Monday, 5 June 2023

Readable Books on Human Rights

 The owners of a website called Shepherd: explore, discover, read," ask scholars to recommend readable books in their area of expertise in return for publicizing one of the scholar's own works.  Today (June 5, 2023) they posted my five recommendations.  The books I recommended were Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood;  Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape; and Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.   You can read why I chose these books here:

Tuesday, 2 May 2023

Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners: Book Reviews


Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners

This month I read two books about severe medical mal-practice, both lent to me by Peter Rosenbaum, a specialist in pediatric cerebral palsy here in Hamilton, where I live.

Peter grew up in Montreal and attend McGill University. The first book is by a friend of his from that time, Harvey Weinstein (no, not the movie mogul, another one).  Weinstein published a book in 1988 (Toronto, James Lorimer and Company) called A Father, A Son, and the CIA.   Canadian readers of a certain age will already guess what this is about; it’s about how the CIA provided funds to one Dr Ewan Cameron, a psychiatrist at McGill, to conduct “patterning” experiments (a.k.a. brainwashing) on patients. This occurred in the 1950s and 60s, and became a national scandal when an NDP Member of Parliament revealed that his wife had been one of the patients. 

Weinstein’s description of his early childhood years is straight out of a Mordechai Richler novel. His father had a dress factory that was doing well, and the family lived in a wealthy part of English Montreal.  Then his father developed severe anxiety and was referred to Cameron.  Cameron’s “treatments” included frequent electric shocks, playing recordings over and over again for hours or days to comatose patients, and trying to reduce patient to the status of infants, even without control of their bowels and bladders.  When Weinstein’s mother questioned the treatments, she was told to go home and trust the doctors. 

Needless to say, when Weinstein’s father was released, he was ruined.  He could no longer work and lost his business; the family had to sell their house and move into a small apartment.  In 1988, legal cases against McGill were still on-going.

The other book Peter lent me was Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, by Edith Sheffer, a historian. (W.W, Norton, 2018). If you or a family member have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, be aware that your diagnosis is named after a genocidal Viennese doctor.  Asperger was one of the doctors in Vienna who “selected” disabled children for murder by the Nazis, in a regime that Sheffer calls “psychiatric genocide,” facilitated by a “diagnosis regime” that decided who was worthy to live.  

These were children confined or referred to a specific children’s “home” called Spiegelgrund, on the outskirts of Vienna, often for reasons such as unruliness or low cognitive function (so Down’s Syndrome children could be exterminated, as could runaways from abusive parents). Others had physical disabilities.  The ostensible criterion was whether a child could be integrated into the community or not.  The reigning principle was “Gemüt”, or community, which was seen as equivalent to membership in the Nazi Volk: no individualism was permitted.  Incidentally, Asperger was also a sexist: he protected some high-functioning boys with his “syndrome,” claiming they could be useful to the community, while consigning high-functioning girls to death.  


789 children were sent to their death from Spiegelgrund. Survivors spoke of the horrible sadistic was they were treated by the doctors and nurses. Preserved brains and body-parts of the murdered children were used for research in Austria through the 1980s.  Asperger himself continued his career after WWII: he had protected himself by never officially joining the Nazi party.

While reading these two books I happened to also come across an article about the pioneering educator, Maria Montessori, in the New York Review of Books, (Kathryn Hughes, “A Complicated Reformer”, NYRB March 9, 2023). At least I won’t have to worry about her being a fascist, I thought. Nope. Montessori was a big fan of Benito Mussolini. In fact she wrote, “my method [of education] can collaborate with fascism so that it will… create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers’(p. 30). 

Another warning that members of the seemingly most benign professions can have sinister motives.


Thursday, 13 April 2023

State and Society in the Violation and Promotion of Human Rights

 Recently I published a 5-page "interview" called "State and Society in the Promotion and Violation of Human Rights" in the International Affairs Forum, vol. 15, no.1 (2023) published by the Center for International relations in Washington, DC. You can find the full issue, including articles by my colleagues Bonny Ibhawoh, Mark Gibney, and Sonia Cardenas, here: my interview is the first article.

In the interview, I answer questions about my research on state food crimes, citizenship laws, globalization. I also refute the suggestion that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a colonial document, and discuss how human rights can be protected in democratic states.  Below is a Word copy of my interview. 

Interview with International Affairs Forum, vol. 15, no. 1, January 2023

1.You’ve discussed instances where state policies are the primary cause of human rights violations.  A type of government-promoted human rights violation is what you’ve termed State Food Crimes.  Would you explain what that means and provide some examples (e.g., Korea, Venezuela)? 

State food crimes are crimes by states that intentionally, recklessly, by incompetence or by indifference deprive their citizens or others under their authority of food (Marcus, 2003). These four categories are not discrete, however. Moreover, intention is hard to prove, as opposed to recklessness, incompetence and indifference. Therefore, it is very difficult, but not impossible, to prosecute an individual leader for intentionally depriving their citizenry of food.

The four cases I discussed in State Food Crimes (2016) were North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. North Korean citizens were starving in the 1990s and 2000s as a result of both intentional and reckless state policies. Malnutrition and some starvation continue to the present day. This starvation was the result of deliberate state policies that prohibited a national private market in food, prohibited importation of food, wasted national resources on a nuclear weapons program, and prohibited any free expression of people’s opinions and concerns. What I call penal starvation also occurred in North Korea’s vast network of concentration camps.

Intentional and reckless “nationalization” of white-owned productive land in Zimbabwe from 2000 until President Mugabe’s resignation in 2017 resulted in under-production of food, as well as mass unemployment of agricultural workers. This was compounded by the decisions to give formerly productive white-owned farms to Mugabe’s relative and cronies. Indifference to the suffering of the masses, prohibition of citizens’ rights to protest, and manipulation of elections compounded the problem. 

