Tuesday, 16 October 2018

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: IN DEFENSE OF UNIVERSAL HUMAN RIGHTS

My latest book, in Defense of Universal Human Rights, is about to be released by Polity Press in the UK.  This is a short book suitable for teaching.  Some colleagues in the US and the UK have already received it.

Here is a detailed table of contents (no page numbers yet, as I have not yet received my own copy).

Introduction

Chapter 1. Universal Human Rights

Definition of Human Rights
Human Dignity
Origins of Human Rights
The International Law of Human Rights
Sovereignty versus Human Rights

 Chapter 2: Some Critical Perspectives on Human Rights

Human Rights as Western Liberalism
Abstraction versus Compassion
The Feminist Critique
Human Rights Law vs. Social Change
Critical Perspectives and Human Rights Universality

 Chapter 3: How Rights-Protective Societies Develop

Does the International Human Rights Regime Make Any Difference?
Market Economies
Civil Society and Political Action
Democracy and Political Institutions
Political Culture
Human Rights Regression
The Fragility of Human Rights

 Chapter 4: Civil and Political Rights

The Debate on Human Rights Priorities
The Strategic Value of Civil and Political Human Rights
The Intrinsic Value of Civil and Political Human Rights
The Right to Have Rights
Universal or Particular?

 Chapter 5: Culture and Community

Community and Responsibility
Community and Culture
Cultural Clashes
Freedom of Speech vs. Freedom of Religion
Social Collectivities: Indigenous Rights
The Necessity for Intra-Cultural Debates on Human Rights

 Chapter 6: Economic and Social Human Rights

Economic and Social Human Rights
Critiques of Economic and Social Human Rights
Globalization, Capitalism and Economic Human Rights
Inequality
Development Models and the Intersection of Human Rights
Cherry-Picking Human Rights

 Chapter 7: Collective Human Rights

Definition
Self-Determination
The Right to Development
Environmental Rights
The Right to Peace
Civil and Political Rights as the Basis for Collective Rights

Chapter 8: Western (Ir)responsibility for Human Rights in the Global South

International Justice
International Trade
Foreign Aid
Human Rights Non-Governmental Organizations
Human Rights in Foreign Policy
The Urgent Need for Universal Human Rights

Here is the blurb on the back cover.'

Should African and Muslim-majority countries be obliged to protect LGBT rights, even though they claim such rights violate their cultures?  Should Western-based corporations be held liable if their security guards kill union activists in Latin America?

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann answers yes to both these questions.  She vigorously defends universal human rights, arguing that the entire range of rights is necessary for all individuals everywhere.  She especially defends civil and political rights such as the rights not to be tortured and the rights to vote, which are often so taken for granted as to be neglected. 

Howard-Hassmann grounds her defense of universality in her conception of human dignity, which she maintains must include personal autonomy, equality, respect, recognition, and material security. She argues that only social democracies can be considered fully rights-protective states. Other political systems such as communism, or minimally liberal or libertarian states, are not fully rights-protective.

Howard-Hassmann takes particular issue with scholars who argue that human rights are “Western,” quasi-imperialist impositions on states in the global South, and that the stress on individual rights undermines community and social obligation. She contends, to the contrary, that human rights support communities and can only be preserved if states and individuals observe their duties to protect human rights. Criticisms of human rights as “Western” confuse the practice of sovereignty by all states with some Western states’ hypocrisy in advocating for human rights elsewhere.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Famine in Venezuela: Update


Famine in Venezuela: Update

Note: this is an update and rewrite of my blog of May 10, 2018)

FOR A VIDEO OF THE TALK I GAVE AT TUFTS UNIVERSITY, MAY 4, 2018,. ON WHICH THIS BLOG IS BASED, SEE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TgQ73lh6Kb4&t=3s 


Starvation in Venezuela

By May 2018, approximately 5,000 people per day were leaving Venezuela in search of food. (“Venezuela’s Crisis Spills Over,” New York Times International Weekly, in the Hamilton Spectator, May 5, 2018, p. 1). At this rate, 1.8 million people will have left by the end of 2018, joining 1.5 million who have already fled. This is over ten per cent of Venezuela’s population of 32 million.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines famine as “widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including… government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.”  By this definition, Venezuelans may already be experiencing famine. At the very least, they are experiencing state-induced hunger.

Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in 1999. He instituted several policies that were meant to feed poor Venezuelans, but actually made the situation worse. From 1999 to 2007 people’s living conditions improved, but food shortages started when oil prices declined. Chávez died in 2013. See my blog on Chávez’s rule, http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/03/hugo-chavez-and-right-to-food-in.html .

