Wednesday 3 April 2024

Criticisms of International Human Rights


 Criticisms of International Human Rights

This is the text of an entry that I was asked to write last year by a group of people in Europe who proposed an on-line encyclopedia of global affairs, but who never followed through on publication. In consequence, since I retain ownership of the copyright, I’ve decided to post it on my blog, with references and further readings deleted. Warning: it is 2083 words long.

The International Human Rights Regime

The international human rights regime is a system of declarations and treaties that the United Nations began formulating in 1948, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A declaration is a statement of principles that a State can vote for at the UN. Treaties are laws that countries are expected to adhere to once they ratify (legally approve) a treaty. Declarations are often considered “soft law” that countries should adhere to even in the absence of treaties. 

The International Bill of Rights [IBHR] is composed of the UDHR, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, [ICESCR] both of which entered into force in 1976. A covenant or treaty enters into force when a specified number of States has ratified it. 

These documents are statements of principle. It might seem obvious to readers that the principles of human rights should apply universally. However, there is much debate among scholars and activists about whether human rights should be universal. Activists and scholars also point out many other problematic aspects of human rights, as discussed below.

The Debate about Universality

Some critics deny that human rights are universal. They believe that the human rights regime is a colonial creation, reflecting the views and wishes of the Western world, or the global North. In fact, 56 countries collaborated in formulating the UDHR. These included many non-Western countries, for example, Soviet Bloc and Latin American countries, as well as China and India. Both Soviet Bloc and Latin American countries had distinct conceptions of human rights, especially “economic” human rights, which influenced the formulation of the UDHR.

Sub-Saharan African countries did not participate in the formulation of the UDHR, as they were colonies at the time. However, many representatives of African nationalist organizations lobbied the UN for the UDHR. They pushed for Article 2 of the UDHR, in particular, which stated that everyone had human rights, even if they were still inhabitants of colonies. This was especially important as the colonial powers of the time had actually opposed extending human rights to colonial subjects. As former colonies became independent, they participated in formulating the ICCPR and the ICESCR, as well as new treaties such as the 1969 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the 1987 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The one group consistently left out of formulating the international human rights regime is Indigenous peoples, who do not have their own countries. All Indigenous peoples are subject to the power of whatever State they reside in. In general, they do not have an independent say in formulating or applying any UN human rights documents. Indigenous peoples did, however, contribute to the formulation of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Critical Perspectives on Human Rights

Some critics argue that human rights reflect Western liberalism, especially its stress on individual freedom. They argue that too much emphasis is placed on civil and political rights such as protection from torture, freedom of speech, and the right to vote. This stress on individual freedom ignores the set of equally or more important economic and social rights, such as the rights to food, health care, and education. This is so even though both sets of rights are included in the IBHR.

Some critics argue that human rights have been overly judicialized. They claim that matters that should be decided by governments, or by discussions among groups or individuals, become legal matters for courts to decide. This, critics argue, is an example of Western judicial imperialism, in which Western norms of justice become universal norms, overpowering local or indigenous legal systems.

 Some feminist commentators argue that human rights are also too male. Human rights stress formal, legal demands against governments or other perpetrators, instead of informal means of dispute resolution, which women supposedly prefer. Moreover, these commentators argue that women are more interested in economic and social rights than civil and political rights. Their chief concern is taking care of their families, not speaking in public or participating in politics.

Two responses can be offered to the criticism that there is too much stress on civil and political rights. The first response argues that these rights have a strategic value. Without them, people cannot act in their own interests against the forces that oppress them. If speaking your mind about a government that steals your food gets you landed in jail and tortured, for example, then your right to food is meaningless. Women, like men, can be persecuted by governments for various reasons, such as their ethnicity or religion. They, therefore, need the right to speak out and take part in politics in order to defend their own interests, even if those interests are mainly to feed and educate their children.

The second response argues that civil and political rights have an intrinsic value. They cover many aspects of human existence that most people want, such as freedom of religion or the right to practice their own culture, a right covered by the ICCPR in Article 27. People also want the right to belong to a community or a nation. This is especially relevant for Stateless people, who officially belong nowhere, and live in a state of uncertainly with no rights and no one to protect them, even though the UDHR in Article 15 says everyone has the right to a nationality.

Community vs. Individualism

Some critics worry that human rights undermine communities. This can happen if human rights contradict local customs, which often arises in cases involving women’s rights, children’s rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. This can also happen if human rights undermine local belief systems, as in the case of freedom of religion. Currently some African and other governments, including Russia, argue that LGBTQ+ rights violate their own traditional, religious and cultural norms

 It is argued that human rights also focus too much on the individuals’ claims against the state, the community, or even the family, in the case of women’s and children’s rights. That is, they undermine the sense of collective obligation that communities need to survive. They teach people to put their own desires above the collective need, principles, and ethics of the community they live in.