A similar scenario occurred in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) instituted policies that President Nicolas Maduro (2013-present) has intensified. Both leaders confiscated productive farms. They instituted and maintained price controls that reduced the food supply, because producers who could not charge the full cost of their production withdrew from the market. They also plundered the earning and assets of the state-owned oil firm, in order to import the food that Venezuela had previously been able to produce. Corruption was rampant, the state manipulated the mass media and elections, and protestors were arrested and sometimes tortured.  By 2021, over five and a half million people had fled (United Nations High Commission on Refugees

The situation in the West Bank and Gaza was somewhat different. There was no mass starvation, but Israeli policies such as permitting Jewish settlers in the West Bank to acquire land previously owned by Palestinian farmers reduced the food supply. This policy violated international humanitarian law, which forbids transfers of population into conquered territory. Israel also built a wall that cut off some Palestinian farmers from their land. The International Court of Justice ruled this wall illegal, as part of it was built in the West Bank itself, not in Israel proper. Israel also imposed controls on how much food could cross the border from Israel to the West Bank and Gaza. Periodic blockades by both Israel and Egypt (of Gaza) worsened the situation. The result was high rates of malnutrition in the West Bank and Gaza.

One thing that all these cases demonstrated is that civil and political rights are key to the right to food. Freedom of speech, press and assembly are necessary so that citizens can voice their concerns about the lack of food.

2. Another instance of state action is manipulating citizenship policies and laws.  How widespread has this been and what have been/are the impacts?

Some countries grant citizenship by virtue of jus soli; that is, by virtue of birth within a country’s territories. Some are also relatively generous in granting citizenship by naturalization. Others rely on jus sanguinis, or the right of citizenship by “blood” or ancestry. This can create problems, for example if you are born in a country that does not grant citizenship by place of birth, but your parents are citizens of another country that will not grant you citizenship unless you are actually born there.

These rules disproportionately affect women and children. For example, there are still some countries where women must give up their original citizenship and take their husband’s citizenship, if it differs from their own. Then if they divorce, they may be rendered stateless if they can no longer retain their husband’s citizenship. This can also affect their children,

On the other hand, there is also “sticky citizenship.” (Macklin, 2015) Under international law, no country may deprive an individual of citizenship if it leaves that person stateless. However, there have been cases, as in the UK, where the courts have decreed that mere eligibility for citizenship elsewhere means the government can deprive an individual of citizenship.

The United Nations High Commission for refugees NHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million stateless people in the world,, as a result of the kinds of policies I describe above.  Sometimes, deprivation of citizenship is a precursor to genocide, when states decide to deprive entire categories of people of citizenship. In 1935 the Nazis deprived all German Jews of citizenship; in 1982 Myanmar deprived the Muslim Rohingya community of citizenship.  

There is also de facto statelessness. In 2010 the Dominican Republic deprived residents of Haitian descent of citizenship if their ancestors had arrived in the DR after 1929, claiming they were still Haitian citizens. But many of these individuals had no family in Haiti and no resources to live there (Belton, 2017). 

In general, citizens of wealthy, developed democratic countries have won the “birthright lottery” (Shachar, 2009). Although most people in Canada and the US don’t realize it, their citizenship is their single most valuable possession. Not only does it grant them the right to live in a prosperous democracy, but it grants them the right to move relatively freely around the rest of the world.

3.Your book, Can Globalization Promote Human Rights? analyzes the question and provides positive and negative reflections to help answer it.  Much has happened concerning globalization since its publication in 2010.  How would you address the question presented by the title of the book now?

In my book, I presented both positive and negative scenarios for the interaction of globalization and human rights. Looking at the economic side of globalization, I concluded that global free trade was good for human rights, whereas policies of international financial institutions, and the international financial network as a whole, appeared to have negative repercussions for human rights. I also considered the question of absolute incomes versus relative inequality and concluded that although inequality within (but not between) states was widening, there was a considerable reduction worldwide in absolute poverty since about 1980.

In 2010, growth in what was then known as emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) seemed likely to reduce poverty and inequality, but since then growth in these states has slowed down. Inequality within states has contributed to severe social and political problems (Hill, 2021) even though inequalities between states have lessened in the last twenty years (Chancel et al., 2022, p. 11).

Another problem is the re-emergence of protectionism. Part of this is the result of claims by populist politicians that foreign countries are “stealing” jobs, such as former President Trump’s accusations against China, or indeed, President Biden’s hope to keep jobs in America for Americans. Since February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a new focus on protectionism in countries whose economies are negatively affected by the war.

If I were rewriting this book today, I would devote more space to the downsides of globalization, such as international criminal networks, and (as a subset of such crime) the increased possibilities of corrupt appropriation of state assets provided by the international financial system. I would devote more space to global capacities for surveillance. And I would write more on international migratory flows as a consequence of poverty, wars, and climate change.

Finally, although I did include a chapter on the resurgence of religion and nationalism, I would devote more attention to the politics of resentment, especially resentment of “the West,” not only for its economic and political strength but also for its promotion of what some states or societies view as non-traditional, non-indigenous rights such as LGBTQ+ rights. Much of this resentment, however, is created by the political elites of some states in order to stir up hostility to perceived “enemy” countries, such as Russia’s obsession with LGBTQ+ rights as a way of distracting the population from more serious problems such as poverty.

I stand by my analysis of the positive effect of globalized social movements, such as the international feminist, Indigenous, and environmental movements. I did not anticipate that social media would result in globalized racist and proto-fascist social movements, however, nor that it would result in the globalized capacity of foreign countries to intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

Events since 2010 thus suggest that the beneficial aspects of globalization have been outweighed by the detrimental aspects of protectionism, nationalism, racism and homophobia, and authoritarianism. The negative scenario I proposed in my book seems a better descriptor of the world in 2023 than the positive scenario.

4. some people now argue that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a colonial document. How do you answer that charge?