Chávez was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, whose draconian policies have created massive food shortages. By 2017 malnutrition was confirmed in Venezuela, precipitating the political unrest now roiling the country. See my blogs on Maduro’s policies: http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/10/venezuela-update-food-situation-worse.html.

According to Antulio Rosales (“An Ugly New Low for the Venezuelan President,” Globe and Mail, March 12, 2018, p.A11) and Enrique Krauze (“Hell of a Fiesta,” New York Review of Books, March 8, 2018, pp. 4-7), by early 2018 more than half of all Venezuelans had lost between 19 and 24 pounds, and 90 per cent said they do not have enough money for food. The minimum monthly wage in mid-2017 bought only 12 per cent of one person’s basic food needs, even less now. Sixty per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Formerly dormant diseases such as malaria, diphtheria and dengue are reoccurring, while hospitals are extremely short of personnel, medicines, and the most basic equipment. Some people receive subsidized food boxes, but the contents are inconsistent and insufficient, are distributed irregularly, and are more likely to go to supporters of Maduro than others.

This shortage of food is a completely predictable consequence of the policies that both the Chávez and Maduro governments have favored over the last two decades. They destroyed the market in food by imposing control prices that resulted in underproduction when the official prices did not meet costs of production. The government expropriated farms, ranches, and even food distributors such as butchers. There’s very little if anything produced on these expropriated territories. Food is now heavily controlled by the black market and by corrupt importers (often members of the military who are also Maduro’s cronies) who sit on food at the ports to drive up the price.

At the same time political appointees, rather than competent managers, now run the state oil company. Failure to reinvest has meant that oil production has fallen drastically, so that Venezuela’s earnings of foreign exchange have diminished.

To keep all this going, the government has undermined the rule of law and the judiciary, and arrested independent trade union leaders. It has manipulated elections and is attempting to replace the legitimate elected legislature, where there are still some opposition members, with a “Constituent National Assembly” completely loyal to Maduro. Both Chávez and Maduro have ruled by decree and used arbitrary arrest, torture and even executions to maintain themselves in power. Maduro also controls the media: it is illegal now to post pictures of empty store shelves or images of desperation, supposedly because it foments hatred.

International Mechanisms to Protect Venezuelans’ Right to Food

It’s very difficult to know what to do about the situation in Venezuela. Individual citizens have hardly any recourse to outside institutions to help them in their search for food and medicine. Citizens of some states can complain about violations of their right to food to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but all that committee can do is make recommendations or “name and shame” rights-violating states. But even this doesn’t apply to Venezuela, which hasn’t ratified the necessary international treaty to permit its citizens to make individual complaints.

The US has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan individuals, freezing their assets and banning travel to the US. It’s also prohibited financial dealings by US citizens with these sanctioned Venezuelans. Maduro replies to these measures by accusing the US of imperialism, a plausible accusation given its real history of imperialism in Central and South America.

There’s also been some regional pressure on Chávez and Maduro. The Organization of American States tried to persuade Chávez to change some of his policies, but he replied by withdrawing from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012. Maduro has been barred from visiting some other South American countries: Peru withdrew his invitation to the 8th Summit of the Americas for April 2018.

On Feb 8, 2018 the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which Venezuela joined in 2002, opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela, such as arbitrary detentions and torture. This followed a 2017 determination by the Organization of American States that there was evidence of such widespread crimes. The ICC Statute considers extermination via denial of food to be a crime against humanity, but the preliminary investigation did not mention this.

On May 24, 2018 the UN Security Council voted unanimously to ban the use of starvation as a weapon of war: see https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13354.doc.htm .However, Venezuela is not a war-torn state, even though there is much civil conflict there now as a result of Maduro’s starvation-inducing policies.

There is no international legal mechanism to stop perfectly predictable state-induced food shortages before they happen. Nor can any legal mechanism hold entire regimes accountable, even when all or most senior government officials are complicit in the wrong-doing. All the ICC can do, if it gets that far, is try individuals, not an entire government.

Except for committing genocide or crimes against humanity, states (or the governments of those states) still have the sovereign right to violate their citizens’ human rights. They also have the sovereign right to choose whatever “development” path a state elite wants, even if that so-called development is bound to fail and result in de-development, if not outright starvation, as in Venezuela. These states’ rights are sacrosanct, and far more important to the international “community’ than the rights of starving citizens.

The Future

For the foreseeable future, Venezuelans will try to flee in their hundreds of thousands in search of food.  But they will find it increasingly difficult to do so, as both Colombia and Brazil have been cracking down on legal migration. The result is irregular migration controlled by smugglers and armed groups. Venezuelan women and girls are now trafficked across the border to satisfy the Colombian demand for sex workers. (https://www.irinnews.org/feature/2018/03/13/colombia-tightens-its-border-more-venezuelan-migrants-brave-clandestine-routes ).