 Thus, it seems to critics that people have rights but no duties. The human rights regime is based upon the principle that States have the duty to uphold human rights. The problem seems to be that individuals do not have similar duties. This is the case even though the UDHR in Article 29 states that “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his [sic] personality is possible.” Human rights, in this view, reflect individuals’ desires, rather than their actual needs as expressed in international human rights documents.

 The international human rights regime creates cultural clashes. For example, insisting that a young girl has the right to sex education could be seen to undermine a community’s norms regarding abstinence before marriage. Insisting that gays and lesbians should enjoy human rights could be seen to undermine the entire institution of marriage. Insisting that Indigenous people stop using corporal punishment of members that violate their rules could be seen to undermine their way of making sure individuals obey community norms.

 In general, critics argue that human rights drive a wedge between different sectors of the community who might previously have lived together in harmony.

 Large-Scale International Problems

 Critics also argue that human rights cannot deal with the pressing, large-scale problems of the 21st century.

 Among these problems are the harms created by the global capitalist system. It is argued that human rights cannot help remedy the increasing inequality in the world today. It is not enough to have a regime that stresses minimum economic rights such as the right to food. Yet there is no human right to minimum levels of inequality, or any way to use human rights to prescribe a maximum level. Nor can human rights specify the public policies that are needed to provide an adequate standard of living, as prescribed in Article 25 of the UDHR.

 Either new sets of human rights, or new ways of dealing with large-scale worldwide problems, are needed to face collective threats to all humankind or to specific groups in the world. One such collective right is the right to development, protected by the 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development. This right is essentially the right of developing countries to be protected from exploitation by developed countries. If properly implemented, it would require wealthy countries and corporations to modify investment, lending, banking, trade, and aid practices as applied to poorer countries. It would also protect local workers and populations from the harms caused by foreign banks and corporations.

The entire world is now threatened by climate change, yet human rights — grounded as they are in individual claims — cannot deal with this existential threat. Although there have been cases of people suing government entities for not protecting them from climate change, in general individual human rights cannot solve this problem. Nor can a human rights declaration of principles or even a treaty force States to do what is necessary to mitigate climate change and prevent utter disaster.

Similarly, human rights cannot solve the problems of war and peace. Prevention of war and guarantees of peace seem beyond the capabilities of the human rights regime.

 Sovereignty and Human Rights

The biggest obstacle to realizing international human rights is State sovereignty. While countries that have voted for UN human rights declarations or have signed human rights treaties are not supposed to violate the relevant rights of their citizens, many still do. The international system simply does not have the resources to police what countries do.

Short of war, the best that can be done is to impose sanctions on some of the States that violate human rights, such as restricting trade with those countries or restricting the movements of their leaders. Unfortunately, though, it is possible to avoid sanctions which, in any case, often harm local populations more than they harm their rulers. In extremely rare cases, the international community can accuse a state’s leaders of crimes against humanity or genocide and refer them to the International Criminal Court, a UN-created body based in the Netherlands.

“Northern” countries set their own trade policies, as long as they follow the rules of international organizations of which they are members, such as the World Trade Organization. Quite often, these countries will trade with other countries that abuse human rights, as national economic security takes precedence over human rights of foreign individuals. Similarly, both Northern countries and private banks profit by lending to the governments of under-developed countries. Human rights simply do not have the rules or tools to guard against economic exploitation of developing countries by Northern States and corporations.

Many non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty International, and many private foundations that disburse funds for worthy causes were created, and are still headquartered, in the West. Despite their worthy goals, they are sometimes accused of setting their own priorities, disregarding the priorities of Southern “partners”.

All sovereign States are free to make their own foreign policy decisions. Occasionally, Western countries take the human rights performance of other countries into account in their foreign policies. Some countries such as Canada, the UK and the US sometimes impose human rights conditions on their foreign aid. When they do so, the recipient countries can accuse them of human rights imperialism. In any case, most foreign and aid policy is based on national interests in relation to security, alliances, investment, and trade; there is very little room left over for human rights.


Human rights seem to be irrelevant to the actual problems besetting the vast majority of the world’s people. At best, human rights are one tool in a larger toolbox required to obtain social justice. Perhaps the stress on laws and treaties has obscured the reality of the limited reach of human rights.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Why Palestine, Why Not Sudan? The Racism of Low Expectations

 A while ago I heard a Sudanese immigrant on the CBC asking why there was so much Canadian support for the Palestinians, and so little for Sudan.

There’s a civil war in Sudan between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). As a consequence, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization, about 6 million people are internally displaced in Sudan and another 1.8 million people are displaced externally in bordering African countries that can ill afford to help them. As in Gaza, these displaced people suffer from insufficient food, drinking water, and health services, with many people at high risk of diseases such as cholera.

Israel is subject to a quadruple set of expectations. First, like all other states, it is bound by international laws forbidding genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Second, expectations are high because it is a democratic state. Third, many critics consider it a colonial state. Finally, it is a Jewish state. Anti-Semites leap with glee onto any evidence of Israeli wrongdoing. Others—including hundreds of thousands if not millions of Jews within Israel and elsewhere—are horrified by Israel’s current assault on Gaza.

