Monday 9 December 2013

Reposting: What is the Global South?

Reposting: What is the Global South?
Today I am reposting a blog I first posted on August 15, 2012, when I was new to blogging and didn’t know how to publicize my work.  I still agree with what I said last year, except, apparently, the growth of the emerging economies is slowing down somewhat.  
What is the Global South?
The other day I was having lunch with an old friend who teaches the sociology of the family. She has noticed that lately her students have been using the term “global south” a lot, and she asked me what I thought of it. This gives me the chance to expound on one of my pet peeves. My students use the term “global South” to contrast the world’s rich with the world’s poor and to show their sympathies with the South.  But when I ask them where the global south is, they are stymied.
It’s not a geographical term. Some countries south of the equator are rich, such as Australia and New Zealand. Others are or are becoming middle-income countries, such as Chile. And in the North, there are many poor countries; one of the poorest, Haiti, is in both the North and the West. Another area that is very poor is the Arab Middle East, in the northern half of the world.
What can be considered the Global South- Wiki Commons
Nor is global south an economic term, meant to embrace all “underdeveloped” countries as “southern” regardless of their actual geographical location. Some formerly underdeveloped countries, both in the north and the south, are becoming much wealthier than they used to be when academic concern with underdevelopment first became widespread in the 1970s. About three million people live in a group of six growing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, some in the north and some in the south. China has been growing in leaps and bounds since it embraced authoritarian capitalism in 1979.  India has been growing since 1991, when it relinquished economic protectionism. China is now an exploiter of Africa, where it grabs up oil and minerals without a concern for internal development or democracy and human rights; it certainly doesn’t belong in the same “south” as the Africa it cheerfully pillages for resources.
Finally, the global south is not a good political term. China is now a major player on the world scene and in the United Nations Security Council, and many commentators think that this century will be the “Asian century” with China in the lead. The emerging economies also have more political clout, especially through the formation of regional political and economic blocs, such as the Organization of American States and the African Union.
When students use the term global south, they often mean to imply that the south is poor because the north is rich; that is, the north has been exploiting the south.  Yet we know that many causes of poverty are internal to the countries that experience it, not external. A few years ago the Arab Development Report, written by Arab scholars, mentioned the lack of democracy as one of the chief causes of underdevelopment in the Arab Middle East. In China there are still gross inequalities between rural and urban areas, and migrants to the cities are treated particularly badly: this is a result of domestic policy, not “northern” exploitation, past or present. In India, much poverty is a result not of relations with the north but of the caste system and severe gender discrimination. In Africa, a chief cause of underdevelopment is government corruption: witness Nigeria, whose hundreds of billions in oil revenues are ripped off by the governing elites and their cronies.
So what it comes down to, as far as I can see, is that the global south is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is in the geographical south, is very poor, and still has very little global political influence. It’s not a good idea, then, to use the term global south. The so-called south is divided by geography, economic prosperity, and political influence. The world is too complex to be divided into two categories, especially when such categories conflate the present with the past.

