Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Book Note: How to Accept German Reparations.
The review below will be published in Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 37, February 2015.  I have permission to post it on my blog and one reason I am doing so is because Slyomovics ends her book, as I end this review, by advocating reparations to Palestinians for land and property they have lost to the state of Israel.  As I write this (July 22, 2014), Israel is again attacking Gaza. I have just signed an open letter from Canadian academics to our own government criticizing its one-sided support of Israel.  I wish I had something new and worthwhile to contribute to the on-going debate about Israel/Palestine, but I don’t. I would love to see one federal state in which both parties could live in peace, side by side, but that isn’t going to happen, at least any time soon. 

Susan Slyomovics- Wiki Commons
Susan Slyomovics, How to Accept German Reparations, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), ISBN  978-0-8122-4606-3, 373 pp.
This is an extremely personal book. Susan Slyomovics, an anthropologist of the Middle East, reveals her own Jewish family’s reactions to German reparations in order to analyze the meaning of reparations in the overall context of mourning for the dead.
Full disclosure requires me to say that I may have been more interested in this book than other potential readers because my Jewish family’s story intersected with Slyomovics’. Slyomovics’ father may well have met members of my extended family. He was able to come to Canada with his wife in 1948 because the government agreed to permit 500 furriers to immigrate, and he had trained as a furrier in Leipzig before the war. While in Leipzig, he might have met my great-uncle and my step-grandfather, both of whom were furriers. And he might have eaten in the last restaurant open to Jews, owned by a member of my extended family (later murdered).
But one does not need to have such a personal reaction to profit from reading Slyomovics’ brilliant analysis of the meaning of reparations. This is a book informed by deep thought and theoretical speculation, especially on the meaning of money and its connection to emotional relationships. Slyomovics’ mother and grandmother survived the concentration camps, but they had very different attitudes to reparations. Her grandmother took everything she could get, while her mother refused “blood money” until the twenty-first century, when she decided to accept reparations for slave labor. But she made sure that as soon as reparations funds arrived in her bank account, the money went out again, donated to various Jewish causes. Her own contribution to post-Holocaust reparations consisted of witnessing, as a frequent speaker at Canadian high schools. In particular, she visited the high school in Eckville, Alberta where James Keegstra, a notorious Holocaust denier, had taught history, blaming every great European tragedy on the Jews.
The German term for reparations to Jews and other victims of Nazism is Wiedergutmachung (making good again). A better term would be Wiedereinbischenbessermachung (“making things a bit better,” my own coinage in my high school German). Building on George Simmel’s analysis of money, Slyomovics argues that the “monetization of guilt” (p. 24) buys an element of social peace, in which money is exchanged for forgiveness. Referring to the German philosopher Axel Honneth, Slyomovics also argues that reparations function as a form of recognition, an awareness of the necessity for perpetrators to respond to the pain they caused and commit “acts of collective atonement” (p. 67) yet German reparations policy was fraught with emotional problems. In the early post-war period, many German officials took an adversarial approach to Jewish claimants for reparations. And for the claimants themselves, the necessity to tell their stories to German officials was often a form of re-traumatization.
Reparations money was an inadequate substitute for all the other ways in which Jews created and enacted “rituals of remembrance” (p. 182). Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many surviving Jews and their children and grandchildren have made pilgrimages to their places of origin. There, they have refurbished Jewish cemeteries and installed tombstones in memory of the dead, building “recreated cemeteries minus actual bodies” (p. 192). These rituals constitute what Slyomovics, following the literary critic Marianne Hirsch, calls “post-memory” for the children of survivors (p. 185). Archives are also an important aspect of coming to terms with the Holocaust, as children and grandchildren find small clues about their ancestors’ lives. The “archival sliver” (p. 118) provides a tiny window into the Holocaust as individuals Jews endured it.
How to accept German reparations-Wiki Commons
Slyomovics, originally a scholar of the Arab Middle East and an Arabic speaker, ends her book with two chapters on how reparations play out elsewhere. She first analyses Algerian Jewish claims for reparations from Germany. Algerian Jews were not deported and murdered, but they were interned, separately from interned Algerian Muslims. But the Algerian Jews did not view themselves first and foremost as Jews: they viewed themselves as French citizens who were eventually “repatriated” to France (a country they did not come from, being indigenous to the Middle East). And while they did eventually receive compensation for their internment, their Muslim (then)-compatriots did not, as Germany argued  that the Muslims had not been interned on racial grounds.
Discussion of Algeria leads Slyomovics to a wider analysis of settler colonialism, in which she asks “who counts as human?” (p. 235). She notes how careful Israel has been in the few contexts in which it has paid compensation to individual Palestinians to use the Hebrew word pitsuyyim, which means damages, instead of the word shilumin, meaning reparations (p. 254). She calls for “Jewish Israeli reparations to Palestinian Arabs, underpinned by the Palestinian right of return” (p. 269). I agree with her call for reparations, but I doubt very much that Palestinians will ever enjoy the right of return. This is precisely where the analogy between Jewish victims of the Holocaust and Palestinian victims of Zionism ends. Jewish victims of the Nazis (and their descendants) do not, for the most part, live in Europe; they successfully integrated into Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. Palestinians remain in Israel, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and in several Middle Eastern countries where they are permanent refugees. As long as they are not full citizens anywhere, reparations will never compensate for their loss of land.
I have one quibble with Slyomovics’ analysis. She discusses the connection between German settler colonialism and the Holocaust, referring especially to the massacre of the Herero in South-West Africa (now Namibia) in 1904-07. Many scholars of genocide now refer to the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe as a form of colonialism. But to subsume the Holocaust under the rubric of colonialism is to ignore the far more complex causes of Nazi policies toward Jews. Nazis exterminated Jews in their Eastern European colonies; they did not treat other ethno-religious groups in the same manner. One cannot ignore two millennia of anti-Semitism as a cause of this extermination, even if the Nazis racialized what had earlier been religious prejudice. Nor should one ignore the economic, cultural and political crises in Germany from 1918 to 1933. There was no straight line from colonialism to the Holocaust: had there been one, Germany’s enemy, Britain, would also have been in the business of slaughtering Jews.
Otherwise, How to Accept German Reparations is a fascinating read, with insights on reparations, mourning and memory that far transcend the particular instance of the Holocaust. Anyone interested in these issues, no matter where they apply, should read this book.  