One reason for the difference between Gaza and Sudan may simply be that information on the Gaza crisis is much more immediate and available than information on Sudan. News media are full of day-to-day counts of those killed. Despite the terrible death rate among journalists, many are still reporting from Gaza. Gazans still have sporadic access to cell-phones and the ability to tell their stories to relatives and  journalists. By contrast, news media do not deliver day-to-day accounts of the suffering in Sudan.


Many Canadian doctors have served in Gaza in the last few months, and returned with horrific accounts. If Canadian doctors are also serving in Sudan, their stories are not being reported at the same rate by the media. 


Perhaps there is so little concern with Sudan because Canadians simply don’t know enough about the intricacies of Sudanese politics. We don’t understand why the two sides are fighting each other. We also don’t know which other countries are intervening in Sudan, on which side, and why.

And it doesn’t seem as if Canada has a stake in this civil war, so there’s no reason to protest our own government’s actions in it, whereas many Canadians want our government to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. .    

Another reason may be that we don’t think there is any way we can influence the competing factions in Sudan. We know that Israel wants to cultivate an international image of a democratic country fighting a legal war of self-defense, but it doesn’t seem to matter to either of the current factions in Sudan what Canadians or other Westerners think.

Israel fits the narrative of evil colonialism, of special concern to Canadians today given our own colonial past (and present). Sudan, by contrast, is a post-colonial state. No matter how long a country has been independent, anti-colonialists assume that their leaders have no independent capacity to make decisions. Any war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by either side can be attributed to the legacy of their former colonial rulers. So the leaders of the warring sides are not to blame.

And while Israel is a Jewish state, Sudan is Muslim. Many Canadians who are unafraid to criticize Israel are afraid to criticize any authorities if they are Muslim, even the most brutal and cruel.  

But perhaps part of this is just the racism of lower expectations. There’s a long Western history of assuming that Black people are naturally barbarous. So, it’s not fair to hold Black elites in Black countries to the same standards we hold “white” Israelis to. In this view, we can’t expect any better from Black people. When Black babies die, that’s just the way it is.     

Wednesday 21 February 2024

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, by Nathan Thrall: Book Note


A terrible accident occurred in the West Bank (Palestine) in 2012.  An ill-maintained truck driven at very high speed in very dangerous weather crashed with a busload of pre-schoolers on their way to a park for an outing. One of those pre-schoolers was Milad, the son of Abed Salama.  This book explores the accident and everyone involved in it, including parents, other relatives, the truck driver, the bus driver, rescuers, and doctors. The author, Nathan Thrall, interviewed all these individuals.

Thrall details Abed’s search for his son, once he learns of the crash. Abed searches in hospitals all over the West Bank as well as in Jerusalem. He is constantly delayed in his search by road-blocks, questioning by Israeli soldiers, and the circuitous routes that Palestinians have to take in order to get around the West Bank without wandering into any settler, military, or otherwise reserved (for Israel) territories. All the other parents and relatives experience the same problems, although those with Blue ID cards, indicating they are Israeli citizens, are somewhat better off.

The men in this book have terrible patriarchal attitudes. Abed himself is self-destructively impulsive. He does not marry Ghazl, his first love, after a jealous sister-in-law tells him Ghazl’s father disapproves. Instead of confronting the father and finding out he actually favours the marriage, Abed calls off negotiations. He impulsively marries someone else he doesn’t love, then some years later, after they’ve had four daughters, he decides to take a second wife without telling the first. The third wife is Milad’s mother. Another father of a child who dies in the crash blames his wife for letting the child go on the trip. When she asks for a divorce, the father demands, and receives, full custody of their remaining children as well as the entirety of the $200,000 compensation the Israeli government pays because the dead child was an Israeli citizen (no such compensation was offered to non-citizen Palestinian residents of the West Bank). The husband of one of the doctors involved, a high Fatah official, gives her no help at all raising their children while she learns both Russian and Romanian so that she can complete her studies as an endocrinologist.

Although the proximate cause of this tragic accident was the truck driver’s unsafe driving, the ensuing deaths were also caused by what can only be called apartheid in the West Bank. The 27-year-old truck itself would have been in better condition if the Palestinian owner had had more resources to repair his truck. More importantly, it took ages for either Israeli or Palestinian emergency vehicles to arrive at the scene of the crash. If the Palestinians had been throwing stones, several parents remarked, Israeli soldiers would have arrived at the site immediately. As it was, Israeli fire and medical vehicles took over an hour to reach it.  Meantime, Palestinian emergency vehicles were blocked by segregated roads and checkpoints.  Even getting ambulances through checkpoints to access hospitals within Israel itself was difficult.