65 Years of International Human Rights: Progress, Gaps, Regressions

65 Years of International Human Rights: Progress, Gaps, Regression
This morning I was interviewed by a local radio reporter in advance of World Human Rights Day, which is tomorrow, December 10, 2013. This is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948.
The reporter wanted to know if anything has improved since 1948. A lot has. Probably the single biggest improvement is that over half the world’s population—women—are now recognized as subjects of human rights and have their rights guaranteed in most international human rights instruments. And women in many parts of the world enjoy many rights in practice as well--political rights to vote, economic rights to work and to equal pay, and so on. Lots more women are engaged in fighting for rights too.
Another improvement is that with the end of apartheid, overt racial discrimination is no longer allowed. Again, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, in overt forms (such as discrimination against non-Jews in Israel) or covert forms (such as continued enslavement of “blacks” by “whites” in Mauritania). And the end of racial discrimination doesn’t mean the end of caste discrimination in India. 
DRC refugees fleeing conflict- Wiki Commons
Totalitarian governments, such as the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1971, and China from 1949 to 1979 (when it became an authoritarian capitalist state instead) have almost disappeared, although North Korea still hangs on to totalitarianism. Thirty years ago much of Latin and Central America was suffering under murderous military rule: most of those governments have gone.  Sub-Saharan Africa is making progress—though not as much as we would like—towards regimes that protect civil and political rights. And we’ve made a tiny dent in impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes with the establishment of the International Criminal Court.
There are still gaps in the human rights regime. There is no declaration or covenant protecting the rights of LGTB individuals (lesbians, gays, trans-sexuals, bisexuals), although more and more protections are emerging through legal decisions. Little progress has been made in protecting aboriginal peoples’ rights as collectivities—most importantly to their traditional lands—as well as their rights as individuals. Some third generation “collective” rights such as to peace and a clean environment have a long way to go. It’s hard to believe the right to peace has any meaning when we know that over five million people have died from warfare, disease, starvation, and rape in the so-called “Democratic” Republic of the Congo since 1994. The world’s rulers still aren’t paying enough attention to the dangers of climate change, and it seems that corporations’ “rights” to make profits and countries’ “rights” to trade still take priority over the long-term life of the planet. 
There are regressions as well. Since 9/11 the world’s most established liberal democracies have imposed controls on civil rights of those suspected of being terrorists; most such suspects are Arabs and/or Muslims, and Islamophobia runs rampant in these societies. New technologies have increased the surveillance capacities of the state and of corporations, rendering us all vulnerable to the Big Brother controls envisaged by George Orwell in his 1984. The welfare state is under attack: governments are cutting back on all types of social security, cheered on by a corporate sector that pays its CEOs obscene amounts while vigorously fighting unionization and protesting against even the tiniest rise in the minimum wage. 
The reporter also asked me what I thought the worst human rights problems are in Canada. The worst by far is the treatment of First Nations people: not only because of their unresolved land claims, but because of gross violations of their individual rights. Indigenous peoples in Canada are disproportionately likely to be poor, to be incarcerated, and to commit suicide. The federal government that is supposed to finance education on reserves provides far less funding per pupil than the provincial governments where the reserves are located. Then there are the continuing multiple human rights violations of Canada’s poor, in housing, work, health, and education, just for a start. And we currently have a government with a terrible track record in environmental good management.
Finally, the reporter asked me what one person could do about human rights. Here I quote the Canadian political commentator Rick Mercer, whom I heard on a recent radio programme. He said everyone could use their own skill set, and mentioned his mother, a nurse, who use to spend her “vacations” donating free nursing at a summer camp for diabetic children. Lots of Canadians help other people to realize their human rights, from the volunteers at food banks to the doctors abroad in danger zones. Unfortunately though, to volunteer requires time, a regular schedule, and some money, even if it’s only enough to get to the place you want to volunteer at.  Poor people without money for bus fares, with irregular and arbitrary work schedules, and with multiple demands on their time, often can’t volunteer in a formal sense, even if they would like to, but many of them help each other with child care, personal care for the elderly and disabled, and so on.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to uphold human rights.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Other Malala: Drone Victim Nabila Rehman