This is now a common perception among members of the cultural left. It is wrong.

The UDHR is the first of many human rights documents produced by the United Nations. Representatives of 56 states took part in the discussions that resulted in its texts. These included almost all the independent states in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa; the Soviet Union and its satellite countries; and all Latin American countries, as well as the wealthy North Atlantic countries. For example, female representatives from India and the Dominican Republic were influential in ensuring that women’s equality rights were protected in the Declaration. The biggest geographical block left out of these discussions was sub-Saharan Africa, which was almost entirely under colonial rule until about 1960 (and some countries such as Mozambique and Angola until 1975). Indigenous people were not represented at these discussions as they did not—then as now --have their own states.

The Canadian legal scholar, John Humphrey, wrote the first draft of the Declaration after surveying the Constitutions of all independent states. This is one reason why economic, social and cultural rights such as the rights to health care, education, housing, food and an adequate standard of living are included in the UDHR, as they were included in both Soviet bloc and Latin American constitutions. The other is that these countries insisted on inclusion of social and economic rights even when North Atlantic countries resisted them (Morsink, 2022, Sikkink, 2017, pp. 55-93).

The actual colonial powers (Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal) opposed extension of human rights to all the people of the world, wanting to put colonial subjects under a sort of trusteeship instead. They were opposed by the Soviet Bloc and Latin America. They also had to conceded that human rights were universal because of pressure from anti-colonial actors from places such as sub-Saharan Africa (Burke, 2010).

Most of the substantial corpus of human rights Declarations and Covenants (treaties) were written after almost all colonies had become independent. These include the two general Covenants on Civil/Political and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, dating from 1966 but coming into force in 1976 after enough countries had signed on. They also include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981); the Convention against Torture and other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (1987); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008), and many other documents. Almost every country in the world was involved in formulating these documents, and almost every country in the world supports them, if often more in principle than in fact.

Thus it is simply untrue to say that either the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the entire elaborate international human rights regime as it exists in 2023, is colonial.

5. Would you briefly discuss achieving human rights in a democratic state versus the possibility of doing so in an undemocratic state? 

It is impossible to achieve the full range of human rights in an undemocratic state. 

There is no non-democratic state that protects human rights as rights. Any non-democratic state that claims it protects human rights is confusing state benevolence with rights. Unless citizens can openly claim their rights, criticize their governments, and if necessary overturn them in elections for not protecting or fulfilling those rights, any positive “human rights” aspects of their lives are a result of ephemeral state choice rather than actual state duty. In this respect, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “fudges” in Article 21, 3, where it does not prescribe competitive multi-party elections, instead merely stating the need for elections. This opened the door to legitimize one-party states.

Aside from political democracy, there are other structural requirements for a rights-protective state (Howard-Hassmann, 2018, pp. 49-71) One is the existence of a regulated market economy based on private property. No state that has abolished private property protects human rights. But private property does not mean unregulated acquisition of property by any means possible. By a regulated economy, I mean one in which monopolistic and oligopolistic control of the economy is prohibited; in which excessively high profits and incomes are taxed away by the state; in which safety and environmental regulations are protected; in which all citizens have equal economic opportunity; and in which labor rights are fully protected.

A rights protective state also requires a functioning government and a competent state bureaucracy. Political order, protected by a functioning government that controls its entire territory, is an underlying condition for any democracy. A competent state bureaucracy requires that personnel not only be educated but also be adequately paid, so that they do not need to rely on corruption or bribes to support themselves and their families. An independent judiciary is also a prerequisite for a rights-protective state, but only if its personnel believe in and are willing to implement human rights, even when the laws of the country undermine them. 

This does not mean that citizens should wait until all these structural prerequisites are in place before demanding their human rights. Rather, rights evolve in a spiraling process, the various rights claims and state responses interacting with one another. It is especially important to note that civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are interdependent. It is difficult for people to be active citizens if they are mired in poverty or subjected to chronic and debilitating poor health. Citizens lacking education may not have the required tools to make informed political decisions.

Thus, the only type of state that is fully protective of human rights is a social democracy. Social democracy is a variant of liberalism that views the social provision of economic security as an inherent part of respect for the individual. It is characterized by an activist state that tries to provide basic social rights, protect citizens against market forces, and reduce inequality, at the same time as it protects basic civil and political rights, private property, and a market economy.

 Nevertheless, if I had to choose one, and only one, human right, it would be the right to freedom of expression. This means not only free speech and a free press, but also the ability to criticize one’s rulers without fear of arrest, torture, imprisonment, or execution.  It also means freedom of assembly, so that citizens can assemble without fear to discuss or protest state policies. We see how important this right is when we see how many journalists and activists are murdered by various states every year.

Some critics argue that to focus on freedom of speech is to focus on a political right at the expense of economic, social and cultural rights that might be more relevant to people in the Global South. One of the most basic economic rights is the right to food. But in both my earlier (Howard, 1982; Howard, 1986) and my later work (Howard-Hassmann, 2016), I show that without the right to freedom of expression, there is no right to food. People can’t criticize policies that deprive them of food. The best they can do is hope that their government is benevolent enough not to deprive them of their own ability to cultivate their own food, and to distribute food when necessary. Again, this shows the interaction and interdependence of all human rights, in both developed and less-developed societies.


Belton, Kristy A. (2017). Statelessness in the Caribbean: The Paradox of Belonging in a Postnational World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Burke, Roland. (2010) Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Chancel, Lucas, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman (2022) World Inequality Report 2022, World Inequality Lab.

Hill, Fiona. (2021) There is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Howard, Rhoda E. (1983) "The `Full-Belly' Thesis:  Should Economic Rights take Priority over Civil and Political Rights?  Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa", Human Rights Quarterly 5, No. 4, pp. 467-490. 

Howard, Rhoda E. (1986) Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa, Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, N.J., 1986.

Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E. (2016) State Food Crimes, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E. (2018) In Defense of Universal Human Rights. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Macklin, Audrey. (2015) “Sticky Citizenship,” in Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts, eds. The Human Rights to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept, Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 223-39

Marcus, David. (2003) “Famine Crimes in International Law,” American Journal of International Law,97 (2), pp. 245-81.

Morsink, Johannes (2022) Article by Article: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights for a New Generation, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022.

Shachar, Ayelet. (2009) The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sikkink, Kathryn. (2017) Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Refugee Data Finder, accessed December 15, 2022,

United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Statelessness Around the World, accessed December 15, 2015.


Thursday, 14 July 2022

Reparations for Belgian Colonialism in Africa

 On July 8, 2022, I testified (via Zoom) before a Belgian parliamentary committee investigating the question of reparations to Congo, Rwanda and Burundi for the establishment of the Congo Free State (so-called) ( and later colonialism in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.  I was asked to summarize my research on reparations to Africa and to make recommendations for reparations.  Below is my verbatim testimony.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me. My presentation is drawn from research I conducted for my book, Reparations to Africa, published in 2008; from related research on political apologies; and from my publications on reparations to African Americans and Canadians.

For Reparations to Africa, between 2002 and 2004 two research assistants and I interviewed 74 Africans in either English or French. Sixty-seven of the respondents lived permanently in Africa in 26 countries. Three were members of the Group of Eminent Persons appointed to investigate reparations by the Organization of Africa Unity in 1992; eight were ambassadors to the United States; twenty-two were academics; and forty-one were human rights activists or policy makers.

With the exception of the ambassadors, these individuals demonstrated a general sense of humiliation, betrayal, exploitation and abandonment by the West, covering the slave trade, colonialism, and even the post-colonial era. They objected to violent colonial conquest; to the division of their countries into competing ethnic groups; to the destruction of their traditional systems of authority; and to the theft of land, mineral resources, and other property. Colonialism was, to them, a system of organized looting.

Moreover, colonialism was an injury to the spirit. As one respondent from Central Africa said, “It hurts morally: it’s a moral subordination.” A scholar from Burundi said, “colonialism was brutal and did not recognize the value of the Other.” These quotations indicate the importance to their human dignity of recognition and acknowledgement of Africans’ historic and contemporary suffering.

Human dignity requires that all individuals have access to the truth about their and their ancestors’ suffering. Although the past cannot be undone, crimes (or what we would now call crimes) committed in the past must be acknowledged. It is important to recognize that Africans today live in conditions created in large part by the slave trade and colonialism. Western states are responsible for their part in creating current African underdevelopment, even if some Africans were and are also involved in causing it. It is impossible to undo these historic harms, but some symbolic recompense must be made.

First among these symbolic procedures are official apologies. For a Congolese activist we interviewed, it was imperative to recognize past events as wrong “because if it was not wrong that means that it might happen again.” For a South African lawyer, lack of apology meant that “black lives and black people are not…as important as white lives and white people.” Our respondents thought that acknowledgement of past harms and apologies for them could render relations between Africa and the West more equitable, and might also contribute to a psychological healing process both for offender and offended.

It might be advisable for the Belgian government to offer apologies for its colonial past separately to Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. Such apologies must be sincere, and must not be merely statements of regret. The apologies should be drafted in consultation with the intended recipients and should acknowledge and enumerate the vast list of harms imposed on the Congo Free State and on Belgium’s African colonies. The apologies should be offered in a ceremonial venue with appropriate audiences of dignitaries, members of the diaspora, and individuals representing the people of the former colonies, as well as officials of the three African countries. The apologies should be widely publicized both in Belgium and its former colonies.

Normally, an apology should be offered by one head of state to another. However, official apologies offered to contemporary African heads of state might help to buttress illegitimate and authoritarian rule. Authoritarian rulers can manipulate the politics of resentment to distract their citizens from their own unjust, rights-abusive policies. Thus, another method of apology might be necessary.

Official apologies would have to be based upon the findings of a truth commission. The long, written report of the special commission charged with examining Congo Free State and Belgium’s colonial past might be considered sufficient evidence of the truth without the need for another commission. Both Belgian and African public opinion might accept the finding of the special commission on Belgium’s colonial past, knowing that both Belgian and African commissioners were involved in its design and research, and agreed with the commission’s findings.

The findings of this special commission would, however, have to be summarized and simplified, perhaps with the assistance of professional writers and journalists, before being publicized, using media accessible to both Belgians and Africans.

Nevertheless, even a combination of a truth commission and apologies would probably not satisfy politicians, opinion leaders, and ordinary citizens of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. The Africans my research assistants and I interviewed insisted that a verbal apology alone was unacceptable. In their own cultures, apologies always had to be followed by some material compensation.  As a Tanzanian university lecturer said, “I am not interested in a verbal apology. I am interested in the economic apology.”

Several different types of symbolic material reparations could be offered, of which you are already aware. With regard to archives, I suggest that private entities such as Belgian corporations be strongly encouraged, or if necessary even compelled, to open up their own archives to researchers. I note that Union Minière de Haut Katanga has not yet opened up all of its archives. I am the author of a book on Colonialism and Underdevelopment in Ghana, published in 1978, based on 15 months’ research in Ghanaian and British archives. I encountered some resistance from holders of private archives, even though my research period ended in 1938. Yet some of the most important material I found was from the archives of Unilever, the successor corporation to the United Africa Company. 

Similar to corporations, it might be wise to strongly encourage, if not compel, Roman Catholic entities to open their archives if they have not already done so. In Canada today, there is much controversy because the Catholic Church, which ran many of the residential “schools”, so-called, in which Indigenous children were incarcerated, has refused to fully open its archives to researchers. I note that Belgian Catholic entities have already agreed to open up their archives to researchers investigating the institutions in which Métis children kidnapped from Congo were held.