Recently I also read Daniel Sokatch’s “Israel for dummies” book, Can we Talk About Israel? A Guide for the Curious, Confused, and Conflicted  Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund, which tries to help all citizens of Israel and promote peace among them. I am

proud to say I am a regular donor to the NIF, which Netanyahu has denounced as a foreign organization that endangers “the security and future of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.”  Sokatch argues that “Israel proper does not resemble an apartheid state: the Israeli-occupied West Bank does.” (chapter 20). Abed Salama’s search for his son Milad shows us in excruciating detail how vindictive and harmful Israel’s apartheid policy in the West Bank was, long before the current war. 





Sunday 5 November 2023

Responsibility for the (Israel/Gaza) war is not one-sided


On October 27, 2023, Harry Shannon, an emeritus professor at McMaster University, published the following article (now slightly revised) in the Hamilton Spectator, p. 27.  I tried to post a link to it on my Facebook account, but was prevented from doing so by Facebook’s ongoing dispute with the Canadian government. Facebook does not permit sharing Canadian news at the moment. However, Harry has given me permission to post the whole thing, so here it is.  I think Harry’s balanced and compassionate opinion on the Israel/Gaza war is well worth reading. 

Responsibility for the war is not one-sided

by Harry Shannon

Author’s siblings in kibbutz near Gaza narrowly avoided fate of residents in nearby community

"My brother lives with his wife on Kibbutz Saad, near the Gaza border. That weekend, my sister was visiting from Jerusalem. Saad is right in the middle of some 20 or so villages and kibbutzim which were attacked by Hamas. Literally across the road is Kfar Azza, where there was a horrible massacre. Documents recovered from dead Hamas terrorists showed detailed plans to attack Saad. But for some reason, Saad was spared and my family members survived.

At the same time, I have Palestinian friends. I have worked with health researchers in Ramallah. I know many Jews would be afraid to visit the West Bank. Several years ago, I told an Israeli cabby that I was going to Ramallah. “Don’t tell them you’re Jewish,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

He was very wrong. I have been warmly welcomed, not in spite of being a Jew, but even because of it. The vast majority of Palestinians just want what we in Canada consider a normal, peaceful life.

But instead they’re subjected to arbitrary arrest, separate roads, a separate legal system, travel restrictions, and so on, all based on their ethnicity – apartheid by any other name.

I’ve been appalled at some of the recent rhetoric, not just what’s been said, but also what hasn’t been said. Sarah Jama’s post on X (Twitter) on October 10 has been castigated for not condemning Hamas. She certainly should have and she belatedly did so. Those who have criticized Jama are absolutely right to revile Hamas. But they are equally wrong not to denounce Israel’s grossly disproportionate response.

Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard believes “Israel is racing to the moral abyss.” He writes that 75 years of imposing refugee status, 56 years of occupation, and 16 years of siege on millions of Palestinians “have normalized a situation where there are people worth less. Much less.” He cited a statement by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, considered a moderate. Appallingly, Herzog said that all Gazans are responsible for Hamas’ crimes.

Jews of all people should understand the potential consequences of demonizing an entire population.

Justin Trudeau and other Western leaders have been quick to condemn Hamas and support Israel, though they caution that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) must be obeyed.

 Yet it is clear that Israel is violating IHL. The blockade of water, food, and medicines (and more arguably, fuel) is collective punishment of civilians – not just a breach of IHL, but also thoroughly immoral and indeed a contravention of Jewish law. The demand by Israel that over a million civilians move from northern to southern Gaza is likely a violation – and most certainly inhumane. Even so, Trudeau, Biden, and other leaders issue Israel a free pass. They are spinelessly silent on Israel’s flouting of IHL and they have failed to press for a ceasefire.

Hamas’ murders and abduction of hostages, while horrendous, did not come out of thin air. When I spoke to my sister on October 7, she reacted (albeit before she knew the full extent of what happened): “I guess we [Israelis] deserve this – but that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re going through it.” She knows that Israeli settlers on the West Bank have for years committed terrorist attacks on and murders of Palestinian civilians, usually with impunity. Unlike terrorism by Hamas, they are almost never condemned in the West.

As does Michael Sfard, my sister acknowledges that responsibility for the war is not one-sided.  If the conflict is ever to be resolved, both sides and their supporters must first own up to their crimes."



Saturday 21 October 2023

My Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau urging him to encourage Israel to lift its Siege of Gaza

Note: I am not an expert on Israel/Gaza, although I have posted some blogs on Gaza and the West Bank from research I conducted for my book, State Food Crimes (Cambridge University Press, 2016). I've posted blogs on water rights of West Bank Palestinians,; on Palestinian property rights: a blog explaining my position on criticizing Israel: I believe that Israel is a state that has the right to exist in peace, but that it must also obey international law. 

 So I am not going to post blogs on what I think should be done regarding the current Israel/Gaza conflict..  But I do oppose the siege of Gaza. I post below a letter I sent today to Canada's Prime Minister.

