Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Poem about North Korean Cannibalism

A Poem about North Korean Cannibalism
As regular readers of this blog will know, I have been preoccupied with North Korea over the last few years. Sometimes a poem is a better way to express one’s reactions to horrific events than an academic piece or even a quasi-academic blog.
I have been writing and publishing poetry for the last 35 years: I publish mainly locally, one or two poems a year. The poem below was a runner-up in an Ontario poetry contest.  It was published in Arborealis: A Canadian Anthology of Poetry, edited by K.V. Skane (Toronto: Beret Day and Ontario Poetry Society, 2014) on page 82.  It’s about a dream I had after reading about cannibalism in North Korea, where state-induced famine drives people to such terrible acts.
For more on North Korea, see three of my earlier blogs
1.      “North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)” ,;
2.      “Cannibalism in North Korea” March 20, 2013,
3.       “North Korean Slave Labour, September 11, 2012,
You could also read my article *2012. “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2/3, pp. 147-65.
Here is the poem:

during the day,
feeling comfortably outraged
about events of the distant past
or even what’s happening now
far away

I read gruesome descriptions
of digging up dead bodies
            to eat them before the dogs
            get at them

and killing neighbours’ children
or eating your own kids
once they’ve died
if they still have a little meat on them
I think I’m OK:
in the evenings
I crochet away the images
admire the pink blanket as it grows
imagine the baby it will comfort

But then I dream
of chaos, dirt, anger;
of a large man in an orange shirt
cutting and sawing
sawing and cutting

Friday, 22 August 2014

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity

My First Gay Wedding: An Affirmation of Human Dignity
On August 3, 2014, I attended my first gay wedding. It was a very moving event, at which I was privileged to be a witness. The wedding was held on the 16th anniversary of the day the two partners met. They come from a developed, democratic country in which gays cannot marry, but which will recognize their marriage if they have the ceremony performed elsewhere. 
In Ontario, where I live, gay marriage has been legal since 2003. Gay marriage became legal in all of Canada in 2006. For a while, before some US states began to legalize gay marriages, the city of Toronto was the marriage location of choice for many Americans, and travel agencies sprang up specializing in gay wedding packages. Toronto has a big Gay Pride parade every year, and this year hosted World Pride, an enormous event.  I keep thinking that I should join the parade, as part of the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays: I have several gay and lesbian friends) but I don’t like crowds.
I asked one of the partners in the wedding I attended if he had taken part in the World Pride event. He replied “Not sure if I am politically for pride (must one celebrate privilege?).My own view is that a World Pride parade is hardly a celebration of privilege, when so many countries still penalize gays and some even execute them for engaging in homosexual acts.  Even here in Canada, gays are not privileged, unless you think marriage is a privilege for anyone (such would be the case in totalitarian countries where no one, gay or straight, can marry anyone without state permission).
Why should the right to marry be so important for gays? Lots of people, gay and straight, criticize the institution of marriage, and others don’t want to marry for personal reasons. Why aren’t civil partnerships enough for gays, giving them rights, for example, to be designated next of kin when one is hospitalized, to inherit from each other, and even to sponsor each other’s immigration?
The answer lies in the definition of human dignity.  The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states in the first paragraph of its preamble that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” The drafters of the UDHR never could agree on what dignity meant, but they knew it was important. They certainly didn’t mean the right of gay marriage back in 1948. Although article 16 of the UDHR says “Men and women of full age…have the right to marry and found a family”, the implicit assumption was that men and women would marry each other, not someone of the same sex. In 1948 homosexuality was illegal in most Western countries. People didn’t speak of it. British people of my mother’s generation used the term  “confirmed bachelor” to describe gay men, meaning there was no point in considering them as future heterosexual marriage partners.
In 1995 I was trying to figure out what exactly human dignity meant. I concluded that “dignity requires personal autonomy, societal concern and respect, and treatment by others in society as an equal.’ (see Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Westview Press, 1995, p. 17). The legalization of gay marriage does allow gays and lesbians to autonomously choose to marry, or not.  It implies that they are legally equal to heterosexuals. And it demonstrates some societal concern and respect: it show that others in society want to respect gay relationships and are concerned that gays be treated well,
Doron Shultziner
Another, perhaps better, way top put this is to talk about the need for recognition. My friend and colleague Doron Shultziner wrote an entry on recognition for the second edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Doron writes: ‘To recognize…means to behave in a manner that satisfies expectations of respect and contributes to a sense of positive self-esteem in those who are recognized.” He explains that philosophers have discussed the concept of recognition since Plato, who spoke of the soul’s need for pride and honor. From slaves to women to minorities, Doron says, people seek this recognition, or honor, both as individuals and as collectivities. Honor means that the individual is no longer stigmatized; he is no longer considered deviant, less than fully human, outside the community of obligation.
This is particularly important in North America, if not elsewhere, because of the intensified persecution of gay teenagers in high schools, not only through traditional face-to-face methods of bullying but also through cyber-bullying. Gay teenagers have extremely high rates of suicide. In my own high school days, gay teenagers were somewhat protected by schools’ and society’s disinclination to speak about sexual matters at all. When I was in grade 12, a couple of boys I knew were quietly separated, one being sent to a different school because they were gay, but I don’t believe they were bullied. Nowadays, we have the paradox that despite homosexuality being more accepted in Canadian society, gay children suffer intensely. And there is nothing in the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child that specifically protects gay children. This is not surprising, because there is still no United Nations Convention on gay rights.
So the “privilege” of gay marriage is not a privilege at all. It is a method of acknowledging, recognizing, and honoring gay relationships, just as straight relationships have always been honored. It is a furthering of the core human rights mission of human dignity. Gay children need this dignity too.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book Note: War, Guilt and World Politics after WWII