Another symbolic reparative measure could be an annual national day of remembrance, during which all government and non-government institutions, including churches, corporations, schools and universities, would commemorate the colonial period and those who suffered during it. This should not be a national holiday whose significance citizens could simply ignore, but a designated day for ceremonies of remembrance within all institutions.

In this context, a national year of reflection might also be useful. During this year, all Belgian institutions and all government agencies could reflect on their role, if any, in colonialism, and on how they could offer symbolic restitution to both members of the diaspora and citizens of former colonies. Restitution could include special employment and training schemes, targeted scholarships, or support for research chairs within Africa on Belgian colonialism. Belgian universities and corporations might also partner with African universities in long-term collaborations to improve training in disciplines other than colonial history. These disciplines could include medicine or engineering, on the principle that colonialism contributed to Africa underdevelopment, which might be remedied in part by such training.

Part of the national year of reflection might be a year-long project to educate citizens about colonialism, and to commemorate those who resisted colonization and those who suffered from it. In 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of Britain’s slave trade, the British Heritage Lottery Fund paid for 280 projects in Britain and Africa supporting education about, and memorialization of, both Britain’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade and the movement to abolish it. Belgium could institute something similar. Within Belgium, historic plaques could commemorate resisters to colonization, and inform the public about colonizers. For example, markers could be put on all public and even private buildings built or owned by King Leopold II or by subsequent colonizers. Within Africa, Belgium could support museums, public education projects, and the creation and maintenance of memorial spaces. Plaques commemorating individuals who suffered from colonialism might be particularly meaningful, like the Solpersteine in Germany commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

One further note on symbolic reparations: All of these ideas risk backlash from Belgians who might not agree that their country is obliged to repair relations with its former colonies, especially since even symbolic measures impose a cost on the public purse. Such backlash has occurred in other Western countries. It might be wise in outreach projects and educational curricula to distinguish carefully between guilt, shame, and responsibility. In the United States, those who oppose teaching about the history of American race relations in schools appear to think that such teaching will make white children feel guilty about the past, or ashamed of their skin color. Yet no one is guilty of anything except their own actions, and no one should feel shame about their skin colour, which is something over which one has no control.

Some Belgians might complain that neither they themselves nor their ancestors had anything to do with colonialism, so they have no responsibility to repair past harms. One way to answer this concern is to stress that just as individuals enjoy the benefits of citizenship, so they must share in its responsibilities, regardless of how long they or their families have lived in Belgium and regardless of the role—or lack thereof—that their ancestors might have played in colonialism. All are responsible for their countries’ policies and for trying to remedy past harms that their countries committed.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to express my views.


Tuesday, 15 March 2022

"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson: Book Note


“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson (Book Note)

Last week (March 2022) I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)  Wilkerson is an African-American journalist. Caste compares race relations in the US with caste-based divisions in India and with the Nazi creation of Jews as a subordinate caste. It is not a systematic, scholarly comparison, rather a rumination that illuminates US race relations by looking at caste in these two other societies. To make her point, throughout the book Wilkerson refers to whites as “members of the dominant caste” and to Blacks as “members of the subordinate caste.”

Isabel Wilkerson


While some commentators on Caste whom I read in the media thought that Wilkerson’s use of the terminology of caste was quite original, it wasn’t to me. In my 1995 book, Human Rights and the Search for Community, I wrote “In modern Western society distinctions of caste have been rendered unclear and disreputable by the ideologies of equality and individual autonomy. Nevertheless, stratificatory practices based on unacknowledged notions of honor and shame persist” (p. 135). I then went on to argue that to be either Black or female was to be considered shameful. I drew heavily on Orlando Patterson’s 1982 book, Slavery and Social Death, in attempting this analysis; he spoke of timocracy, honor-based social gradations which accorded more honor to whites than Blacks.

While perhaps three people read my book, many thousands more have read Wilkerson’s, and rightly so. She has a way with words, referring, for example, to Southern agricultural plantations as forced labor camps (p. 47), to enslaved Africans as hostages (p. 43), and to lynching as ritual killings (p. 41). She also tells us that the image of the plump black Mammie, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 movie, Gone with the Wind, was a fiction. Most if not all enslaved African women would have been very thin, because they were all malnourished, a deliberate choice of their owners (p. 138).

In India, Wilkerson tells us, some upper-caste teachers refuse to grade the papers of Dalit students, because they would actually have to touch the same paper as the students. A Dalit immigrant to the US tells Wilkerson of an upper-caste female office-worker who refused to pour her own water from a jug sitting near her desk, rather walking down the hall to get a Dalit to pour it for her (p. 176). In sociological terms, this is status anxiety.

Status anxiety is also the reason that police often stop and arrest Black people in fancy cars. Members of the lowest caste—in the US, Nazi Germany, and India—are “not permitted to bear the symbols of success and status reserved for the upper caste” (p. 160). The boundaries of caste must be very carefully monitored (p.216). So we can’t acknowledge, for example, that in Boston in 1721, the dominant caste minister, Cotton Mather, got the idea of inoculation for smallpox from an African slave named Onesimus (p. 231).

 Wilkerson has conducted very serious research but presents it in a very readable way. She especially notes the ways that privileged people bear themselves and assume that they will be listened to. At conferences about caste in India where all participants are supposed to be opposed to caste distinctions, she can nevertheless recognize which people come from the upper castes (the priestly Brahmin caste in particular) and which from the lower or out-caste (Dalits; literally meaning “broken people” [p. 26]). The former talk over the latter, or tell them what they should think.

Wilkerson intersperses her text with anecdotes from her own life as a member of the subordinate (African American) caste. She recounts an instance where she is in a restaurant with a member of the dominant (white) caste and the waiter ostentatiously ignores them, serving an entire meal to a table of dominant-caste people before he gets around to even giving them their bread. Her dominant-caste friend eventually stands up and accuses the waiter of racism in a loud voice that everyone in the restaurant can hear: Wilkerson herself would never have done such a thing (pp. 265-69).