The Other Malala: Drone Victim Nabila Rehman
I teach a master’s level class on international human rights. The other day we were discussing the brilliant new (2013) book by Alison Brysk, Speaking Rights to Power, which analyzes how you can get particular human rights abuses on the international agenda. One way is to have an appealing symbol of a human rights cause, and in that connection the name of Malala Yousafzai came up. Malala is the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was deliberately targeted and shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago (2012) because she was a vocal defender of girls’ right to education. Malala was brought to Britain for free medical treatment and now goes to school there. 
Everyone knows of Malala. She won the 2013 European Union Sakharov Prize (named after the famed Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov), and was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.  She’s a heroine of the international movements for girls’ rights and the right to education.  And so she should be. I have no patience with people who say she’s only a heroine because she fits in with the “Western” anti-Taliban narrative. Plenty of people in Pakistan detest the Taliban, as do people in Afghanistan. The Taliban use violence to subordinate women to men.
But as one of my students pointed out in class, there is a certain selectivity in lionizing Malala and not even noticing other Pakistani girls who suffer, especially girls who suffer because of US foreign policy. One policy that has a lot of human rights activists worried nowadays is the US use of drones to kill alleged terrorists in Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries.
Nabila Rehman- Wiki Commons
On October 24, 2012, eight-year-old Nabila Rehman was in a field in North Waziristan, an area suspected to harbor many Taliban terrorists, with her grandmother Momina Bibi, a midwife. Ms. Bibi was teaching Nabila how to recognize when okra were ripe enough to pick. Suddenly a US drone appeared overhead, there was a dreadful noise and a flash of two lights, and Ms. Bibi was dead.  Nabila and her older brother Zubair were injured, Zubair quite seriously; their younger sister lost some of her hearing. And there was no free medical care for Nabila and her injured brother, as there had been for Malala. Like many other children in the region, Zubair no longer wants to go outside, even to play cricket. Many children in the region can’t sleep because of fear of drone attacks.
In October 2013 Nabila Rehman visited the US Congress with Zubair and her father, a teacher.  The visit was organized in part by a British non-governmental organization called Reprieve. Her lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, who represents many victims of US drone attacks and is a director of a Pakistani human rights group called Foundation for Fundamental Freedoms, was not allowed to accompany them. The visit was organized by a Democrat US Congressman, Alan Grayson, but only he and four other Democrats showed up to hear Nabila speak.
Speaking Rights to Power- Wiki Commons
I used to really admire Barack Obama: I went so far as to put an Obama bumper sticker on my car before the 2012 election, even though I’m Canadian and live in Canada (against my husband’s advice: he said I wouldn’t be able to get it off my car if I wanted to).  Perhaps I was caught up in the “thank-god-he’s-not-George W. Bush” euphoria that caused the Nobel Committee to give Obama an undeserved peace prize in 2009. But unless the US has a secret agreement with Pakistan to attack alleged terrorists with its drones (bring back Edward Snowden, so we can find out!) Obama is now permitting military violation of a sovereign state. He’s also engaging in extra-judicial executions, as Amnesty International has pointed out.
So why isn’t the world paying more attention to Nabila Rehman? According to Alison Brysk’s analysis, social movements need to have voices. Witnesses are one such voice, and Nabila is certainly a moving witness; even her translator was in tears when she visited Congress. Brysk also says human rights movements need to cultivate audiences, learn how to use mass media, and learn how to “perform” a human rights narrative. There’s lots of information about Nabila and her family on the Internet, but the audience seems to still be pretty small. The performance in the US Congress failed, because hardly anyone showed up.
Finally, Brysk says that human rights abuses get attention when they resonate with past acts that we know are wrong. Murder is wrong, but the US counters allegations of murder in Pakistan by claiming that drones are a much more efficient way of ridding the world of terrorists than, for example, a ground attack where many more civilians would be killed. You need a “frame” to make a human rights abuse stand out, but the frame of the US “war on terrorism” is much more powerful than the frame of “child victim of US policy.”
I think my student is right: even if there is every reason to admire Malala, other Pakistani girls, killed by the US rather than by the Taliban, deserve just as much sympathy and support. Nabila is one such girl.