Meantime, like the Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burnt, Maduro continues to fiddle with the economy, arbitrarily imposing currency devaluations and insufficient wage increases, everything but permitting a free market and property rights that would encourage production and distribution of food (See “Confusion reigns as Maduro mega-devaluation roils Venezuela,” The Globe and Mail, August 20, 2019 p. B3).

On August 4, 2018 there was a drone attack on Maduro while he was giving a speech at a military parade. The question now is, whether a civil war in Venezuela will exacerbate famine even further, or whether there might be a coup by anti-Maduro factions within the military or elsewhere. If the latter, the new rulers might turn to a somewhat more rational economic policy, although they will not necessarily restore civil liberties or encourage political democracy.

(For a more detailed scholarly analysis of the situation in Venezuela and what might be done about it, see my State Food Crimes, Cambridge University Press, 2016).


Thursday, 16 August 2018

Colonial Cruising



Colonial Cruising

Last week (August 4-11, 2018) my husband and I enjoyed a week-long cruise in the “inner passage’ in Alaska. This cruise focuses on the south-eastern part of Alaska, sailing between the islands off the coast and the shore. It was a long-awaited trip, my husband’s 40th wedding anniversary present to me.

I was already aware of the pollution that cruise ships can cause in oceans and seas, thanks to a presentation I once heard by a student in the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, where I used to work.  But I was on a Dutch ship that claimed to be environmentally conscious, so I thought perhaps I was not personally doing too much damage.

an Alaskan cruise ship
As the trip progressed, though, I did wonder how “colonial,” in the current parlance, it was for us to even take the cruise. The ship was Dutch-registered, and the senior staff, including the captain, seemed to all be Dutch.  The dining room servers, cabin stewards, maintenance and repair people, and security and safety crew seemed to be all Indonesian and Philippino (also mainly, but not entirely, male). The patrons were largely of European origin, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders especially. There was also a large contingent of patrons presumably of Chinese background, reflecting the changing distribution of wealth in the latest round of economic globalization.

Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony, until a war of independence in the late 1940s: the Dutch did not give up their colony without a cruel and brutal fight. I wondered how long this cruise line’s ships had been serviced by Indonesian migrants. Perhaps there had been several generations of cruise ship employees from specific locations in Indonesia.

Also, as migrant labor goes, perhaps working on a Dutch cruise ship is not as bad as a lot of other options.  Presumably, the workers’ living quarters had to adhere not only to Dutch but possibly also to Canadian and/or US standards.  The workers had the right to return home for three months every year. While we were on the ship there was an earthquake on the Indonesian island of Lambok, where one of the servers came from. While unhurt, all his family (wife, four children, siblings and parents) were reduced to living in tents: the ship gave him leave and helped him arrange his transport home.

The other aspect of colonialism that I encountered was the almost complete disregard of the Indigenous peoples and cultures in Alaska. We attended a presentation of her culture by a Tlingit woman, presented in the ship’s main entertainment hall to a fairly large audience. But beyond that, we weren’t given much information about Alaskan culture, society, politics or economics.

I went ashore at a small town called Ketchikan and discovered a professionally-curated museum featuring town artifacts and a display of late 19th and early 20th century photographs. An individual there told me that the museum received very few visitors from cruise ships, and those who arrived said that it was the cruise ship staff, not the ship’s publicity agents, who told them about it. The assistant at the museum was a half-Tlingit and half-Haida woman who said to me, regarding the cruise industry’s lack of interest in Indigenous culture. “Colonialism has many windows and doors: when one closes, another opens.”
Ketchikan, Alaska

The main thing that the ship promoted on shore was stores selling diamonds and tanzanite.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to buy diamonds or tanzanite (a stone originating in Tanzania) in Alaska; perhaps there were tax advantages.

On shore, tourist companies also promoted visits to the (presumably renovated and kitschified) brothels that existed during the late 19th century Gold Rush in Alaska and the Yukon (a northern Canadian territory). Apparently there is a myth of merry women cavorting happily with the men seeking gold. The truth, I imagine, is that many of those women died of botched abortions, gang rapes and sexually transmitted diseases. This, of course, is not something the average tourist wishes to hear about. Nor is this precisely colonialism, jut your good old-fashioned sexism.

I am not saying people shouldn’t take Alaska cruises. If you do want to take one though, do it soon. One of the speakers we listened to told us 97% of the glaciers are receding because of climate change. If you wait a decade or two, they may no longer be there.

