Performing sovereignty and the refugee body

Date & time
1–3pm Tuesday 17 September 2019

Room 3.069, ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, Acton

Likim Ng


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PhD oral presentation
Performing sovereignty and the refugee body

This doctoral thesis examines how contemporary sovereignty works in Australia in the field of refugee law. I claim that in Australia, authorities decide how a refugee should be treated through legal performance. We see decisions being made outside the normal legal processes in a processing centre or security organisation determining the legal status of a refugee, the excision of Australian territory and the delimitation of Australia’s territorial border.

My thesis considers the relationship between law and sovereignty. Through performance, those with sovereign power can commit legal violence by legitimating the control of a body through language. In this thesis, I show that one of the ways performance can happen is through the language of security and crisis. Through performative language, the sovereign can construct a racialised refugee body, which can be controlled by legal violence towards the refugee body. Language can justify the bypassing of legal standards, processes and rights.

My original contribution connects performativity and sovereignty to address the problem of how sovereignty controls the refugee body. By reference to philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler I explore the performance of sovereignty. Sovereign power is a spectacle rather than an abstract concept where there are clear decision makers who are performing.

We see decision makers such as ministers, judges, tribunal members but also airline personnel, doctors, civil servants and privately hired security guards deciding how refugees should be treated. These decision makers perform sovereignty since they are given legal powers to decide how refugees should be treated.

I bring a contemporary view of sovereignty, exceptional laws and performativity into the practical sphere through in-depth legal analysis. The analysis of legal sources, encapsulate migration laws, case law, tribunal decisions, policy documents and discourse from the political landscape.


  • Likim Ng »

    Likim Ng

    Likim is a PhD candidate at the ANU College of Law, Australian National University, where she has taught in the areas of legal theory, critical legal theory, refugee law and human rights law. Her research is supported by the Australian Government Research Training Program. 

    She obtained a Masters in International and Comparative Law (Public International Law) at the University of Helsinki where her thesis was accepted with Exceptional Praise (2013). 

    During her PhD studies, she was awarded a visiting fellowship with a mobility grant scholarship to the Human Rights Institute of Åbo Akademi University, Finland. 

    Prior to commencing at the Australian National University, Likim worked as a Judge's Associate at the Federal Circuit Court of Australia assisting Judge Street and Judge Driver to judicially review protection visa matters. 

    She has also international criminal law research experience as a legal advisory intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,Tanzania and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, The Hague, in the Office of the Prosecutor.

    Her primary research area focuses on critical legal theory approaches to refugee law and theoretically links sovereignty with performativity.

    On a policy level, she is interested in the heightened security focus on refugees. Her personal interests include mentoring students from diverse backgrounds; cultural, class, lgbtqi and assisting refugees, particularly women at risk to navigate Australia's legal system.

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