This is a book review that I wrote for International Studies Review.  I am posting it on my blog with their permission.  If you are interested in history, or in transitional justice, you might find this review worthwhile.

War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II. Thomas U. Berger. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012. 259 pp. ISBN 978-1-107-02160-0 hardback; 978-1-107-67495-0 paperback.

This fine volume compares the stances of Germany, Austria, and Japan towards the crimes they committed during World War II and the ways that they did, or did not, compensate for them after 1945.  It is based on extensive research in the secondary literature, including literature written in Japanese and German, supplemented by some elite interviews.
Thomas U. Berger decided to write this book because when he gave lectures on German and Japanese antimilitarism he was frequently asked why Germany had acknowledged its WWII sins, but Japan had not.  At first, he thought this contrast politically irrelevant, but later he began to understand that historical memories in fact have political resonance. Indeed he argues that in the current era “the past has been politicized as never before” (p. 10).
Berger begins with three hypotheses, which he calls historical determinist, instrumentalist, and culturalist. The historical determinist school assumes that “what really happened” determines acts of penitence by a state. The instrumentalist school assumes that states are penitent only when they have instrumental reasons to be so; depending on their interests they manipulate collective memories to create narratives that are less or more penitent about past actions. The culturalist school assumes that people’s interpretations of historical events are mediated by their culture. Not surprisingly, Berger concludes that none of these hypotheses is an adequate explanation of the various levels of penitence in his three case studies.  His own perspective is historical realism, by which he means that collective memories of the past are conditioned by how states shape national narratives. In turn, states are influenced by “practical consideration” of economic gain and national security (p.2).
Thomas U. Berger
Berger shows how apologies, reparations, and other means of compensating for past political sins don’t just happen. In his scheme, Germany is the model penitent, Austria the prodigal penitent, and Japan the model impenitent (this last with a question mark). Germany began its penitential journey soon after WWII, intensifying its penitence over the decades, most recently by introducing reparations for former (non-Jewish as well as Jewish) slave laborers. By contrast, Austria avoided any sense of penitence for several decades.  Rather, it presented itself as “Nazism’s first victim,” a phrase originally introduced by the occupying Allied powers, referring to the annexation of Austria to Germany in 1938. It was able to regard itself as a victim despite the fact that a disproportionately high number of Nazis, concentration camp guards, etc. was Austrian. In Japan, leftist and liberal attempts to come to terms with the crimes of WWII were thwarted by Japan’s victimhood as the target of American atomic bombs.
In all three cases, internal party politics influenced decisions to try to repair or to ignore past depredations.  Germany took an aggressive stance of “militant democracy,” banning neo-Nazi parties that Austria permitted, thus creating a political culture in which certain extreme views were not only illegal but also culturally beyond the pale. In Japan, liberals wanted to recognize and atone for past crimes such as medical experimentation and sexual slavery, but nationalists argued that Japan’s militant stance before and during WWII was justified by its struggle against Western colonialism; this debate continued into the 21st century.  In both Austria and Japan, veterans and their families constituted important voting blocs that opposed penitential policies. Another domestic factor that influenced Germany’s turn toward a “culture of contrition” (p. 228) was the rise of the student movement in the late 1960s. These students were very critical of their elders’ implications in the Nazi genocides.  By contrast, no such movement arose in Austria or Japan. 