Friday, 18 July 2014

European Court of Human Rights Upholds French Burqa Ban

European Court of Human Rights Upholds French Burqa Ban
(Note: I have not posted any blogs for some time owing to illness. I am back now, and hope to resume posting blogs every week or two.)
Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in questions of multiculturalism, and how far any society should and can go to accommodate customs that seem detrimental to the life of the society as a whole. In general, my argument regarding Canada and some other Western countries is that so-called “multi”-culturalism is actually based on a unifying culture of small-l liberalism that tolerates a variety of customs in the private sphere, including practice of religions that are relatively new to the society concerned, such as Islam. I’m opposed to toleration of customs that undermine this fundamental liberalism.
European Court of Human Rights Building- Wiki Commons
Recently the European Court of Human Rights addressed the question of customs that might undermine not liberalism, but community life. The Court issued a Press Release on July 1, 2014 (ECHR 191, 2014, “French ban on the wearing in public of clothing designed to conceal one’s face does not breach the Convention”  http://www.west-info.eu/france-is-right-on-full-face-veil-says-the-european-court/grand-chamber-judgment-s-a-s-v-france-ban-on-wearing-in-public-clothing-concealing-ones-face/) This Press Release explained that the French government passed a law on 11 October, 2010, “prohibiting the concealment of one’s face in public places.” The applicant to the ECHR, opposing this law, was a French Muslim woman who wore both the burqa and the niqab, both of which covered her face, and wanted to be able to do so in public. She raised a number of human rights issues, which you can read about in the Press Release. 
I’m interested here in the French Government’s argument that the ban was necessary in order to promote “respect for the minimum requirements of life in society (or of ‘living together’),” to quote the Press Release. The Court accepted this argument. It agreed that “the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face in public could undermine the notion of ‘living together’.”  To further quote the press release:
[The Court] took into account the [French] state’s submission that the face played a significant role in social interaction. The Court was also able to understand the view that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which would fundamentally call into question the possibility of open interpersonal relationships, which, by virtue of an established consensus, formed an indispensable element of community life…the Court was therefore able to accept that the barrier raised against others by a veil concealing the face was perceived by the respondent [French] State as breaching the right of others to live in a space of socialisation which made living together easier.
I remember some years ago discussing an earlier decision of the European Court of Human Rights with a Dutch colleague. In that case, my colleague told me, the Court upheld a Swiss ban on public servants’ wearing the Muslim hijab, or scarf, which does not cover the face. In this instance, the public servant concerned was a teacher, and the Court, if I remember correctly, thought that she would be engaged in a form of proselytization of children. I thought this decision was ridiculous, and that it was better for children in a multicultural society to get used to meeting people with different customs, religions, and symbolic clothing. I still think that.
The case of a full-face ban, though, is slightly different. I agree with the ECHR’s judgment that it impedes communication in society. People do look at other people’s faces when they talk. Communication is certainly enhanced when you can see each other; there is a whole area of psychology, I believe, that investigates how it is that most of us can identify hundreds of different faces and read the expressions on them. Face-to-face communication (“face time” in contemporary parlance) results in far fewer misunderstandings than telephone conversations or email. But I’m not sure that this is so important that there should be a law forcing people who don’t want to, to reveal their faces.    
There would be a problem with this ruling if it applied to Canada. The French law bans full-face coverings of any kind, including helmets (when not worn on motorcycles), and balaclavas.  Balaclavas are full-face coverings that leave holes for the eyes, nostrils, and mouth.  You see people wearing them in winter in Canada when it is really cold.  People also go around in scarves that cover their nose and mouth, while their hats are pulled down over their foreheads, leaving only the eyes visible. I’m not sure how communication is affected by this practice, since people generally take their balaclavas and scarves off when they are indoors, and don’t stop to chat much on the street when it’s so cold, nor do they spend much time in outdoor cafés!   
On the other hand, I don’t like it much when I see women on the street in summer all bundled up in black garments while their husbands walk freely in pants and short-sleeved shirts. I wish those women did not feel obliged to cover themselves quite so much. And I wish there were no women on the street with their faces covered. This lack of equality in dress offends my feminist sensibilities. But the question regarding “living together” is whether the problem is really with anyone covering their faces, or that it’s Muslim women covering their faces. Muslim women whose faces are covered might still be capable of “open interpersonal relationships.” 
And in any event, community is a loose term. In immigrant societies like Canada, it’s quite common for people from the same part of the world to live in the same neighborhoods. Except for work and official matters, they tend to “live together” with their own kind. Their children may move out of the neighborhood and marry outside the community, and “live together” with a variety of other folk, but this is a process of choice, not one dictated by law.