And if you do go, maybe try a little harder than I did—never having been on a cruise before—to forewarn yourself about local culture and conditions before you visit.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas; Book Note


Rebel Mother: My Childhood Chasing the Revolution, by Peter Andreas: Book Note

Peter Andreas is the John Hay Professor of International Relations at Brown University, an elite private university in the US.  Born in 1965, he had an extraordinary childhood following his mother, Carole Andreas (author of Sex and Caste in America) as she chased “the revolution” through Berkeley communes, three countries in Latin America (Chile, Argentina, and Peru), and finally into “revolutionary” leftist politics in Denver.  In Rebel Mother (Simon and Schuster, 2017), he has reconstructed that life through his own memories, his mother’s diaries, and family letters.


Born a Mennonite in 1933, at age seventeen Carole married a much older Mennonite man, and then left him in the late 1960s after having had three sons. Her husband obtained legal custody of Peter, but she kidnapped him twice, once when he was five and again, with his co-operation, when he was ten. Meanwhile the two much older sons pretty much did want they wanted from the age of about 14. One, Joel Andreas, at the age of 15 drew a famous graphic novel about the wealthy Rockefeller family; 100,000 copies were distributed by NACLA, the leftist North American Committee for Latin America.

Throughout her life Carole Andreas was consumer by three things: love for her children, sex, and politics. While most people who were active in “revolutionary” politics in the late 1960s and 70s got over it later in life, she did not. She took Peter to live in a commune in Berkeley, California, where one of her lovers was Richard Feinberg, an economist who twenty years later hired Peter for an internship in a Washington, D.C. think-tank. Later she moved to Allende’s Chile, after the 1973coup d’état decamping to Argentina and then Peru. In Peru she took a lover twenty years her junior named Raul, whom she eventually married. She also had some contacts with the Maoist leftist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), later revealed to have committed many crimes against humanity. Peter spent much of his childhood listening to Carole and Raul engage in violent political arguments, followed by raucous love-making in the same room where he was supposed to be sleeping.  Often they lived in very crowded conditions with generous peasant families.

Eventually Carole and Peter settled in Denver, living in accommodations that at least had the advantage of indoor plumbing, but were otherwise quite meagre. Carole devoted herself to studying all forty-five volumes of the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, and being involved in political events such as a 1977 strike at Coors Brewing Company, for which Joel drew another graphic comic book.  Carole and Joel had political screaming matches too: he took a more Maoist line, while she claimed that women, and especially gays, were the real vanguard of the revolution.

Peter Andreas

Peter was largely left to his own devices, his mother ignoring his school performance other than to warn him that to do well in school was to be elitist. At the age of twelve he was given a loaded gun by a man he’d met at a bar, and when he showed it to Carole she simply said “learning to use a gun will prove handy for when the revolution comes” (p. 242). In his room, thinking the gun empty, Peter lifted it to his head, but then he decided to check and sure enough, there was one bullet: he gave the gun back the next day. A supportive teacher made sure that he attended a higher quality high school than the one Carole wanted him to attend because it was working class: from there, he made his way to university.

Reading about Peter Andreas’ extraordinary childhood, I wanted to rescue him from Carole. I wondered whether his mother had violated any of what we now know as children’s rights, following the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. There is no children’s right not to have to use primitive, outdoor toilet facilities. Nor is there any children’s right not to sleep in a crowded room with several other people, and even farm animals. Nor is there a right not to be in the same room when parents are making love: presumably, this happens all over the world in households that live in one room. Perhaps there should be a children’s right not to live in a home with a gun or have access to one, but there’s isn’t.

Nor is there any children’s right to be loved, although it is much better, of course, if a child is loved. As far as I could see, Carole Andreas genuinely loved her son, even though her behavior with him was extremely erratic.

So many of my reasons for wanting to rescue Peter Andreas from his mother reflected precisely the middle-class values that she rebelled against. These were values held by his father, with whom Peter stayed for brief periods, with his own room, clean clothes, indoor plumbing and a regular routine. Despite enjoying this security, he agreed to conspire with his mother on his second kidnapping because he thought she needed him more than his father did.

Peter himself wrote of his mother:

“In some ways she did fall into some ‘bad mothering.’ A child should not feel that he must let his mother kidnap him in order to secure her love, or be a nightly witness to his mother’s political screaming matches and marital passions, or bear the weight of her suicidal thoughts. A child should not be allowed to play with a loaded gun because it is ‘good training for the revolution’….He should not have to defy his mother’s ideological insistence that he attend a bad high school because it is more ‘working class.’ All in all, a child needs more stability that to live in three states and five countries in more than a dozen different homes and schools between the ages of five and eleven.” (p. 319)

Yet throughout the book, it is clear that Peter and his mother loved each other very much. And he could not be the scholar he is today had he not had these extraordinary childhood experiences.