Monday 21 October 2013

Book Note: A Small Town Near Auschwitz

Book Note: A Small Town Near Auschwitz
Mary Fulbrook is the daughter of a German Christian woman “of Jewish descent” who fled to the United States shortly after the Nazis took power. One of her mother’s closest girlhood friends was Alexandra, who married Udo Klausa. Klausa was the Landrat, or administrator, of a small city in occupied Upper Silesia named Bedzin. After WWII, Mary’s mother and Alexandra resumed their friendship and Alexandra became Mary’s godmother. Thus, Mary was acquainted with Udo Klausa, who is the central figure of A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (published in 2012 by Oxford University Press).
A Small Town Near Auschwitz- Wiki Commons
From A Small Town we learn a fair amount about Udo Klausa’s job and his interactions with his superiors who were in charge of formulating regional anti-Jewish policies—including stripping Jews of their property and employment, banishing them from public spaces (except when a few Jews were executed and thousands others forced to watch), concentrating them into ghettoes, deporting them to labor camps and eventually to the conveniently close extermination camp of Auschwitz. We also learn how Udo Klausa interacted with his subordinates, including the local gendarmerie that helped the actual Nazi Storm Troopers. Klausa faithfully participated in the anti-Jewish policies, which he seemed to regard as ordinary administrative matters. He appeared completely oblivious to the roundups, executions, murders, and tortures that were frequent and highly visible actions against the town’s Jewish population.     
Fulbrook also shows us how “innocent” bystander Germans were collaborators. Alexandra Klausa held no official position: she was merely the wife of the Landrat, happy to have found reasonable accommodation for herself, her husband and their baby in the villa of a deported Jew. Alexandra’s letters show that she witnessed roundups of Jews, which occurred just across the street from where she lived. She wrote to her mother about some of the inconveniences of the roundups: she couldn’t get her shoes repaired any more, and the vegetable market had closed down.  She and Udo tried unsuccessfully to protect “their” Jew—their gardener and janitor—and his family. Granted, letters were censored and it would have been difficult for her to write her mother about the horrors she witnessed. Yet she seemed indifferent to them, as long as they did not affect her day-to-day life as a wife and mother. She did worry a lot about Udo’s “nerves” which in a charitable interpretation of his reactions to the persecution of the Jews might have indicated that he was uneasy about certain activities in which he was implicated. After the war, Klausa evaded punishment—eventually becoming a Landrat again in democratic West Germany—and wrote a memoir in which he claimed that he was not present in Bedzin for some of the worst “actions” against the Jews. But Fulbrook shows that he was.
Eichmann in Jerusalem- Wiki Commons
The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963 after she had witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. Eichmann was one of the bureaucrats who organized the train system that took Jews to the extermination camps. Film footage of the trial shows him as a fairly ordinary, unprepossessing man, not a raving lunatic such as one might have imagined senior Nazi officials were (and as Hitler appears, to modern eyes, in footage of his speeches). To describe Eichmann’s role, Arendt coined the term, “banality of evil:” Eichmann was an evil, yet banal, person. Other works have also shown how “ordinary” were members of the Nazi killing machine. For example, Christopher R. Browning in Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992) shows how ordinary German men, too old for the military, were converted into killers of Jews.
Ordinary Men- Wiki Commons
Mary Fulbrook shows us the others side of this ordinariness. She personalizes the Jews of Bedzin. She uses diaries and memories of survivors. She recounts the day to day fear of every Jew in Bedzin, not knowing when she or he might be picked up and deported. She relates in detail the malnourishment each Jew endures. She tells us exactly what it feels like to be a fearful hidden child. She details the murders of women and children. She refuses to let her readers distance themselves from Udo Klausa’s victims.
In some senses, we are all collaborators. Most of us go about our daily lives perhaps conscious of injustices and suffering, both at home and abroad, but unwilling to devote more than a few hours a week or a small percentage of our resources to trying to alleviate it. Fulbrook writes of Alexandra and Udo Klausa that they “acted in ways that were predicated on ‘not seeing’ how people were affected, ‘not knowing’ what the outcomes of their actions really were” (p. 8). But even if we do see and we do know, it is usually easier to put what we see and know aside. This is what the Klausas did, and what almost all of us do.  

Friday 11 October 2013

North Korea; Still One of the World's Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)