Monday, 16 June 2014

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann in the Media

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann in the Media
Professor Hassmann has recently made media appearances with Yourontarioresearch.ca and CIGI's Inside the Issues with Andrew Thompson.

Here is Professor Hassmann discussing Human Rights in North Korea on CIGI's Inside the Issues with Andrew Thompson

Here is Professor Hassmann disucussing the Right to Water with Yourontarioresearch.ca:


Friday, 18 April 2014

Back to Normal in Quebec?

Back to Normal in Quebec?
In September 2013 I posted a blog about Quebec’s Charter of Values, which you can see here: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html. In brief, this proposed Charter said that people who worked for the Quebec government should not be allowed to wear conspicuous religious symbols such as the Jewish kipa (skull cap for men), the Muslim hijab (head scarf for women), and the Sikh turban (for men).  The principle behind this proposal was laicité, or secularism. 
The governing party that proposed this Charter was the nationalist Parti Québecois (PQ). On April 7, 2014 the PQ was resoundingly defeated by the Liberal Party in a provincial election. So everybody worried about this Charter can now breathe a sign of relief.
Who would even defend such a Charter, you might ask, assuming that anyone who did so was just afraid of “the other,” residents of Quebec not descended from the original French Catholic settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Certainly it seemed that many of the PQ’s supporters were rural Quebeckers who had little contact with the many immigrants groups that are common in Quebec’s largest city, Montreal.  
A typical Canadian- Wiki Commons

But some Quebeckers supported the Charter as a good model of government, without being prejudiced against religious or ethnic minorities. On March 13, 2014 I co-sponsored a debate on the Charter at Wilfrid Laurier University, where I teach. Guillaime Rousseau, a law professor from the Université de Sherbrooke, defended the Charter. 
Roussean argued that laicité reflects the French Republican tradition. He said this mean that the state gives citizens the opportunity to free themselves from their various communities—such as their ethnic community and their religion. So, the Charter of Values would help individual Quebeckers free themselves from religious and ethnic practices, if they so wished. I agree that the state should protect citizens from being coerced or pressured into following religious or ethnic practices that oppress them, or with which they disagree. But I think the Republican tradition goes too far.
Rousseau argued that the liberal tradition, as found in English Canada, was based on freedom from the state, rather than freedom through the state, the Republican way. I prefer the liberal tradition because it acknowledges that there can be advantages to membership in religious and ethnic groups. Many individuals feel a need to belong to groups of people with similar beliefs, customs, or languages. In these groups there is a feeling of familiarity, and of being welcomed, withough being judged by competitive market standards. These groups are also politically important: they stand between the individual and her government. Such groups can organize people and help them form a bulwark against an intrusive state, if need be.  
Professor Rousseau also talked about the principle of cultural convergence, as opposed to English-Canada’s stress on multiculturalism. I agree with him that cultural convergence is a worthwhile concept, especially in so far as it supports underlying liberal values. These values—of freedom equality, respect and recognition--underlie what many Canadians think is a “multicultural” society. We are not really multicultural in Canada: we have a unifying small-l liberal culture, which permits people to act in the private sphere as they see fit, as long as they do not break the law. So we no longer pressure immigrants to change their names, stop speaking their native languages, or change their religion. I argued this in an article I published in 1999 called "Canadian' as an Ethnic Category: Implications for Multiculturalism and National Unity, " in Canadian Public Policy, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 523-37.
More typical Canadians-Wiki Commons
Under the liberal multicultural tradition, a multiplicity of religions is fine, as is wearing religious symbols. So when you enter Canada from abroad, you might be questioned by an immigration officer wearing a hijab. You might not know that the air traffic controller who guided your airplane to safely was also wearing a hijab (A few weeks ago I met a woman in her thirties or forties, wearing white robes and a lacy hijab. She told me she supported herself as an air traffic controller).
But multiculturalism shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the basis of Canada’s liberal human rights.  I agree there should be some limits to cultural accommodation, as the Quebec Charter proposed.  We can’t have the kind of situation I posted about on January 17, 2014, where a male student at York University asked to be excused from a group activity because he said his religion prohibited from interacting with strange females http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014_01_01_archive.html. 
I also agree that there are some situations where an individual must uncover her face: I don’t think the Charter’s insistence that people seeking or providing public services must uncover their face is unreasonable. A while ago a case went to the Supreme Court of Canada. A woman bringing rape charges against two male relatives wanted to testify in court while wearing the niqab, which covers the face. Instead of ruling that in such an important situation, where her testimony might send innocent men to jail, the woman must uncover her face, The Supreme Court came out with a wishy-washy ruling, essentially leaving the decision to the individual judge. That was a mistake.  
There are some religious and ethnic practices that I really do not like. I would hope that any Muslim woman in Canada wearing hijab does so freely, but I am sure that some wear it because they are pressured or coerced into doing so by their families. If that coercion includes violence, there are already laws against it; violence within the family is prohibited in Canada regardless of the reason. But if it’s just social or familial pressure, a law against it is foolish. We can disagree with some customs and hope that women and girls will voluntarily remove themselves from them, but we can’t legislate their removal.  

