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Beth Simmons Explores Impact of Border Hardening on Human Rights in 2024 Annual Lecture on International Justice

Co-faculty Director Kiyo Tsutsui and Beth Simmons, University of Pennsylvania, during the Q&A portion of the Annual Lecture on International Justice.

Professor Beth Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania delivered the Center for Human Rights and International Justice’s 2024 Annual Lecture on International Justice on April 9, titled “From Barriers to Abuse: International Border Hardening and Human Rights.” Simmons – who is well-known for her research on international political economy during the interwar years, global policy diffusion, and the influence of international law on human rights outcomes – shared her current research, which examines the relationship between global migration, hardening international borders, and human rights abuse.

Simmons opened her lecture by describing massive global migration trends over time and migrants’ susceptibility to human rights violations of the worst order. She critiqued “open” versus “closed” borders as a false dichotomy, and asserted that while states have the right to control their borders, the key question lies in how far states may go to exert that control without violating human rights. Simmons shared some of her recent research on the prevalence of global border anxiety over time. Her research analyzed the proportion of attention given to border anxiety during nations’ annual speeches at the United Nations General Assembly General Debate during the last three decades. She observed that states are increasingly referring to non-state actors and deploying anxious rhetoric surrounding borders at a rapidly rising pace, especially since 2010. These speeches evoke a sense of “danger, threat, conflict, worry, and competition,” in her words.

Simmons explained how her interest in the phenomenon of border anxiety manifesting through physical border hardening led her to conduct geospatial research on border crossings. Utilizing Google Earth to map structures at international border crossings, Simmons shared mapping visualizations of the ways in which many nations can be observed physically intensifying their borders through walls, fences, and other structures. Simmons made a point of challenging the notion of “sovereign borders,” a term being increasingly deployed by governments, including the United States. She warned that the more we speak of “sovereign borders,” the more we run the risk of unchecked state claims to exert total control. She posited that while states have sovereign identity, a border should be understood as a set of agreements and institutions – a legal relationship that affects social and economic relationships – rather than a permanent boundary. 

Toward the latter part of her lecture, Simmons shared aspects of her research that seek to explore the relationship between hardening border policies and the extent to which enforcement practices by state actors at those borders increase incidence of torture experienced by migrants. She argued that in the “securitized and rhetorized” setting of the international border, where border walls convey a sense of threat and national security, reports of torture by border and immigration officials (BIOs) are likely to increase. She hypothesized that perceptions of migrants are framed by border control policies, and highly visible border protection structures plausibly signal criminality and threat, which increases BIOs’ perceived risks and in turns ramps up their efforts to defend borders at all costs. Border barriers may signal the need to take extreme measures to defend national security, including torture. 

In order to mitigate this phenomenon, Simmons recommended that states thoroughly assess their border control policies for practices that violate human rights, consider decriminalization of migrants, consider demilitarizing international borders, and increase accountability for state actors. Simmons’ lecture highlighted the need for further study on the “confrontation between physical structure and human mobility” and its critical consequences for human rights. The lecture was followed by a lively question and answer session where students and faculty in attendance asked Simmons to elaborate on the origins of border security, research methodology and the rights of asylum seekers.

Simmons is the Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor and Andrea Mitchell Professor of Law, Political Science and Business Ethics at University of Pennsylvania.