Turning to contemporary politics, Wilkerson argues that to understand the 2016 election, we must understand that lower-class whites are willing to sacrifice their short-term economic welfare to preserve their long-term caste status (p. 324).

Wilkerson includes two interesting sections on Nazism in Caste. In her chapter on monuments and memorials, she points out that Germany is not infested with statues of Hitler and his cronies, as the US South is infested with statues of Robert E. Lee and his cronies. Presumably, there were such statues in Germany until the end of WWII, but they were taken down.

Wilkerson also discusses the archived minutes of a meeting in 1934 at which senior Nazis discussed a report on US racial laws that they hoped to use in drafting their own racial laws. One senior Nazi is horrified by the “one drop” rule in some US states, by which one drop of “Negro” blood is enough to render you a permanent member of the subordinate caste. Another Nazi wants to know if people can’t have the benefit of the doubt if they are half-Jewish and half “Aryan,” and be allowed to enjoy some Aryan privilege. Such would have been impossible for a person of mixed racial background in the US South, indeed even now anywhere in the US.

This book is well worth reading: very insightful, making one (at least me) think again about things one thinks one has known for many decades.


Monday, 7 March 2022

Ideacide: Left_Wing Censorship in Canada


Below is the text of an editorial I published in The Hamilton Spectator, February 12, 2022, p. 17 “Ideacide: Left-wing Censorship a Danger “, February 12, p. A17. The link below is still operative as of today, March 7, 2022.

Ideacide: the Dangers of Left-wing Censorship in Canada

For the second time, Henry Giroux (Nov. 11, 2021; February 7, 2022) has argued in The Spectator that US Republican attempts to ban from schools books that refer to slavery or racism constitute  an extremely dangerous trend.  I agree with him: I am very worried that the US will soon become a fascist state.  

Sadly, however, although Republicans are the chief threat to freedom of thought and speech in the US, there is also another trend coming from the cultural left, in both the US and Canada.  It is ideacide, attempts to censor ideas put forward by people on the political right, or even people defending traditional liberal ideas.

Tomas Hudlicky, a distinguished professor of chemistry at Brock University, has been bullied and shunned for opposing equity efforts based on group membership, rather than equality of individual opportunity.  He has been vilified as an “old white male.”  In fact, he was a refugee from Communist persecution in (then) Czechoslovakia.

In 2019, a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt was expelled from the University of Manitoba medical school because of his pro-life and anti gun-control views. In August 2021 a judge ruled that the university had violated his Charter rights to freedom of expression.  I disagree very strongly with this student’s views, but it’s a dangerous precedent to expel someone from a public university for holding views that many Canadians share.

In May 2021, Professor Rima Azar of Mount Allison University was suspended and banned from campus for blog posts that questioned the existence of systemic racism in Canada and called the Black Lives Matter movement  “radical.” She said that she had immigrated to Canada because it protected freedom of expression.

In September 2020, Ottawa University suspended Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, a (white) francophone adjunct professor of linguistics. She had used the full “N-word” when explaining how minority groups sometimes “re-appropriate” slurs for their own ends, for example in the Netflix movie May Rainey’s Black Bottom. There was absolutely no racist intent in her stating the full word. Yet although she was later reinstated, she experience harassment and threats of violence on social media.

This last case made headlines in Quebec, resulting in a government commission to examine academic freedom and responsibilities.  Some of the witnesses were anglophone professors from Ontario, testifying anonymously because they were afraid of repercussions from their universities if they testified openly.

In January, the Waterloo school board shut down teacher Carolyn Burjoski because she was concerned that books for children about gender transition  made it seem too easy and “cool’ to transition. Many people, not only Burjoski, are concerned about the serious medical effects of gender transitioning. Yet she was told that her comments violated the Ontario human rights code.  They did not. The human rights code prohibits discriminatory acts, but does not prohibit any speech. 

None of the views expressed by the individuals I’ve mentioned is outside the range of permissible expression in Canada.  Equality of opportunity for individuals is still Canadian and Ontario law, despite exceptions for special programs for under-represented groups.  Not every use of the “N-word” is racist.  Canadians are not forbidden to question whether systemic racism exists.  Nor are they forbidden to oppose abortion or gun-control  laws.  Instead of permitting these individuals to express their views, their cowardly university and school board administrators capitulated to popular opinion advocating censorship.

Ideacide is a gift from the cultural left to the much more powerful political right.  Censorship and condemnation of anyone who proposes ideas that vary from the cultural left’s approved views make it much easier for the political right in turn to censor material that is important for scholars, students, and the public to discuss. This hasn’t happened in Canada yet, but we should certainly worry that it might. 

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann lives in Hamilton. From 2003 to 2016, she held the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University.



Thursday, 3 March 2022

Sould the US Offer reparations to Africa for the transatlantic Slave Trade?

Here is the link to an article I've published on US reparations to Africa for the slave trade. Open access until May 24, 2022, I think. Also below the link is the abstract. 

2022. “Should the USA Offer Reparations to Africa for the Transatlantic Slave Trade?”, Society, Vol. 59, 2022.


This article begins with background information on the international social movement for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade. I then propose that the USA ought to offer reparations, including participation in and financing of a truth commission on the slave trade; apology for the harms caused by the trade; and symbolic financial assistance to establish monuments to the slave trade, museums exhibits, and educational programs. The article concludes with a discussion of whether the USA would have the political will to offer reparations to Africa

Monday, 23 August 2021

The Last Girl,by Nadia Murad: Book Note


The Last Girl by Nadia Murad: Book Note

A couple of weeks ago (July 2021) I read The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight against the Islamic State

Nadia Murad 
(New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).