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I am a Jewish Canadian living in Hamilton Centre.  I am also a scholar of international human rights: in that capacity I have researched the high rates of malnutrition in Gaza and the West Bank before recent events, and the responsibilities of Israel and Egypt in creating that malnutrition.

I appreciate your support for Israel’s right to defend itself, a right asserted in international law. I also agree with you that Hamas is a terrorist organization holding the majority of the population of Gaza hostage. I also appreciate your insistence that Israel should obey international laws of warfare. In that connection I urge you to continue encouraging Israel to cease its siege of Gaza, and to permit the normal 100 truckloads of aid Gaza needs every day to survive.  

Aside from urgent humanitarian reasons to cease the siege, there are compelling political reasons. Nothing can be gained from a siege of 2.2 million people who have no means of escape from Gaza.  This siege will only encourage the enemies of Israel and of the West in general. That these enemies include many dictatorships such as Iran does not obviate the need for world peace.

Yours sincerely,

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, CM, FRSC, Ph.D.

Thursday 10 August 2023

A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Book Note

 Last month (July 2023) I read A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (New York, Alfred A Knopf, 2023). Abdul-Ahad’s city is Baghdad, before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, now twenty years ago. Originally trained as an architect, Abdul-Ahad spoke very good English and became a translator for foreign journalists during the invasion, then a journalist in his own right.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

This is not an outsider’s book about Iraq, it’s an insider’s, and therefore all the more disturbing. Abdul-Ahad describes the years of the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and the damage they did, causing the deaths of half a million children.  Then he turns to the American invasion.

Abdul-Ahad states that the American provisional authority “represented the worst combination of colonial hubris, toxic racist arrogance and criminal incompetence.” (p. 56) Their simplistic belief that the only relevant division in Iraq was between Sunni and Shia Muslims intensified religious divisions, especially after the Americans substituted a regime of Shias for the former regime, which they believed had been only Sunni. Abdul-Ahad describes how all over Iraq, Sunnis and Shias who had previously lived together in peace now started separating their neighbourhoods, fighting and killing each other.

The Americans fired all “Ba’athist” civil servants, whom they believed to be committed Sunni supported of Saddam Hussein.  By doing so, the Americans ensured the complete breakdown of civil administration, including education, hospitals, infrastructure, etc.  Yet these “Ba’athist” civil servants were often members of the Ba’ath party in name only, as that was the only way to get a job under Saddam Hussain. Contrast this to the conquest of Nazi Germany in 1945, when most civil servants, including leading and committed Nazis, kept their jobs. Nothing good that had occurred under Saddam, including land reform that gave land to peasants, remained after the Americans took over. It was American marines, not Iraqis, who toppled the statue of Saddam (p. 43)

So many other military and political actors emerged after the invasion that I cannot even begin to summarize them.  Among them were tribal chieftains, terrorist Islamists, and various people out to line their own pockets, sometimes even just small groups of young men.  Iraq was one giant location for looting, raping and pillaging.

Among the people Abdul-Ahad interviewed were leaders of the various factions and militias that emerged after the Americans invaded. He was able to interview people few if any outsiders could ever interview, and even to embed himself with the troops of various factions. He survived a direct American hit on a crowd of civilians in 2004, in which 13 were killed and 60 injured. (pp. 72-75). Everyone should read this detailed account of men and boys bleeding, moaning and dying, all because the Americans were targeting one armored vehicle to prevent insurgents from using it.

My friend and colleague Abdullahi A. An-Naim is emeritus professor of law at Emory University.

Abdullahi An-Naim

Originally from Sudan, he was a committed supporter of international human rights when I met him over 40 years ago. Now, he considers human rights and international humanitarian law to both be colonial (see his Decolonizing Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, 2021). He especially opposed humanitarian intervention, on the grounds that the intervening powers lack the time, resources, local knowledge, language skills, and cultural competence to create a rights-protective regime (or even a democratic one) even when they might wish to. The American invasion of Iraq was not for humanitarian motives and the United Nations did not support it. But An-Naim is right nevertheless: the Americans didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and their invasion set the country up for all the internecine, tribal, religious and terrorist wars that followed.


Thursday 20 July 2023


In the Midst of Civilized Europe by Jeffrey Veidlinger: Book Note

This past month (July 2023) I read In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust 

Jeffrey Veidlinger
(HarperCollins 2021). The title is ironic. Historian Jeffrey Veidlinger’s book is about the pogroms of as many as 100,000 Jews in what is now Ukraine, during the many wars for Ukraine’s territory in the period 1918-21. The reference to “civilized Europe” is from an open letter, expressing concern about Ukraine’s Jews. The lead signatory of the letter was the French author Anatole France.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks (Communists) under Vladimir Lenin took power over former imperial Russia. They immediately made peace with Germany. Ukrainian democrats and nationalists saw this as an opportunity to claim their own independence from Russia. Various political actors then engaged in struggle for control of the territory we now call Ukraine over the four years Veidlinger covers. These included Ukrainian democrats, who never had much control over any part of Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalists supported by the dreaded (by Jews) Cossack horsemen. They also included Polish invaders, German invaders, White (anti-communist) Russian invaders, and Bolsheviks. Finally, they included local warlords. Bolshevik Russia finally subdued or negotiated with all these other actors, and incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union.