Friday, 4 April 2014

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

Readers of this blog may recall that in the last year I’ve posted a book review about how Canada used starvation in the 1870s to force its Aboriginal peoples onto reserves, thus opening Canada’s West for settlement by Europeans http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014/02/book-note-james-daschuks-clearing-plains.html  I’ve also posted a blog on nutritional “experiments” in Canada’s residential school system that deprived some Aboriginal children of food http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/07/canada-malnourishment-of-aboriginal.html.   

Malnutrition among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples still exists. In 2011, 27.1 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal households were food insecure, as opposed to 11.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal households. A nutrition survey conducted in 2004 found that 33 per cent of off-reserve Aboriginal households were food insecure, compared to 9 per cent of other Canadians. In part, this food insecurity was attributable to higher rates of reliance on social assistance and higher rates of lone parenthood among Aboriginals than non-Aboriginals, but even controlling for these risk factors, Aboriginal households’ rates of food insecurity were 2.6 times higher than non-Aboriginal households’ rates.

Some of this malnourishment might be a consequence of the high cost of transporting nourishing food to remote Aboriginal communities; for example, in 2012 residents of Nunavut, one of Canada‘s Northern territories where most people are Inuit, spent $14,815 per year on food, compared to $7,262 in Canada overall. A 2007-08 study of Nunavut preschoolers found that 56 per cent were food insecure.
A head of cauliflower for $8.15- Wiki Commons
*In comparison, cauliflower in Waterloo, Ontario is $2.99

Aboriginal food insecurity can be attributed in part to their sad history. Suffering from the debilitating psychological effects of having been incarcerated in residential schools, removed from their families, forbidden to speak their native tongue, and subjected to long-term physical and sexual abuse, many Aboriginal individuals found and find it difficult to obtain hold down a job.  An under-financed on-reserve school system exacerbates these difficulties in the 21st century. With much higher rates of unemployment than the general Canadian population, many Aboriginal individuals become homeless or are incarcerated. Indeed, the Economist reported in 2013 that Aboriginal Canadians were “more likely to go to jail than graduate from high school.”

Another reason for food insecurity among Aboriginal Canadians is reduced access to traditional foods—especially meat—which is much healthier than the processed foods that Aboriginal people are likely to eat, especially in remote areas where it is difficult to import or cultivate fresh dairy products, fruits and vegetables. One major cause of lack of access to traditional foods is loss of land and limitations of rights even to use the land supposedly reserved for Aboriginal people. Another cause is loss of culture, especially transmission of hunting skills over the generations; the kidnapping of children and their confinement in residential schools meant that they could not learn how to fish and hunt from their elders.

As I discussed in my review of Peter Kulchyski’s book, http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014/02/book-note-peter-kulchyski-aboriginal.html, some scholars of indigenous rights think that human rights are a “Western” invention that does not pertain to indigenous peoples. But it is precisely the lack of human rights that has enabled the Canadian state to treat Aboriginal people so badly for so long.