Nadia Murad is a Yazidi, a member of a small religious group of about one million members in Northwest Iraq, bordering on what is now (unofficially) Kurdistan.  As readers might remember, the world because aware of this minority religious group in 2014, when ISIS conquered this region of Iraq. ISIS did not consider the Yazidi to be “People of the Book “(Jews and Christians) rather, it considered the Yazidi to be heretics, whom it was free to murder and enslave.  Thus, before the world had a chance to even know who the Yazidi were, ISIS began a genocide, killing all military-age men and boys and kidnapping marriageable girls and women, along with small children whom it could indoctrinate into it fundamentalist Islamist belief system. ISIS claimed that because they were heretics, Yazidi women could be used as sex slaves

Nadia grew up in a very large extended family in a village called Kocho. Yazidi speak Kurdish, and practice a religion which sees to combine elements of pre-Abrahamic Zoroastrianism with elements of Abrahamic religions, Nearby there were other villages inhabited by Sunni Muslims or by Christians. Despite this religious segregation of residential arrangements, everyone interacted at periodic markets, and her family’s doctor was a Sunni. Nadia’s father had abandoned her mother and his eleven children with her, to live with his younger second wife and their four children. Nadia had some education and worked hard on the family farm as well, Despite this relatively hard life, she describes her family and village with much love and nostalgia.

At 19, Nadia was one of the young women ISIS kidnapped. She was taken to Mosul where she was sold in a sex slave market. Her buyer was a high-status ISIS commanded who took her to a notary where she was forced to convert to Islam.  This apparently gave him license to rape her. When she tried to escape his clutches, he ordered six of his guards to rape her as well, then sold her to someone else. Eventually, after about three months, she managed to escape when her most recent buyer left the door to his house open. She threw herself on the mercy of complete strangers, a Sunni Muslim family, who at great risk to themselves decided to help her escape by sending one of their adult sons to escort her to Kurdistan, pretending she was his wife. Her oldest brother, who was already in Kurdistan, helped arrange her escape using a network of Yazidi activists and paid smugglers.

Unfortunately, factionalism among the Kurds resulted in information about Nadia and her rescuer – pseudonymously named Nasser- being circulated quite widely, endangering him. At the time of writing her book, Nadia still did not know if his family had been found out and punished for assisting her.

ISIS knew that the Yazidis prized the virginity of unmarried girls and women, thus they especially enjoyed defiling these virgins. To their credit, according to Murad, the surviving Yazidi elders got together and decided that girls and women who escaped ISIS would be welcomed back into the Yazidi community, as they obviously had neither converted to Islam nor engaged in sexual activities of their own free will. However, it seems that despite this, a fairly large percentage of former sex slaves felt rejected by their communities when they returned.

As I write this book note, the Taliban have conquered all of Afghanistan. There are now reports that they have begun to kidnap young girls to become their “wives”: that is, their sex slaves. Nadia Murad herself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, and is now the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking.

Meantime, as of 2018 Nadia’s rescuer, whose real name is Jabar, was living in poverty as a refugee in Germany, separated from his wife and two children still in Iraq. ISIS had come knocking on his door the day after he returned from taking Nadia to Kurdistan. He escaped by jumping out a window and joined the long trek of Middle Eastern refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. His family managed to convince ISIS that he had acted alone. But despite his heroism, Jabar was just one of many refugees in Germany.









Thursday, 12 August 2021

Sex-Based Privacy


Sex-Based Privacy

When I was a visiting scholar in the Netherlands for six months in 2000, I met a middle-aged “autochtonous” Dutch woman who told me how upset she’d been when she was obliged to share a hospital room with a man. When she asked if a Dutch Muslim woman would have had to share with a man, she was told no, as that would violate her culture. But as she told me, it was her culture too. It’s mine as well. Like probably every other culture in the world, “Western” culture allows women and men separate spaces for intimate physical acts. It also doesn’t expect unrelated men and women to share bedrooms in hospitals or other such venues.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I were on

the third floor of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto looking for a men’s bathroom. We came across two bathrooms with three stalls each, with only partial doors, the norm in Canada for segregated one-sex bathrooms. Both were labelled “all gender.” My husband, a very shy man in his 70s, didn’t know what to do, so I told him to go into the one on the right and I would guard it for him.

A couple of minutes later, two young Middle-Eastern looking men arrived, looked at the signs, and seemed confused. I told them where my husband was, so they went into the same bathroom. Then a family arrived: grandma, dad and baby in stroller. Grandma looked at the signs and decided to go downstairs to the first floor, where bathrooms were labelled “men” and ”women.” Then a grandmother and mother in hijab arrived, also with baby in tow. Grandma wanted to use the bathroom, but looked upset at the signage. I suggested to her daughter that her mother go into the empty bathroom on the left, and that she go in with her stroller to guard her mother from men who might enter. They did that.

Transgendered people want to use the bathroom of their chosen gender. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if bathrooms were clearly labelled male or female, and transgender people could use the one they identify with.  It would be even less of a problem if bathrooms were single-stall and had full-length doors that could be locked.  But what the Royal Ontario Museum did is the wrong way to go about accommodating transgender people, forcing everyone to risk using bathrooms with people of other genders.

Some people dismiss the “bathroom question” as a silly side-issue. But it isn’t. Bathrooms exist for the purposes of urination, defecation, and – for women of child-bearing age—menstruation. These are functions that both men and women usually perform privately or, if not completely privately, only with members of the same biological sex in the same location.

Consider, for example, campaigns to build separate latrines for schoolgirls in countries like India, so that the girls do not have to quit school in shame when they start menstruating. Consider, also, that refugee camps maintain separate latrine facilities for men and women. It is considered undignified and shameful to urinate, defecate and attend to menstrual cleanliness in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex.