Monday, 18 June 2018

Genocide in the Far North: Canada 1950


Genocide in the Far North: Canada 1950

On June 11, 2018, Gloria Galloway published an article in the Globe and Mail (p. A9) entitled “Ahiarmiut ready for apology after several relocations.” According to Galloway, the Ahiarmiut are a small group of Inuit whom the Canadian government relocated about 100 km. from their original home in 1950, on the grounds that they were becoming too dependent on trade with federal employees at a radio tower near their home. They were “dropped on an island without food, shelter or tools.” To survive, they ate bark and whatever else they could get their hands on until winter came. Many died. In 1957, they were relocated again; this time they were given tents at their new location, as well as a “starvation box” that might feed them for a week. Some died again. There were three subsequent relocations.

Through their lawyer, Steve Cooper, survivors and their descendants have been asking for compensation, an apology, and a memorial since 2007.  According to Galloway, the government has finally agreed to settle, in part to bring “closure” to this event.

For over thirty years, I have argued in class and elsewhere that Indigenous peoples in Canada have been—and still are—the victims of cultural genocide.  But the case of the Ahiarmiut was not cultural genocide, it seems to me: it’s actual physical genocide. The way Canada’s government treated them is analogous to the Soviet Union’s deportation to Siberia in 1944 of several minorities groups including the Tartars, the Chechens, and ethnic Koreans. Trainloads of people were dumped without food, clothing and shelter, as a result of which up to fifty per cent died, just like the Ahiarmiut. Scholars of the topic generally recognize this as genocide.

You might ask, though, whether the term “genocide” can be applied to a group as small as the Ahiarmiut. Yes, it can. There is nothing in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC) that specifies that a minimum number of victims must have been murdered. Moreover, the UNGC applies to the destruction of groups “in whole or in part”; the entire group doesn’t need to die for a deportation to be considered genocide.  In sociological terms, rather than legal, the brilliant scholar of comparative genocide, Helen Fein, has coined the term “genocide by attrition.” This means the genocide takes a while, starvation and disease doing the trick, rather than outright murder.  

I suspect there’s been a lot of genocide by attrition of Indigenous peoples in Canada. For example, in 2018 the Canadian government is still promising to remedy the situation in Grassy Narrows, Ontario, where Indigenous people are still suffering from mercury poisoning. We’ve known about this situation since at least 1985, when Anastasia M. Shkilnyk published her book about Grassy Narrows, A Poison Stronger than Love.

In legal terms, the only reason not to call the deportations of the Ahiarmiut genocide is the matter of intent. The UNGC specifies that actions constituting genocide must be accompanied by “an intent to destroy” the group in question. Perhaps Canadian bureaucrats did not intend that the Ahiarmiut should die. Perhaps they labored under the false illusion that Indigenous peoples could live “off the land,” even if they were dumped somewhere they had never lived before and where they had no shelter, no tools, and no food to tide them over.

When Canada deported the Ahiarmiut people, it was violating its own international commitments. Canada voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on December 10, 1948. Granted, this was a declaration, not a legal treaty, but it implied a commitment to all human rights, including rights to adequate food and protection from starvation, the right to housing, and the right to health. Canada also signed the UNGC Convention on November 28, 1949, although it did not ratify it (the second step to accepting legal obligations) until September 3, 1952.

So had anyone actually noticed in 1950 that Canada was committing genocide against the Ahiarmiut, the government could have argued that it had not yet ratified the UNGC, so it was in the clear. And the government could have argued that although it accepted the UDHR rights to health, shelter and food in principle, it did not yet have to provide them.

More likely, though, no one noticed and no one cared. Indigenous people at the time were disposable. The government could move them when and where it wanted, for whatever reason it wanted. Moreover, from 1927 to 1951 it was illegal for Canadian Indigenous peoples to organize in their own interests, so it was impossible for them to do anything about it.

If ever a group of Indigenous people were entitled to apology, memorialization, and compensation, it is the Ahiarmiut. But more than that, I think they are entitled to an acknowledgement by the Canadian government that they were victims of genocide.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Old White People's Syndrome


OLD WHITE PEOPLE’S SYNDROME

For some time my husband and I, both born in the late 1940’s, have been suffering from what I call “old white people’s syndrome.”  This is a syndrome in which other old white people attribute to the sufferer racist attitudes which they do not have.

We’ve had several incidents of this, mostly when we’ve been travelling and conversing with strangers.

Once (when we were actually not yet very old) a taxi driver taking us to the Los Angeles airport spent time telling us how filthy Mexicans were. We didn’t argue; we were his hostages on the LA freeway. Relieved when he finally dropped us off, I didn’t have the sense to tell him that I wouldn’t give him a tip because of his racist attitudes.