North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die)
On September 27-28, 2013 I attended a conference in Toronto organized by the non-governmental group, The Council for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK Canada). This is a group of Korean-Canadians and others who have been trying to bring the plight of people living in North Korea—both ordinary North Koreans and political prisoners—to the attention of the wider Canadian public. So far they have managed to get several members of Parliament interested in this problem, and indeed, received a statement by Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney during the conference proclaiming September 28 “North Korean Human Rights Day.”
North Korean prison in Pyongyang- Wiki Commons
For me, the most powerful part of this conference was listening (in translation) to the testimony of Ahn Myong-Chol, a former prison guard who escaped from North Korea and has been working with other defectors to expose the terrible conditions in the gulag there. He has written a book which is unfortunately not yet in English. He did not apply for the job of prison guard: he was assigned to it because his father was a member of the Korean Workers’ Party, so Ahn himself was “entitled” to a Party job.
When Ahn first arrived at the camp, he was encouraged to kill prisoners if he felt like it. He was ashamed to tell us that he took part in a custom of using prisoners as human punching bags when practicing martial arts; prisoners would be tied to a post and guards would kick and punch them.  Once he heard prisoners crying and screaming, and rushed over to find prison dogs attacking small children, three of whom died. Children are sent to prison camps in North Korea along with their parents, when their parents are accused of crimes: some children are even born there (see Blaine Harden’s 2012 book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in a prison camp and escaped).  Dogs are trained to recognize the distinctive smell of starving, maltreated prisoners, so that they can find anyone who tries to escape.
Ahn also witnessed several public executions, as one of his jobs was to drive the prisoners to the execution grounds. Prisoners were gagged so that they could not shout out any criticisms of the regime at the last moment. Family members were forced to witness the executions and were tortured or killed if they showed any emotion.
After eight years on the job Ahn was given his first vacation. When he arrived home, he discovered his family had disappeared. Asking around, he learned that his father had got drunk one night and blamed the North Korean leadership (probably Kim Jong-il, the second of the three Kims in the hereditary dynasty) for starving his people. The next day, knowing he would be arrested and imprisoned for criticizing Kim, he took his own life. But suicide in North Korea is a crime, so Ahn’s mother and two younger siblings were arrested and imprisoned: Ahn never saw them again.
The Tumen River at the Chinese-North Korean border- Wiki Commons
Some participants at the conference asked why someone--the UN, the West?—didn’t just invade North Korea and overturn the regime. There are all sort of geopolitical reasons why this won’t happen.  The route to changing North Korea’s horrible system is to put pressure on China. There are good reasons why China should no longer support North Korea: China’s prestige suffers when it supports such a brutal regime, and the North Koreans are a security threat to China, conducting nuclear tests close to the Chinese border. Also, so long as people continue to suffer from starvation and near-starvation in North Korea, they will flee to China. So it’s in China’s interests to stem that refugee flow by forcing North Korea to change the policies that permit it to starve its people to death.
Another way to change the North Korean political system is through information: it seems that the more North Koreans learn about the outside world, the better. A couple of years ago, through HRNK,  I listened to a defector who sent balloons from South to North Korea with DVDs in them: each balloon was also covered with writing explaining the real conditions of life in South Korea and the outside world. This defector had himself decided to leave North Korea when he read a pamphlet that had been dropped by activists; when I heard him, the North Koreans had already sent agents south to try to murder him.
Recently, activists have been able to put enough pressure on the United Nations and its member states that the UN Human Rights Council has now established a Commission of Inquiry into North Korea.  This is an important step in getting the UN as a whole to pay attention to the atrocities there. Departing from the usual practice of Commissions of Inquiry, this Commission is holding public hearings. Its report may pressure to UN to adopt further actions.  The best action would be to refer North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and some of his cronies to the International Criminal Court, where they could be tried for crimes against humanity including murder, slavery, and deprivation of food.  However, that would probably be blocked at the UN Security Council by China and Russia, although it appears China is getting increasing fed up with North Korea.
If you want to help North Koreans, I suggest (if you are Canadian) writing to your local Member of Parliament to show your support for measures to investigate North Korea’s appalling crimes and to indict its leaders for crimes against humanity. Also, whether you are Canadian or not, write to the Chinese Ambassador to your country, asking them to pressure North Korea to change and to stop supporting it with arms, money, or luxury goods for its leaders.  
And there’s one piece of good news in all this: international pressure does make a difference.  Ahn said that around 1992 he was told that he was no longer permitted to kill prisoners just because he felt like it. The reason was that Amnesty International had become interested in the prison camps, and the regime was afraid of an international inquiry. Ahn encouraged us all to keep up the pressure on this absolutely monstrous government.
For more on North Korea, see my blogs “Cannibalism in North Korea” March 20, 2013, and “North Korean Slave Labour, September 11, 2012, as well as my article *2012. “State-Induced Famine and Penal Starvation in North Korea,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, vol.7, no. 2/3, pp. 147-65.