For many decades after Canada became a nation in 1867, Aboriginal people were legal minors who could not vote. Aboriginal individuals could get the vote if they left their reserves and assimilated into the wider population, but in so doing, they lost their rights to live on the reserve and be part of their community. Aboriginal people living on reserves were not permitted to vote until 1960.
Aboriginal peoples were also denied freedom of association. In 1927 the government passed a law that prohibited Aboriginals from collecting funds for advancement of land claims; in effect, the amendment prohibited all national organization. When one hereditary Iroquois Chief tried to go to the League of Nations to plead his people’s case, the government stationed a permanent police presence on his reserve and deprived hereditary chiefs and councilors of their positions. The ban on Aboriginal political activism was not removed until 1951.
Meantime, a pass system was rigidly enforced prohibiting Aboriginal freedom of movement, while restrictions on commerce meant that Aboriginals could not participate as equals in Canada’s evolving capitalist economy. Even service in Canada’s armed forces did not mean that Aboriginals got equal rights. Micmac veterans in Nova Scotia were pleading for rations in 1953, in part because they did not receive the land grants available to non-Aboriginal veterans.
So, Aboriginal Canadians have been formally entitled to the full range of civil and political rights for little longer than 50 years. And they are not yet protected (if they ever will be) by the collective rights enshrined since 2007 in the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights; although Canada expressed its support for this Declaration in 2010, as of 2014 it was not yet law.
This is a shameful record for a wealthy democratic country in which all human rights are supposedly guaranteed to all citizens.  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro
Readers of this blog may know that in the last couple of weeks (February-March 2014) there has been a great deal of civil unrest in Venezuela.  There have been massive demonstrations in the streets against the President, Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez.   Estimates of death in the reports I’ve read or heard vary so far from 13 to 50.
 Demonstrators include students and middle-class elements, according to the reports, but the problems in Venezuela are not just ones that wealthier people object to.  Venezuela has been descending into dictatorship since 2002, with increasing restrictions on the media, the judiciary, freedom of association, and all other democratic checks on government. Elections are still held on a regular basis, but the restrictions on the opposition are so severe that you might consider the elections rigged.  They are free, but not fair.
Tear gas being used against protesters- Wiki Commons
The biggest problems for ordinary citizens, though, is severe shortages of food and other basic goods, such as toilet paper. These shortages started around 2007 and have been getting worse and worse. The causes are very high rates of inflation (56% in 2013); price controls on staple goods which result in shortages because producers can’t produce and wholesalers and retailers can’t sell at the “control price”: and underproduction of food caused by nationalizations and land invasions. In 2013 the cost of food rose by 74 per cent.
Right now the fight is between Maduro and his supporters (including armed militia groups), and the democratic opposition, although one of the main opposition leaders, Leopoldo López, is now in jail.  Some critics think the US is involved, hoping to destabilize Venezuela, with its socialist tendencies. These critics think the US would like to undermine the anti-American bloc in Latin America, which includes Argentina (also becoming an economic basket-case) and Cuba.  I don’t doubt that the US would like to see Maduro gone, but I think Maduro and Chávez created their own problems.
Protesters protesting food scarcity- Wiki Commons
 I’ve tended to describe Chavez’ and Maduro’s economic policies as incompetent, but I may have been too charitable towards them. When you reinforce your economic incompetence with increasing restrictions on civil and political rights, and you make sure your opposition doesn’t have access to the media or a fair chance at the polls, then you are deliberately maintaining policies that you know make it difficult for your people to find food.  Also, it seems that what food is available through the public system of subsidized markets is more likely to go to government supporters or potential supporters than to others.  This is one reason why many poor people still seem to support Maduro, although pretty well everyone is suffering from the shortages.

Venezuelans now live under a dictatorship under cover of increasingly farcical “democratic” elections.  Let’s hope that the food shortages don’t result in malnutrition a few years down the road.  
For more on Venezuela, see my two earlier posts,
“Hugo Chávez and the Right to Food, (March 11, 2013)
and Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse Under Maduro than Chavez,” (October 10, 2013)
If you’d like to read a very detailed analysis of the food problems in Venezuela, you can also access my unpublished article from my university website, under “working papers.”
Or contact me directly for a copy at hassmann@wlu.ca.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Book Note: James Daschuk's Clearing the Plains