In 1998, we were taking a day-long canal cruise in Italy.  Sitting across from us at lunch was a white South African man with his wife and sister-in-law. He told us in great detail how happy black South Africans had been in apartheid South Africa (though his wife tried to suggest that he was wrong).  I went into sociological mode, listening without arguing, since I had never before conversed with such an openly racist white South African.  Surprisingly though, my usually silent husband interjected that I had been in South Africa (true: I spent a month there in 1992) and that I worked on human rights. That ended the conversation. When I asked my husband why he had interjected, he said that the only black couple on our cruise was sitting behind us.

A few years ago my friend Anne, whom I’d known since 1970, and I were staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake. We were chatting with an American couple who had recently taken their first trip to Europe.  Eventually they mentioned that although they had enjoyed their trip, there were too many Muslims there.  This time I was quick on the draw. I turned to Anne and said “Do you remember my brother-in-law Muhammad,” to which, equally quick on the draw, she replied “Oh yes, I do remember your brother-in-law Muhammad.”  This ended that conversation.  And indeed, I did have brother-in-law named Muhammad from 1971 to 1980; he was a foreign student married to my sister.

In 2013, my husband and I were passengers on a scenic railway trip in British Columbia.  We decided to have lunch with an elderly Christian minister and his daughter from New Zealand; the minister was an especially friendly chap.  In the course of the meal, he started to complain about how he had to stand in the “foreigners’” line when he visited the UK, even though he was descended from British migrants to New Zealand, while “Pakis” got to stand in the line for British citizens.  Once again non-plussed, I didn’t know what to say, although I knew I should have a quick come-back. Later on I realized that I should have said “some of those ‘Pakis’ are my relatives,” which would also have been a true statement: one of my first cousins is married to a man whose father was from India, and one of her three children looks as if he is purely Indian by descent.

As you can see, usually I am so surprised at these situations that I don’t do what I ought to do; immediately tell the people I’m with that I think they are racists. I live in a protected world of liberals and academics. When you are in the type of situation I have described here, and you can’t just walk away, the desire to be courteous takes over, so you ignore racist comments or deflect the conversation. I agree that this isn’t right, and I should do more to call out racism when I encounter it.

I thought of old white people’s syndrome today after learning about the (ex) TV star Roseanne Barr’s racist rants this week.  She tweeted anti-Semitic, conspiracy statements about the billionaire sponsor
George Soros
of Open Society, George Soros, and claimed that former President Barack Obama’s African-American adviser Valerie Jarrett was the child of a Muslim and Planet of the Apes.  

Valerie Jarrett (left): Roseanne Barr (right)

I have no idea why Roseanne decided to pick on Jarrett, though there is apparently a widespread belief that Soros, a Hungarian Jew, was an SS officer during WWII--at the age of 14! (This is a standard anti-Semitic trope: the Jews did it—the Holocaust—to themselves).  Later Barr tweeted that the reason she’d sent out these tweets was that she was taking the sleeping pill Ambien, to which the makers of Ambien replied that racism was not a known side-effect of the drug.  Perhaps Roseanne, an old white person herself, thought she had enough fans among Donald Trump’s heavily white, older supporters that she could continue her TV series about a white family debating immigration, racism, etc. Instead, her employers cancelled her show.

At my gym, we’ve been devising imaginary T-shirts for Old White People who aren’t racists, homophobes, etc. to wear while travelling.  One woman wants a T-shirt that says “Old white lady with gay son whom she loves.”  Mine would have to say “Old white anti-racist lady with multi-racial relatives and former Muslim brother-in-law.”  Or maybe just: “I’m a liberal,” a dirty word among many Americans (and some Canadians) today.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Famine in Venezuela?



Famine in Venezuela?

note: for a more recent and updated version of the information in this blog, see my blog of August 20, 2018, entitled "Famine in Venezuela: Update."

“Venezuela’s Crisis Spills Over,” a recent article in the New York Times International Weekly of the Hamilton Spectator (May 5, 2018, p. 1), stated that 5,000 people per day are leaving Venezuela. At this rate, 1.8 million people will have left by the end of 2018, joining 1.5 million who have already fled. This is over ten per cent of Venezuela’s population of 32 million.


Venezuelans on the road in search of food

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines famine as “widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including… government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.”  By this definition, Venezuelans may already be experiencing famine. At the very least, they are experiencing state induced hunger.


Readers of my blog will know that I’ve been following Venezuelan politics since 2012.