With the exception of the Ukrainian democrats, who tried to introduce rights for national minorities, including Jews, all these groups were responsible for pogroms against Jews. While Bolshevik officials did not have a policy of persecuting Jews, their underlings occasionally instituted pogroms. The other groups enthusiastically conducted pogroms, often killing every Jew in towns that they controlled, usually after raping the women and girls first. Both those who instituted the pogroms and local townspeople and peasants from surrounding villages cheerfully looted Jewish homes and other properties. Veidlinger’s final estimate is about 100,000 Jews killed.

We know about these pogroms in great detail because Jewish community leaders, both in Ukraine and abroad, encouraged survivors to detail and document what they experienced and witnessed. We also know about them through the records of commissions of inquiry into the various pogroms, including many commissions held by the Bolshevik authorities in the 1920s.  While many records of the pogroms were later lost, enough survived that Veidlinger was able to read them and in some chapters, provide detailed and horrifying descriptions of local pogroms. He appears to read both Russian and Yiddish (the latter the language of many Eastern European Jews, now more or less a dead language).  

The Bolsheviks who instituted commissions of inquiry were the same authorities that instituted their own terror against opponents (real and perceived) via their state institutions, including the Cheka secret police. They were also the authorities who stole food from Ukraine in 1920-21, shipping it to Russia proper while Ukrainians starved (as they did again during the state-induced Holodomor famine in 1932-33, which I discuss in my 2016 book, State Food Crimes, pp. 22-27).

Indeed, Veidlinger explains in his last chapter why so many Ukrainians welcomed Nazi rule during WWII and why so many willingly assisted the Nazis in their program to exterminate the Jews. Many Jewish people had joined the Bolsheviks, including the Cheka, in the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks were the only people who extended a modicum of protection to the Jews from the pogroms instituted by almost all the other actors in the civil wars of 1918-21. Ukrainian peasants whom the Bolsheviks had twice starved saw those Jews who survived the earlier pogroms and did not emigrate as privileged people, simultaneously capitalist and communist. In reality, both before and after 1918, most Jews were small business-people or craftsmen, not rich bourgeois. Many ethnic Ukrainians, moreover, had been persecuted by the Cheka, or had relatives who had been persecuted. The Bolsheviks had also expropriated the property of many Ukrainians. Thus, many blamed “Jewry,” write large, for the actions of some individuals Jews who were Bolsheviks, even when most Bolsheviks were ethnic Russians, not Jews.

This absolutely does not excuse Ukrainians who persecuted Jews in 1918-1921, or who cooperated with Nazism in the 1940s to murder even more Jews. Murderers are murderers and g√©nocidaires are g√©nocidaires. But if we want to eradiate genocide, we need to understand the underlying political, economic, social and ideological factors that cause it. This applies as much to the extermination of the Jews in “civilized” Europe as to any genocide elsewhere.

Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. I remember being a member of a visiting delegation of scholars to the Institute of State and Law at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1990. In discussion, I said that I thought Ukraine would want its independence, especially because of memories of the Holodomor. A member of the Russian side said that she was an ethnic Ukrainian and Ukraine would always remain loyal to Russia. Hah!

Ukraine had no history of being independent in the modern sense of statehood prior to 1991. Before then, the territory now known as Ukraine was divided up at various times among Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and so on. But that does not validate Vladimir Putin’s argument that Ukraine is Russian territory now. Once the international community recognizes as State as independent and sovereign, that’s that. So, Israel has the right to exist as a state, whatever one might think of its policies toward the Palestinians. So does Serbia, forged in blood after committing terrible atrocities against other groups—especially the Bosnians-during the break-up of Yugoslavia. So do South Sudan and Sudan proper, both countries with terrible records of mass atrocities.

The history of Ukraine 1918-2021 put me in mind of politics in Africa today, especially in eastern Congo. There too, for the last 30 years various groups have been competing for control, including both ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. There too, invading forces from foreign nations—Zimbabwe and Rwanda especially—have committed mass atrocities. There too, local warlords have sprung up and committed atrocities. “Civilizations” in both Europe and Africa disintegrate easily, revealing mankind’s worst instincts for torture, death, looting, and revenge.


Monday 3 July 2023

Announcement: My Appointment to the Order of Canada


Order of Canada


On June 30, 2023, the office of the Governor-General of Canada released the names of new Members of the Order of Canada.  I am one of them.  I am not permitted to know who nominated me or when, but my best guess is that I was nominated in the late 2010s by Wilfrid Laurier University, where I held the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights from 2023 to 2016.  The Governor-General’s office is just cleaning up the pandemic backlog now.  The Order of Canada is analogous to the UK’s system of Order of the British Empire. There will be an official investiture sometime in the future, but in the meantime I'm allowed to call myself a Member and wear the official insignia.