Book Note: James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains.
James Daschuk’s powerful book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (University of Regina Press, 2013), tells the horrific story of how Canada used famine to clear the western plains of Aboriginal people, facilitating the opening up of that vast territory to settlement by European immigrants and the linking of the country “from sea to shining sea” via the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In the 1870s and 80s, the various Aboriginal communities who lived in the West began to suffer from famine. The immediate cause of this famine was the destruction of the Aboriginal peoples’ staple food, the bison. Some Aboriginal people were over-hunting. Meanwhile, commercial cattle-ranching was developing, and bison were driven out because of competition for forage and the spread of disease from cattle to bison. And the American government was killing large bison herds to force its own Aboriginal peoples under its control. 
Clearing the plains- Wiki Commons
Added to the shortage of food was the spread of tuberculosis. Medical authorities first did not know how tuberculosis was spread among humans: later, they did not know that bovine tuberculosis, rampant among bison in the late nineteenth century, was transmittable to humans.
The result of the decline of the bison herds and widespread disease was starvation. Aboriginal peoples in western Canada were reduced to eating their horses and dogs, the carcasses of wolves, and wild roots. With few if any substitutes for bison meat, they were forced into dependence on the government. The government then threatened to withdraw their rations if they refused to accept treaties, in which they gave up substantial portions of their traditional lands in return for small areas of reserved lands and minimal food rations.
At one point, the government ordered that food would only be given to Aboriginal people on reserves, and forbade those living on reserves from providing food to those still living off-reserve. The Aboriginal people were supposed to learn to farm on their reserves, under the watchful eyes of Indian agents, eventually to become self-sufficient agriculturalists.
Aboriginals were confined to their reserved against their will, only able to leave them if they had an official pass. The pass system meant that they could not look for work off the reserve which might enable them to buy food.  Meantime, famine continued. One-third of the original Aboriginal population was estimated to have died in a period of six years, leaving about 15,000 people on reserves, no longer interfering with plans for European settlements.
The official Canadian response to this famine was paltry. Officials debated how much food Aboriginal people should be given. Some argued that food should only be given in exchange for work, but the Aboriginals were so weakened that work was impossible. Women and children could be seen almost naked, having sold their clothes for food; many endured rape by white men as the only means to acquire food.  Yet food lay rotting in storage on reserves until officials decided that Aboriginals were sick and starving enough that some should be distributed.   Meanwhile, corruption fed indifference to the famine; John A. Macdonald, the Prime Minister, and other senior officials were investors in the railway system that required the confinement of Aboriginal peoples to reserves.
After a rebellion by some of the remaining Aboriginal peoples in the west in the early 1880s, the government retaliated by cutting off even more food rations. The general viewpoint was that Aboriginals should be given just enough food to prevent their actual death by starvation, but no more. Macdonald assured Parliamentarians that the government would be “rigid, even stingy” in distributing food, refusing it “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (quoted by Daschuk on p. 134). Even the willingness to provide food when Aboriginals were on the verge of starvation was driven by fear of scandal in eastern Canada, if the government actually tolerated starvation.
Daschuk refers to the actions of the Canadian government as “dominion [of Canada] indifference.” This is a generous interpretation of the central government’s actions and decisions. Although the famine was not caused by any actions deliberately taken by the dominion government, the government did contribute to the famine’s prolongation. The government chose to reduce rations because, some officials believed, Aboriginal people were refusing to work for food.  It also chose to reduce or suspend rations in order to force Aboriginal people to accept treaties and move onto reserves. Faced with overwhelming evidence of starvation being relayed to it by missionaries, traders, doctors, and government officials, the central government nevertheless permitted Aboriginal people to starve.
It is difficult to imagine that Canada’s government would have been oblivious to similar starvation among the white population. It’s a painful legacy for all non-Aboriginal “settler” Canadians, one that we’ve barely begun to confront, let alone compensate for.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
(Note: if you would like to be automatically notified of my blogs, please insert your email address in the box in the upper right hand corner of this site, and press submit).
On February 7, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly released a report by a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea: you can find it here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx .  The report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.  This Council isn’t exactly representative of rights-protecting countries: its 2014 membership includes China, Congo, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.  But it seems that the human rights violations in North Korea are so bad that even these countries feel safe commissioning a report on it.
It’s a very strong report. The COI calls North Korea a totalitarian state, and lists numerous ways that North Korea commits crimes against humanity. These include—but are not limited to-- extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, enforced disappearances, and knowingly causing starvation. It makes special reference to the use of food as a political weapon, thus clearly stating that the famine of the 1990s, in which 3 to 5 per cent of the North Korean population, or 580,000 to 1.1 million people, are conservatively estimated to have died, was a political, not a natural, catastrophe.  It points out the North Koreans are still suffering from severe malnutrition. About the only thing it doesn’t mention, at least in the short version of the report, is that the situation is so bad that there are actually reports of cannibalism. The COI calls on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer those North Korean officials—government, military, and security officials, including the so-called Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un-- to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trial.
ICC Logo- Wiki Commons
There isn’t anything in this report that activists and scholars concerned with human rights in North Korea haven’t known for at least ten years. But it’s very important that a Commission established by an organ of the United Nations (even if it’s the normally very hypocritical Human Rights Council) has recognized these crimes against humanity. Some scholars might go further and say some aspects of the abuses in North Korea constitute genocide; for example, murder of Christians, or the ethnic infanticide of children born of North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers, when the mothers are forcibly returned to North Korea. But the charge of genocide would be hard to prove, whereas there is overwhelming evidence that North Korea commits crimes against humanity.
Why has it taken so long to get this far? One reason is the diplomatic concern with North Korea’s nuclear program. Since 1993 periodic “Six-Party Talks” among North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan have taken place, with the other five countries trying to persuade North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons.  Despite this, it’s conducted three tests of such weapons, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.  “Loose nukes trump human rights,” is more or less what international policy has been.
The other reason it’s taken so long to get this far is that China supports North Korea, although it’s been less willing to do so in the recent past and did not veto the latest round of UNSC sanctions against North Korea after its 2013 nuclear test. The Chinese aren’t pleased that these tests have been conducted close to its borders. Also, they seem to have been trying to persuade North Korea to adopt liberalizing economic reforms, such as they themselves started in 1978, but one of the people seemingly most interested in these reforms was Kim Jong-un’s uncle, recently executed.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un- Wiki Commons
The Chinese view of the COI shows they aren’t willing to accept any responsibility to help North Korean victims of crimes against humanity. The Chinese regard the COI as unnecessarily “politicizing” human rights: they oppose directing criticism against any particular country’s human rights violations. The Chinese deny that the perhaps 200,000 North Korean refugees in their country are legally political refugees: they claim they are economic migrants, whom they are within their rights to deport. They deny that people deported back from China to North Korea are subjected to executions, rape, torture and –in the case of women pregnant by Chinese men—forcible abortions and infanticide.  They claim that voluntary and Christian groups that help fugitives in China are in it to make money, deliberately confusing them with the traffickers who force North Korean women into prostitution.  
On the other hand though, the Chinese might be pressuring the North Koreans in secret to engage in some reforms. It doesn’t do China’s reputation any good to be known to protect one of the worst countries on the planet.  And reforms might mean fewer North Korean refugees in China itself.
One good thing about this report is that it takes the ICC spotlight off Africa. Since it was established in 2002, all the ICC prosecutions have been of Africans. This isn’t because of racist or colonialist bias: in most cases, it’s been because African leaders referred individuals for prosecution. But these same leaders –for example, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni—are becoming worried that they themselves might be referred for prosecution; this is what happened to Kenya’s now President and Vice-President, both of whom are accused of having stirred up murderous ethnic violence during the 2007-8 elections. These Africans are playing the anti-Western card, claiming they are victims of colonialism. But if—and it’s a big if—the UNSC actually does refer North Korea to the ICC, they will be less able to make that claim
For other blogs I’ve written about North Korea, see
http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_10_01_archive.htm (North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die))