Hugo Chávez was elected President in Venezuela in 1999.  He instituted several policies that were meant to feed poor Venezuelans, but actually made the situation worse. From 1999 to 2007 people’s living conditions improved, but food shortages started when oil prices declined. Chávez died in 2013 and was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro, whose draconian policies have created massive food shortages.

According to Antulio Rosales (“An Ugly New Low for the Venezuelan President,” Globe and Mail, March 12, 2018, p.A11) and Enrique Krauze (“Hell of a Fiesta,” New York Review of Books, March 8, 2018, pp. 4-7), more than half of all Venezuelans have lost between 19 and 24 pounds, and 90 per cent say they do not have enough money for food. The minimum monthly wage in mid-2017 bought only 12 per cent of one person’s basic food needs, even less now. Sixty per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty. Formerly dormant diseases such as malaria, diphtheria and dengue are reoccurring, while hospitals are extremely short of personnel, medicines and the most basic equipment. Some people receive subsidized food boxes, but the contents are inconsistent and insufficient, are distributed irregularly, and are more likely to go to supporters of Maduro than others.

This shortage of food is a completely predictable consequence of the policies that both the Chávez and Maduro governments favored over the last two decades. They destroyed the market in food by imposing control prices that resulted in underproduction when the official prices did not meet costs of production. The government expropriated farms, ranches, and even food distributors such as butchers. There’s very little if anything produced on these expropriated territories. Food is now heavily controlled by the black market and by corrupt importers (often members of the military who are also Maduro’s cronies) who sit on food at the ports to drive up the price.

At the same time political appointees, rather than competent managers, now run the state oil company. Failure to reinvest has meant that oil production has fallen drastically, so that Venezuela’s earnings of foreign exchange have diminished.
More Venezuelans looking for food

To keep all this going, the government has undermined the rule of law and the judiciary, and arrested independent trade union leaders. It has manipulated elections and is attempting to replace the legitimate elected legislature, where there are still some opposition members, with a “Constituent National Assembly” completely loyal to Maduro. Both Chávez and Maduro have ruled by decree and used arbitrary arrest, torture and even executions to maintain themselves in power. Maduro also controls the media: it is illegal now to post pictures of empty store shelves or images of desperation, supposedly because it foments hatred.

It’s very difficult to know what to do about this. The US has imposed sanctions on some Venezuelan individuals, freezing their assets and banning travel to the US. It’s also prohibited financial dealings by US citizens with these sanctioned Venezuelans. Maduro replies to these measures by accusing the US of imperialism, an easy accusation to make given its real history of imperialism in Central and South America.

There’s also been some regional pressure on Maduro.  He’s been barred from visiting some other South American countries: Peru withdrew his invitation to the 8th Summit of the Americas for April 2018. The Organization of American States tried to persuade Chávez to change some of his policies, but he replied by withdrawing from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012.

I think that Maduro and his cronies should be referred for trial to the International Criminal Court, which Venezuela joined in 2002.  On Feb 8, 2018 the ICC Prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes against humanity such as arbitrary detentions and torture. The ICC Statute considers extermination via denial of food as a crime against humanity, but the preliminary investigation did not mention this.

Individual Venezuelan citizens have hardly any recourse to outside institutions to help them in their search for food and medicine. Citizens of some states can complain about violations of their right to food to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, but all that committee can do is make recommendations or “name and shame” rights-violating states. But even this doesn’t apply to Venezuela, which hasn’t ratified the necessary international treaty to permit its citizens to make individual complaints.

Nor is there a world human rights court that would hear individual complaints against a state and ensure the individual’s right to an effective remedy.  But even if it did exist, such a court would not necessarily have the right to demand that all affected citizens, not merely the individuals making the complaint, should have their grievances addressed.

There is no international legal mechanism to stop perfectly predictable state-induced food shortages before they happen. Nor can any legal mechanism hold entire regimes accountable, even when all or most senior government officials are complicit in the wrong-doing. All the ICC can do, if it gets that far, is try individuals, not an entire government.

Except for committing genocide or crimes against humanity, states (or the governments of those states) still have the sovereign right to violate their citizens’ human rights. They also have the sovereign right to choose whatever “development” path a state elite wants, even if that so-called development is bound to fail and result in de-development, if not outright starvation, as in Venezuela. These states’ rights are sacrosanct, and far more important to the international “community’ than the rights of starving citizens.

So for the foreseeable future, Venezuelans will continue to flee in their hundreds of thousands to Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere, in search of food.




Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Anarchists Trashed My Neigbourhood


Anarchists Trashed My Neighbourhood

On the evening of March 3, 2018, my husband and I were watching television when we heard a series of bangs. Looking out the window, I saw fireworks. We thought some local festival was going on.