Here is the official citation and link to the announcement:

 Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, C.M.

Hamilton, Ontario

For her extensive scholarly contributions and steadfast commitment to the advancement of international human rights.

 Also for background, here is the link to my Wikipedia page:

 I also include my new formal image in this blog. The white button I am wearing on my left shoulder signifies Order of Canada, the reddish one signifies Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an honor I’ve held since 1993.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier: A Defense

In this blog I discuss Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Washington; D.C., Regnery Publishing, 2020). Many people think you should not read this book: I think you should.

A Canadian Case

In late April, 2023, Lane Tredger, the first non-binary member of the legislature of Yukon Territory, Canada (population 44,000) complained to the library at Yukon’s capital city, Whitehorse (population 28,000). They had noticed that the library had posted Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, as a staff pick. This is a common procedure in Canadian libraries, where members of staff advertise a book they consider particularly worthwhile.  Tredger argued that Schrier’s book was “blatantly transphobic.”

The library eventually decided that the book would remain in the Whitehorse collection, but without the staff pick sticker, and that it would be more rigorous in selecting staff picks. To its credit, the director of the Yukon Public Libraries said that “Libraries aren’t the arbiters of hate speech: that’s for the courts to decide.”.

What Shrier Argued

I wonder if Lane Tredger actually read Schrier’s book. I have. Shrier does not claim that no one is genuinely trans: she interviewed several adult trans people whose chosen trans identities she respected. She specifically stated “I have nothing but respect for the transgender adults I’ve interviewed. They were among the most sober, thoughtful, and decent people I have come to know in the course of writing this book” (219).

But Shrier is concerned that far too many young girls believe that they are actually boys, and that far too many parents, teachers, medical professionals, and other adults are willing to “affirm” these statements about identity. Her book is full of stories of girls who thought they were boys.

In the 2010s, Shrier states, claims of adolescent gender dysphoria increased by 1,000 per cent in the US (32). She is particularly concerned with what she considers the “craze” of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), often found within girls’ friendship groups, several members at a time of such groups identifying as trans (26). Shrier attributes this craze in part to “transgender influencers” on social media. These influencers, she asserts, coach girls to lie to doctors, inventing histories of gender dysphoria while omitting details of their mental health history, to convince doctors to immediately start gender transition treatments even though ROGD might mask other mental health problems (34, 55).

 Girls are susceptible to this RODG craze, Shrier argues, because of several factors affecting their sense of identity. These include the social isolation of today’s adolescents, compounding the normal stresses of female puberty. Such problems are also influenced, paradoxically, by the current narrowing of gender roles, so that girls who “act like” boys begin to believe they actually are boys (pp. 3-18). “Gender-nonconforming” females are seen as actually, or somewhat, male, overturning the long-ago gains of the feminist movement that defended women seen as unfeminine because of their interests in “male” pursuits such as athletics or engineering (63). Notably, there does not appear to be a reverse trend, in which unprecedentedly large numbers of boys suddenly claim they are girls. Perhaps this is in part because being female is still lower status than being male.

In general, Shrier believes that patients are often drawn to “symptom pools,” or “culturally acceptable ways of manifesting distress that lead to recognized diagnoses” (136). Thus, young girls who are distressed about several different aspects of their lives might self-diagnose as in need of gender transition. Such other aspects could include being sexually attracted to girls and women, instead of boys or men; dressing or acting in ways not conforming to pervasive gender stereotypes; or having interests not typical for young girls. Shrier states that several young girls she interviewed told her that lesbians were mocked for being girls who could not admit they were boys, “trans” identities being higher status in high schools than “lesbian” identities (151).


Young women who “failed” at being girls, according to Shrier, could transfer their identity to being male, and as trans people, moreover, could enjoy the “pleasure” of being “oppressed.” This particularly appealed to young white girls who otherwise had to categorize themselves as members of the oppressor class. Now they could “take cover” in being members of a victim group, women no longer being considered oppressed (154-7).


Shrier is concerned about the effects on girls’ health of early transitioning. Future infertility, she maintains, is one such problem. Others are a higher risk of osteoporosis as bone density is suppressed, interference with brain development, possible loss of sexual function, cancer, endometriosis, hysterectomies, and even heart attacks (82-83, 165, 169-70). Gender surgeries, Shrier argues, are experimental and lack proper oversight (142). Even binding one’s breasts can have detrimental health consequences (47).


At least one medication, Lupron, prescribed to block puberty had not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for that purpose at the time of writing, yet it was commonly used  (164). In general, “The dangers [of trans medications and surgery] are legion. The safeguards absent” (183). Yet gender reassignment clinics are multiplying in the US, in part because insurance companies are obliged to pay for gender reassignment treatment on the grounds that otherwise they would be discriminating. In 2007 there was only one gender-reassignment clinic, at the time Shrier wrote there were over fifty (167).