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Book Note: Peter Kulchyski, Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights

Book Note: Peter Kulchyski, Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights
I met Peter Kulchyski, author of Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights, (published by ARP Books, Winnipeg, in 2013) on January 23, 2014 when he visited Wilfrid Laurier University.  Kulchyski is a very interesting individual, who attended a government residential high school in Northern Manitoba in which he was one of the few non-Aboriginal students. You can find his autobiography here http://canadiandimension.com/articles/3639.
By saying Aboriginal rights are not human rights, Kulchyski means that they are a separate category of rights and ought to be recognized as such. Aboriginal rights, he says, are rooted in Aboriginal land title and Aboriginal customs, which he defines as “bush culture” as opposed to contemporary Canadian “mall culture”.
Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights- Wiki Commons

Kulchyski objects to Aboriginal rights’ having been included within the international human rights framework through the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He considers the UN human rights system to be Eurocentric. This is a common critique which ignores the fact that most countries have ratified the major UN human rights treaties, suggesting that at least in principle they accept human rights.
Kulchyski also argues human rights are individualistic and tend to be asserted in urban environments. If this is so, it is because most people now live in urban areas. Aboriginal Canadians living off-reserve in urban areas need human rights protections even more than non-Aboriginal Canadians do.
Finally, Kulchyski considers the universality of human rights to be a totalizing framework that would erase Aboriginals’ different cultures. Universalism, for him, implies assimilation. He believes the international human rights regime is a liberal project, a means to promote the interests of capital. He particularly mentions the human right to own property, but this right can be used by Aboriginal peoples, to claim their property—their lands-- by rights of possession.
I looked for examples in Kulchyski’s book that would illustrate why he is worried about the totalizing, assimilative influence of human rights, but could find only three.
The first was the unfortunately-named 1969 Canadian White Paper on Aboriginals, which proposed abolishing the Indian Act and integrating Aboriginal Canadians as equal individuals into mainstream Canadian life. After protests from Aboriginal leaders the federal government withdrew this proposal, which would have deprived Aboriginal people of their treaty rights. Kulchyski is correct that the White Paper was deeply assimilative.
Kulchyski’s second fear was that a universal approach to human rights might mean the end of special programs like affirmative action. But special programs to remedy past inequalities are permitted by the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Article 4.
Kulchyski’s last example is the case of a young man who was isolated from his community without food for several days as part of an initiation ritual. If this young man was under the age of 18, then leaving him in the bush was a violation of his rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Kulchyski seems to think there should have been no debate about this case, as it was part of “bush culture.” My own preference would be to wait until the “young man” was over the age of 18, and could take part in this ritual on a voluntary basis.
Peter Kulchyski
Kulchyski also objects to what he see as the state “giving” rights; in his view, rights are taken from below. He is quite right that rights require struggle from below, states do not simply grant them.  But the 2007 indigenous rights declaration is a quasi-legal document, which may someday become a Convention, a treaty to be signed by states. Everyone in the world lives in a state and the purpose of human rights treaties is to encourage states to live up to their obligations.
Conversely, Kulchyski dislikes what he considers the Declaration’s portrayal of Aboriginal peoples as weak victims of states. But this is true for all human rights documents; all are premised on individuals’ need for protection against the state.
Kulchyski objects to the Declaration being one among many human rights documents; he wants it to be outside the human rights framework, so that the individualist nature of human rights does not undermine the collective nature of Aboriginal rights. The Declaration, however, does recognize that collective rights are necessary; that is one of its major thrusts, in several of its Articles. The Articles not specifically on indigenous rights are reaffirmations of rights that everyone (ought to) enjoy; it’s common to put these reaffirmations in human rights documents pertaining to particular groups of people.
Kulchyski argues that “a human rights agenda must inevitably dismiss Aboriginal cultural distinctiveness and align …with a totalizing state” (p. 73). But there is no evidence so far that the human rights agenda has resulted in this; rather it’s been expanded to promote the cultural distinctiveness--and land rights, on which that distinctiveness is based-- that Kulchyski prizes. Evidence of this is in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which Kulchyski thinks is a better document than the UN Declaration. The Canadian Charter includes a clause limiting the application of human rights so as not to undermine Aboriginal (collective) rights.
Finally, Kulchyski notes that the UN Declaration does not confer sovereignty on indigenous peoples. He is correct: the UN is a collection of member states, and no UN document will allow secession by any group from the authority of the state. The most that Aboriginal collectivities are likely to obtain by way of “sovereignty” is political arrangements analogous to municipal or provincial style authority, and there will continue to be quarrels over “national” resources such as subterranean and ocean resources in Canada’s north.