International factors also influenced penitential stances. After WWII, Germany was faced with the pressing need to integrate as quickly as possible into the Western democratic world and the European Union, not only for reasons of self-respect or economic gain, but also to strengthen itself against the Communist threat to the East. The victorious allies required that Germany adopt a penitential stance before it could be reintegrated into the Western democratic world. Austria, a neutral state, was less concerned by the threat of communism and was not interested in joining the European Union. After the American occupation, Japan was relatively isolated from international pressures until China began to rely on nationalism as a new justification for Communist Party rule, and to tolerate—if not encourage—nationalist memories of Japanese crimes such as the rape of Nanjing. 
 Happily, Berger disposes rather quickly of the shibboleth that Japan is a “shame” rather than a “guilt” culture, rooted in socially-derived judgments of right and wrong rather than in an inner sense of guilt for taking wrong actions. He shows that many Japanese were both ashamed of their government’s crimes during and immediately after WWII, and felt personally responsible for them. Culture, in Berger’s reading, is not a static set of beliefs or customs, but a malleable and changeable underpinning of social behavior. National narratives influenced both by states and domestic actors such as students and NGOs become part of the cultural underpinning of the society so that, for example, it would be very difficult in Germany today to deny the collective responsibility of the nation for past Nazi crimes. So also, as the elite quarrel over the national narrative penetrates younger and wider sectors of Japanese society, the culture may change to acknowledge both Japanese victimhood at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese responsibility for massive war crimes.
Much of the literature on political apologies discusses whether apologies are effective, but does not discuss the political conditions under which apologies are forthcoming. Yet Berger shows that apologies and reparations are the result of careful consideration of both domestic and international factors. This is also one of the themes of a forthcoming volume by Tom Bentley entitled Empires of Remorse, comparing apologies for colonialism from Britain, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Berger’s book is a must for any scholar interested in general theoretical questions about political apologies, reparations, and other forms of post-conflict justice. It would appeal to scholars in the fields of international relations; transitional justice; and the role of memory and narrative.
 The book is also very readable and interesting as a history of post WWII attempts by Germany, Austria, and Japan to repair relations with former victims. In particular, Berger wends his way very clearly between Japanese apologies, quasi-apologies, and counter-apologies. Non-Asia specialists will be grateful for his detailed historical explanations of the debates and disagreements in Japan, such as the two “textbook debates” about how Japanese children should be taught their own history. No one should take for granted that criminal states are likely to repent for their crimes.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The "Genocide" Charge: Israel vs. Iraq