We live in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a city/region of 530,000 people about 60 kilometers west of Toronto. Hamilton was formerly a steel town and still produces steel, although its main industries now are education and health services connected to McMaster University. If you’ve ever driven from Buffalo to Toronto, you’ve passed our smokestacks. Torontonians used to pity people who lived in working-class Hamilton.

Lately, however, Hamilton has been coming up in the world. My husband and I live half a block from “trendy Locke Street,” as the real estate agents put it. Locke Street is the shopping street in a popular area of Hamilton known as Kirkendall, consisting of one-family homes, duplexes and triplexes, and a few apartment buildings. The two elementary schools and one middle school in the area have good reputations. The average income is higher than the average income of Hamilton as a whole, but hardly the highest in the whole region. It’s now a popular area for people fleeing Toronto’s high real estate prices.

The bangs we heard on Saturday evening were made by a group of about 30 people, dressed in black and carrying a banner saying “We are the Ungovernables.” They were setting off fireworks and throwing rocks and eggs at businesses and cars on Locke Street. When the police arrived, they dispersed down side streets, shedding their black clothing.

Residents of Kirkendall enjoy patronizing the many shops and restaurants on Locke St, and attending the several churches. My husband has his hair cut by Mr. Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, and sings in the choir of St. Joseph’s Church. I use a tiny branch of the Hamilton library, usually on my way home from the Locke Street Gym. We buy pizzas at Earth to Table, a locavore restaurant, and other food at Goodness Me, a health food grocery. Except for a Starbucks, presumably locally franchised, my guess is that every restaurant, beauty salon, physiotherapy service and shop on Locke Street is locally owned. 

Ron Mattai is co-owner of Mattson’s, a popular Locke Street restaurant that opened a few years ago. Some years ago, when Ron owned a restaurant near Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius, a gay-basher brutally attacked him with a broken beer bottle. Ron required four surgeries and still does not have proper feeling in his face. Mattson’s was spared window damage, but some of the Ungovernables threw eggs when they saw patrons looking out at them. The patrons were so frightened by the noise and people in black that they hid under the tables.

Prue is the owner of Pippa and Prue’s, a women’s dress store. One of her plate-glass windows was broken. She asked me why I thought the Ungovernables had trashed her window, and I replied that they probably thought she was a capitalist pig. If so, Prue laughed, that had backfired; her business would probably pick up. When I went into the store two women had dropped in to offer support. One said she’d never shopped there before but would do so now.
Pippa and Prue's women's clothing store, with broken window
The worst hit store was the Donut Monster, which a youngish local couple opened a few months ago. Nine of their windows were boarded up.  On Sunday morning they were offering coffee but no dough-nuts, yet even the loss of one Sunday’s patronage might damage their business. But by Sunday afternoon people had lined up around the block to buy coffee to show their support, and the plywood boards on their windows were covered with messages, of which the one I liked best was “make donuts, not war.” The Beverley, a breakfast and brunch place, was also boarded up.

The “Ungovernables” who trashed Locke Street probably think of themselves as anarchists. Their tactics suggest they’ve studies “antifa” (antifascist) groups elsewhere. They might have been attending an anarchist book fair that has taken place peacefully at a local high school since 2010. Some may have been locals, others from out of town. This was no spontaneous, anarchistic event, though. The rock-throwers had probably not spontaneously gone to the local balaclava store to buy their face coverings, and their banner was quite professionally made.

These Ungovernables probably think they’ve struck a blow against capitalism and the local bourgeoisie, the latter represented by the families who live in the Kirkendall neighbourhood. Apparently some of Hamilton’s local anarchists have been protesting the gentrification of other neighborhoods for several years. But on Sunday morning Locke Street was crowded with people, many popping into businesses to offer condolences and support. On March 10 there will be a march of local people in support of these businesses.

In their defense, I originally thought, the Ungovernables attacked property, not people, seemingly careful to throw eggs but not rocks at restaurants where patrons were still eating. But since then I’ve learned that they had earlier congregated at a local park and thrown rocks at three police officers who turned up to investigate. You can kill someone with a rock.

All the Hamilton Ungovernables have achieved is to provide ammunition for the political right.  The Ungovernables may be young people fed up with what they see as establishment politics; they may also be confusing Canadian politics with the corruption and kleptocracy that characterizes President Donald Trump’s government in the United States. But their actions support the false equivalence of left-wing to right-wing activists that supporters of the very capitalist status quo that they want to overcome use to shut down reasonable political debate.  The more the political right can accuse the political left of violence, the greater the chance of delegitimizing the left.  

What the Ungovernables should have done was stage a peaceful march, then answered questions from local people and the press to get their point of view across.