The presumably Middle Eastern men and the presumably Muslim woman who followed my husband into the bathrooms at the ROM might have asserted that their culture prohibited them from entering mixed-“gender” bathrooms. In Canada at the moment, much attention is paid to preserving the culture of minority groups. But white Canadians of European ancestry also have cultural values that prescribe privacy for both men and women with regard to urination, defecation, and menstruation.

Must cultures if not all cultures, in most parts of the world, separate men and women for dignity’s sake. In some cultures, there are public baths. Men and women usually go to separate public baths. It would undignified and shameful for either men or women to be naked in these baths in the presence of people of the opposite biological sex.

Ideally, in the longer term, this problem can be solved by new ways of building infrastructure. Many newer restaurants, for example, have fully enclosed single-unit toilets, which anyone of whatever sex or gender may use. Perhaps also, women’s shelters could build separate units for transgender women whose biological sex does not conform to their gender identity.

But women and girls should still be entitled both to physical safety and to dignified privacy. So should men and boys. And no one should be vilified for pointing out that while there should be accommodation for people whose social gender and biological sex do not coincide, some consideration should be also given to people whose sex and gender do coincide. Many if not most of those people feel uncomfortable—if not unsafe—conducting their intimate private business in the presence of those whose sex they do not share.


Wednesday, 14 July 2021

The trans debate: "Less Yelling, More Conversation"


The Trans Debate: “Less Yelling: More Conversation”

Recently I met a very wise woman, a life-long advocate for freedom of speech and the mother of a Trans child.  Her slogan for getting past seemingly irreconcilable positions on Trans people was “less yelling: more conversation.”  She also though we should stop tossing around words like “Transphobia” when the real problem is often lack of understanding of what it means to be a Trans person, or to feel that one is in the wrong body.

You can obtain some understanding of what it feels like to be in the wrong body by reading Love Lives Here, a recent memoir by Amanda Jette Knox. Knox is both the mother and the wife of Trans women. Her daughter came out as female at the age of 11 and was able to transition relatively easily as she had not yet gone through all the stages of male puberty. Knox’s wife came out as female as an adult after 20 years of marriage as a man. Knox stood by both her daughter and her (now) wife, and seems to have kept her family intact and happy, as this image shows.

It is often difficult to understand people whose life experience in matters of sexuality or gender identity is so different from your own. 25 years ago I interviewed 78 civic leaders in Hamilton, Ontario about gay and lesbian rights (no one was talking about Trans rights at the time). 44 of them  volunteered that knowing someone who was gay had influenced their attitudes to favour gay rights. I wrote that up as an article called “The Gay Cousin:  Learning to Accept Gay Rights.” Similarly, when you know someone who is Trans, or read about their lives, it helps you empathize with them. 

That said, I don’t think any good can come of the current tendency to label women who worry about “fake” Trans people entering women’s “safe” spaces as TERFs (Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminists}.  I think Trans people should enjoy all their human rights, as do most of the so-called TERFs, such as the novelist J.K. Rowling.

In 2017 Canada’s Parliament passed “An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.”  This Act added “gender identity or expression” to prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Canada’s Ministry of Justice issued an explanation of what gender identity means: “Gender identity is each person’s internal and individual experience of gender.”  It defined gender expression as “the way in which people publicly present their gender…through such aspects as dress, hair, make-up, body language, and voice.”

Some Canadians seem to think that this definition means that an individual can simply state that they are of one or another gender, and that others must therefore accept them as such. For example, an ostensible male can walk into a woman’s shelter and state that they are a woman, and they would be entitled to a bed Or, a person  imprisoned for rape can simply state that they are a woman, and they must be moved to a women’s prison This does not mean that genuine transgender people should not be moved, as happened in 2017 to a convicted murderer in British Columbia.  Transgender women in men’s prisons risk being attacked.

If an individual can simply say they are a woman and then legally have to be treated as one, without any further evidence such as having lived as a woman, then Canada’s law is a bad one. A government that claims to be concerned about violence against women should know that some male predators will take every advantage they possibly can to gain access to vulnerable women.

Saying this does not make me a “TERF.” It makes me a person who is simultaneously aware that Trans people deserve all their human rights, and that predatory men will take advantage of a practice that permits them into women’s spaces.

Similarly, female scholars who worry about a social-media inspired movement to persuade young people, especially young women, that they are actually Trans are not TERFs. They are people who can simultaneously protect Trans people’s rights and worry that vulnerable young adolescents may ask for life-changing, irreversible surgery that they may not need.

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 of age.  In the UK, 1,806 girls were referred for gender treatment in 2017/18, as compared to only 40 in 2009/10.  Some of this increase may be because genuinely Trans children now had better access to information and assistance.  But the steep rise also suggests that some of them might have been influenced by social media or by groups of friends.  Some girls may simply have noticed that life is easier if you are male. A Finnish study found that 75 per cent of adolescents who wanted sex-reassignment surgery actually had other psychiatric problems.

There has already been one legal case in the UK in which an adult woman sued the Tavistock institute for removing her breasts when she was 16 and thought she was Transgender: as an adult, she decided she was simply a lesbian woman.  She won her case. 

None of this suggests that children who identify as Trans should not be taken seriously. It does suggest that there are many questions that should be asked.  People who ask these questions should not be considered Transphobic.  Nor should feminists who worry about “trans imposters” be considered TERFS.  It is possible to simultaneously defend the rights of Trans people and worry about poor medical practices, false or misleading information on the Internet, and social movements that persuade vulnerable young people that they are Trans when they may well be suffering from problems other than gender dysphoria, such as being bullied for being gay or lesbian. 

In all these cases, more speech is better than less. And civil discourse is better than yelling and calling each other names.  Sometimes human rights do clash. It is better to discuss the clashes civilly, trying to come to a reasonable resolution or compromise, than to pretend that one or the other side is simply composed of ideologues or bigots.