The “Genocide” Charge: Israel vs. Iraq
Scrolling through various Facebook entries lately and reading reports about pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Canada, I’ve come across the old charge that Israel is committing genocide
Why is this? The false equivalence of Israel with Nazi Germany is a common trope, yet what is the basis for this so-called equivalence? As I argued in my blog post “On Criticizing Israel” of June 21, 2013 ( if Israel were committing genocide in Gaza now, or had done so in the past, the death toll would be far greater than it is. Israel already has Gaza completely surrounded, except for Gaza’s border with Egypt. It wouldn’t be very hard to commit genocide if Israel wanted to, but it does not.
 As I write, about 2,000 people have died in Gaza in the latest war, now about six weeks old, many of them civilians, hundreds of them children. This is extremely sad and heart-rending, and it may well be that Israel has committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in this latest round of fighting, as the Goldstone report on the 2008-09 invasion of Gaza also suggested was a possibility (  Hamas also seems to have committed crimes against humanity and/or war crimes, such as hiding its weapons in or near schools, but those who charge Israel with genocide don’t usually mention Hamas’ potential crimes.
What explains the desire of so many people to equate Israel with Nazism?  It may simply seem like a good comparison, since some Israelis consider theirs to be a Jewish state, and the Nazis ‘principal (but not only) victims were Jews. But anti-Semitism is probably the real reason.  Calling Israelis Nazis dehumanizes them and implies that they have no legitimate political aims, such as having the right to exist as a state or protecting their own citizens against attack.   
Yazidi men. Wiki Commons
A much better comparison might be the exchanges of populations between Greece and Turkey after the Balkan wars in the early 20th century. For example, a late friend of mine, a Turkish Muslim, once told me that his grandparents had actually been Bosnian Muslims expelled from Europe during these wars. Israel expelled Palestinians at the time of independence, and Arab states retaliated by expelling an estimated 800,000 Jews. A comparison to the Balkan wars does not absolve Israel of its obligations to Palestinians, nor does it justify Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But it lowers the rhetorical tone of the debate and does not imply that Israelis are the genocidal heirs to the Nazis.
Meantime, there is a real, very serious threat of genocide in Iraq. The Islamic State terrorist movement has threatened to wipe out Iraqi Christians and Yazidis (a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic group of ethnic Kurds of whom I had previously never heard.). This is an actual threat of genocide. Genocide is defined in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to apply to racial, religious, ethnic and national groups.  The Iraqi Yazidis and Christians are religious groups. Anyone who watched television footage of the terrified Yazidis fleeing into the mountains yesterday with nothing but the clothes on their backs cannot help but be worried about their fate.
Israeli Attack on UNR'A School in Gaza 2014. Wiki Commons
President Obama announced last night (August 7, 2014) that he was authorizing American air strikes against the Islamic State because it was in the United States’ interest to do so, as IS was advancing toward the Kurdish city of Erbil, where there are American consular officials and other American citizens. But in a case of potential genocide, American or any other national interest is legally irrelevant. All states party to the Genocide Convention “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide (Article 1). The United States is Party to this Convention, as is Canada.
Speaking of Canada, in February 2013 the Prime Minister established, with great fanfare, the Office of Religious Freedom.  This was supposed to be a singular Canadian contribution to international human rights. Its mandate included the obligation to “protect, and advocate on behalf of, religious minorities under threat.” On July 20, 2014, Canada denounced the persecution of Iraqi Christians, and I presume it will soon also denounce the persecution of the Yazidis.  But now is the time to give the Office of Religious Freedom more clout to protect the innocent non-Muslims in northern Iraq, for example by urging the government to start a special immigration program for them and by contributing to the humanitarian air drops the US started yesterday evening.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

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

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

Friday, 18 July 2014

European Court of Human Rights Upholds French Burqa Ban

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


Monday, 16 June 2014

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann in the Media

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

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

Here is Professor Hassmann disucussing the Right to Water with

Friday, 18 April 2014

Back to Normal in Quebec?

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

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

Friday, 4 April 2014

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

Readers of this blog may recall that in the last year I’ve posted a book review about how Canada used starvation in the 1870s to force its Aboriginal peoples onto reserves, thus opening Canada’s West for settlement by Europeans  I’ve also posted a blog on nutritional “experiments” in Canada’s residential school system that deprived some Aboriginal children of food   

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

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

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

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

As I discussed in my review of Peter Kulchyski’s book,, some scholars of indigenous rights think that human rights are a “Western” invention that does not pertain to indigenous peoples. But it is precisely the lack of human rights that has enabled the Canadian state to treat Aboriginal people so badly for so long.

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

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro

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

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