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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: May 2020

Chapter 9 - The Panopticon and the Potemkin


This chapter recalls the author’s earlier visit to a Chinese compulsory drug detention center to explore covert civil society counter-surveillance of a tightly restricted facility under multiple rings of state surveillance, and to reflect on the limits of international regimes of monitoring and accountability. While torture and forced labor were widely reported, the facility’s manager presented it to the author as a model detention center. Ten years later, as senior human rights advisor at the Global Fund, which then invested in HIV programs in similar centers in Viet Nam, the author was tasked with developing a corporate Key Performance Indicator on human rights. The process of putting in place systems of compliance to ensure that aid money was not financing human rights violations became a public challenge. The chapter asks what can be known, from Geneva, about what really happens in places situated within multiple circles of top-down surveillance and display? By engaging in monitoring, civil society and development organizations attempt to engage in their own forms of surveillance and discipline. Sometimes, what they encounter is a Potemkin effect: a sunny display intended to deflect accountability and hide grimmer realities.