Shrier’s allegation are backed up by the personal testimony of one transgender man, who accumulated one million dollars in medical bills for treatment that left them with several severe medical complications. Yet they could not sue their doctors as there were no standards of care in transgender medicine to which the doctors were obliged to adhere. ( (


Shrier argues that many health professionals who presumably would not accept patients’ self-diagnosis in any other situation, be it physical or mental health, are now convinced that they should accept and affirm children’s self-diagnosis of gender identity (97-121). Yet, Shrier asserts, several studies show that about seventy per cent of young children who experience childhood gender dysphoria grow out of it, if they are not encourages to socially transition (119). One study showed that 85 per cent of children exhibiting gender dysphoria outgrew it (256, n. 11).

Shrier’s book should not be censored.  Yet this is what the American Booksellers’ Association essentially did in July 2021 when it apologized for its “violence” in sending free copies of Shrier’s “anti-trans” book to 750 member bookstore.  The apology backfired, however, as publicity surrounding it resulted in an increase in the book’s sales.


Evaluate and Disagree: Don’t Censor


People who disagree with Shrier should first carefully read her book.  Then they should address her evidence, as a professional psychologist, Christopher Ferguson, did. He criticized Schrier for not being sufficiently conversant with the scientific evidence that sex is not determined only by X or Y chromosomes but instead resides in the hypothalmus, and as such, “is largely immutable.”


Some evidence is now emerging from countries other than the US that supports Shrier’s point of view. In Sweden, there was a 1,500 per cent increase between 2008 and 2018 in gender dysphoria among people “born as girls” between 13 and 17 years old.. In the UK, 1,806 girls were referred for gender treatment in 2017/18, as compared to only 40 in 2009/10. As of August 2022, a class action suit against the Tavistock Institute, the UK’s former center for gender dysphoria treatment, was in preparation, claiming that children were “rushed into taking life-altering puberty blockers without adequate consideration or proper diagnosis.”


As I said at the outset of this blog, I am very concerned by people who denounce books and advocate their withdrawal from the public view, rather than taking authors’ arguments seriously. Maybe Shrier has it all wrong. But maybe, as the evidence from other countries suggests, she doesn’t. In any event, the thing to do is read her book and make up your own mind.


Thursday 22 June 2023

Driving with Will: A Memoir of Will Coleman

Note; readers of my blog may not know that for many years I have published poetry in various local and Canadian outlets.  Recently, I've taken up trying to write creative non-fiction.  Below is my memoir of the distinguished Canadian political scientist, Will Coleman, who died on March 24, 2023.  Will was my friend and colleague for over 40 years.



My friend Will died on March 24. He’d been suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, but died of a stroke.

I have many memories of Will, starting in the late 1970s when we were both young faculty members at McMaster University.

I left McMaster for Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 2003. After Will joined the University of Waterloo a few years later, we started commuting together when our schedules permitted. I would pick him up at his house at 8:00 AM, by which time he’d already been up and working for three hours. Normally a very quiet person, Will would start talking as soon as he got into the car, telling me everything that had happened to him since we’d last driven together. Or almost everything: I was completely unaware of a blossoming friendship with a woman down the street, Suet-Ha Loo, until he told me a few days before the event that they were getting married.

Will was extremely proud of his children and grandchildren. He loved his Sunday mornings baby-sitting Quinn, the son of his own son Matthew. Will and Quinn would sit on a bench on Aberdeen Avenue near where Quinn lived with his parents, and Quinn would shout “car,” or “truck” at every vehicle that passed.  I also enjoyed hearing about Will's daughter Kaitlyn, who’d obtained a degree in Museum Studies, and her interesting job helping to explore Toronto construction sites for historical artifacts. Will always spoke with great admiration and affection for his mother, whom he visited twice yearly in British Columbia until she died.

Will talked a lot about the various marathon races he competed in. At one point he was particularly peeved by a competitor from Niagara Falls who kept winning first place in their age category while Will came second, in part because he (the competitor) was at the lower end of the age range. Will thought this was scandalous. Once, the competitor was disqualified so Will came first. The competitor was annoyed, but Will felt he had won fairly.

I used to tease Will about his annual trips to a Buddhist retreat where he would be silent for a week or more at a time.  He was an extremely quiet person, so I thought he should go to noisiness retreats instead.  He accepted my teasing graciously.

After Will retired, I had lunch with him a few times.  We spent one long summer’s afternoon on the patio of Quatrefoil Restaurant in Dundas, with a couple of colleagues who’d come from Waterloo to see us.  Will was anxious to get home though, to feed his new wife’s cat.  The last time I saw him, I invited him to lunch with me and my husband at our house.  I’d gone to the local health food store on Locke Street, to buy some vegan food for him; even as his disease progressed, he still diligently maintained his vegan habits.  His eyes lit up when I told him I’d bought some vegan chocolate chip cookies and he was welcome to take the leftovers home.

Will was my friend: may his memory be a blessing.