts of elimination by settler colonial state. Puar suggests to us that they could also be viewed as practices of maiming produced and exercised through the racialized and sexualized debility, capacity, disability assemblage.

By naming Israeli settler colonial sovereignty as reliant upon assemblages of debility, capacity, and disability, Puar opens up lines of comparison and enquiry with other settler colonial states whose legitimacy is less often contested. Our intention is not simply to transpose Puar’s analysis of Israel’s implicit claim to the sovereign right to maim onto other contexts. Clearly, Puar’s analysis is grounded in the specificities of her empirical research on the Israeli occupation. Similarly, an analysis of North American settler colonial sovereignty must take account of the specificities of Indigenous (often unsafe) citizenship. This includes legal and political citizenship of the Canadian state, as Inuit First Nations or Metis, and of specific Indigenous nations or pan-Indigenous citizenship, as well as articulations of Indigenous sovereignty against/with/in-spite of state sovereignty (Alfred, 2005; Barker, 2005, 2017; Borrows, 2002, 2010; Smith, 2005; Todd, 2016). Nonetheless, as we have shown here, we can also trace the roles of debility, capacity and disability in practices of settler colonial sovereignty beyond Israel and Palestine in ways that make what settler colonial states describe as past state violence imposed on never-to-become-(safe) citizens visible in the present as on-going settler colonization.


The Right to Maim makes at least three important contributions to scholarship, in IR and beyond. It reveals a complex assemblage of violent relationships that were previously invisible in the forging of settler colonial sovereign statecraft. It broadens our understanding of settler colonial sovereignty. And by making visible the implicit claim of a sovereign ‘right to maim’ it aspires to interrupt the political effectiveness of Israeli settler colonial sovereignty. As a result, The Right To Maim is not merely an interesting intellectual contribution- it aspires to make interventions on behalf of social justice across the vast terrains of debility, capacity, and disability it sketches. It is a book that must be reckoned with not only by scholars, but also by activists and policymakers.

Still, Puar could be pushed on several fronts. For example, her stated aim is to “labor in the service of a Free Palestine” (Puar, 2017:154) and to address the Western bias and violence of much disability and LGBT rights scholarship/activism (Chapters 1 and 2). While we welcome her contribution to these endeavors, we wonder: What more might have been made visible about how Israeli settler colonial sovereignty functions through debility, capacity and disability, had The Right to Maim begun with the Global South, rather than with two chapters primarily about the United States?

Similarly, Puar’s discussions of pinkwashing, homonationalism, and crip nationalism focus largely on a US context. Here we wonder, does Puar’s attachment to these concepts keep us too firmly focused on what passes as liberal state formation (in all of its complexity), at a historical moment when increasingly right-wing and explicitly anti-liberal (including anti-LGBT) Western states can no longer be (fully) described as homo- or crip-nationalist?

Finally, as co-authors, we were divided about Puar’s intellectual and political mobilization of the occupied/occupier binary, which largely critiques the occupier but hardly critiques the occupied. We both recognize and support the political project this move makes, but one of us worried that this move might undercut the political project Puar is fighting for.

Yet we strongly embrace Puar’s critiques of sovereignty, settler colonialism, disability studies, and mainstream disability rights activism. The judiciousness with which Puar negotiates these literatures and practices offers a final – and unfortunately still vital – caution for IR scholars: while we must attend to these debates, we should not import them uncritically into own analyses of global politics. Nor indeed, should we import Puar’s own working through of these debates uncritically.


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