The 2007 Declaration is one small step toward protecting the rights of Aboriginal peoples. It isn’t totalizing, it isn’t Eurocentric, and it isn’t individualist. It takes a significant step back from the liberal project of undermining non-capitalist collectivities. But it is also not enough.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Religious Accommodation vs. Women’s Equality Rights at a Canadian University
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For the last couple of weeks (early January 2014) the Toronto press has been abuzz with a story emanating from York University. In brief, it is the following.
A male student was taking an on-line course from Prof. Paul Grayson in York’s Department of Sociology.  Although the course was on-line, Prof. Grayson required his students to visit the campus once to take part in a group activity with other students. The male student asked to be excused from this requirement as his religion prohibited his interaction with unrelated women. We don’t know the student’s religion, and Grayson refused to speculate, but he said he did consult with both Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. He then declined the student’s request.
York University Keele Campus- Wiki Commons
Meantime, however, Grayson’s Dean and other senior administrators instructed him to grant the request. One reason for this was that he had excused at least one other student who lived outside Canada from the requirement to be present on campus.  The other reason was that, under the doctrine of “reasonable accommodation,” administrators’ are supposed to decide whether a religious accommodation would harm anyone else’s human rights. The administrators decided—somewhat reluctantly, it seems—that excusing the student from interacting with female co-students would not harm any woman students’ rights.
One question here is whether the harm would be real or merely symbolic. Would the female students be harmed, perhaps, by being deprived of the male student’s brilliant insights? If there was no such harm, did the fact that he did not wish to interact with women somehow constitute a psychological or symbolic harm, suggesting that they were unworthy of his attention, or unclean, or somehow sexual temptresses.
Professor Grayson argued that the York administrators would have been unlikely to assent to the student’s request if he has said his religion prohibited him from interacting with black or gay people.  I think he’s right about blacks: the administrators could not permit racial discrimination, even if it had been hidden (Grayson did not have to tell other students about the request). About gay people, I am not so sure. Religious prejudices against homosexuals are rooted in some of the same prejudices held against women. Women in their bodily functions, especially menstruation, are seen by some religions as dirty and shameful. In this view, gays’ sexual activities also render them dirty and shameful.
Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any York administrators instructing Grayson to grant a student’s request not to interact with gays. So why grant it with regard to women? I think the answer is the long history of separation of women and men in some religions, especially some variants of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This separation is bound up with traditional ideas of modesty and the separation of the sexes for their own good.  So it still doesn’t seem as wrong to say that your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with strange women, as to say your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with blacks or gays.
In preparation for writing this blog I reread an article I published (with Laura Reidel) in 2007, “Human Security and Multiculturalism in Canada” (published in Ineke Boerefijn and Jenny Goldschmidt, eds, Human Rights in the Polder, Oxford, Intersentia).  In that article I discussed a number of debates going on in Canada at the time; about prayer space for Muslims in Quebec universities, gay marriage, the use of shari’a-based arbitration in Ontario, and censorship of cartoons appearing to denigrate Islam.  I concluded the following:
“[T]he right to practice a minority religion should [not] be permitted to undermine the human rights of citizens of liberal democracies. The state should accede to demands for accommodation by religious minorities only when such accommodation is not likely to undermine the human rights of any citizens, whether inside or outside the religious minority…[A]ll citizens are at risk if policies to accommodate the demands of any religious minority undermine the liberal democratic human rights regime.” (p. 35)
On this basis I supported prayer space for Muslim (and all other religious) students (even though space is always in short supply at Canadian universities). But I opposed shari’a based arbitration (as well as arbitration under Jewish law) on the grounds that it can undermine women’s and children’s rights. I supported gay marriage. I opposed banning of cartoons, on the grounds that freedom of speech is more important than protecting believers from offense.
Using the principle that accommodation must not undermine other people’s human rights, I think Professor Grayson did the right thing. Even if there was no immediate material damage to the women in his class, the principle that a man does not have to interact with women in an educational or work setting is denigrating to them. It implies that they are less than fully human, not worthy of the same respect as men.
Of course the York University case gives ammunition to proponents of the Quebec Charter of Values, about which I wrote on September 11, 2013: you can find that blog here  http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html . The proposed Charter would ban public servants from wearing religious apparel at work. I maintain my view on the Quebec Charter. I see no reason to ban religious apparel from the public sector, although I would prohibit proselytization by public servants at their workplace, whether in Quebec or elsewhere. Banning religious apparel sends an extremely negative message to members of minority religious groups, while permitting it does not undermine anyone else’s human rights.