Monday 7 October 2013

Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse under Maduro than Chavez

Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse under Maduro than Chávez
On March 11, 2013, shortly after his death on March 5, I posted a blog about how Hugo Chávez had managed to create food shortages in Venezuela during his 14-year rule there. You can read that original blog at This is a short update on the food situation in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro, who was Chávez’s designated successor and who was elected president in his own right on April 14, 2013.
 I’ve based this update on English-language newspaper reports I’ve been tracking since January 2013. It looks like things are getting a lot worse, not better, under Maduro. I realize it’s possible to argue that I’ve just been reading biased, anti-socialist press, but that argument doesn’t wash.  Neither Chávez nor Maduro understood/understands how markets work: they think that nationalizations and price controls will reduce food prices, but they don’t understand the costs to production and distribution of food of using those mechanisms.  
Nicolas Maduro- Wikipedia Commons
Maduro has been continuing—and exacerbating—all the policies I described in my March 11 blog, such as imposing price controls on more and more food and other items. The twelve-month inflation rate skyrocketed to 35 per cent per year by June 2013, partly as a result of continued devaluation of the bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, but also as a result of food scarcities. Food line-ups are becoming longer and longer as more and more food items become scarce, and Venezuelans have to spend more and more time going from shop to shop looking for goods. Many people who’ve been interviewed by the press complain about severe shortages of basics such as milk that they need to feed their children.
By June 2013 the price of basic commodities had risen by 44.6 per cent in one year: by August the figure was a rise of 60.8 per cent in one year. Rice, coffee, and beef, previously produced inside the country, now arrive from other countries. Maduro spends much of his time making deals with other Latin American countries to import food from them, but this food often rots as ships can’t unload at congested, inefficiently-run ports.
But this provides new opportunities for web entrepreneurs. Someone developed a mobile app to provide information about what goods are available where, so consumers can reduce the time they spend going from store to store looking for food. Some other people developed a website to provide information about the real (black-market), as opposed to the official exchange rate of the bolivar to the US dollar: Maduro responded by ordering their arrest.
When not blaming the shortages on an imperialist, CIA-led conspiracy, Maduro explains them away by focusing on “over-consumption” by Venezuelans, who have more purchasing power than in the years before the latest oil boom. He also blames shortages on a deliberate campaign of sabotage by food producers and distributors, ordering government agents to raid private companies’ warehouses for allegedly “hoarded” food. The private producers respond that much of the hoarded food is simply what is needed for production of finished products: for example, sugar for soft drinks. The largest food company in Venezuela, Empresas Polar, can’t import enough inputs for processed food such as the pre-cooked flour for arepas, Venezuela’s staple food because it can’t get government permission to buy dollars to finance its imports. Meantime, smugglers sell price-controlled food over the border in Colombia, thus exacerbating the food shortage.
Ironically, just as these food shortages have been worsening, in June 2013Maduro accepted an award from the FAO for Venezuela’s success in reducing malnutrition. While this success was real, as I discussed in my March 11 blog, it was due in large part to Venezuela’s high oil revenues and to general and unsustainable mismanagement of the economy. Other Latin American countries have achieved similar success to Venezuela’s in reducing malnutrition without huge oil revenues and without undermining the market economy.
If mothers in Venezuela cannot find milk for their children, then malnutrition might rise again in the not-so-distant future. Indeed, by early August 2013 forecasters were predicting a long-term decline in food consumption by 7.5 per cent by 2017. Maduro’s insistent continuation of Chávez’s economic policies does not bode well for Venezuelans’ future food security.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

A New Quebec Value: Discrimination against Religious Minorities

A new Quebec Value: Discrimination against Minority Religious Groups
Yesterday (September 10, 2013) the government of Quebec (Canada) released its controversial “Charter of Quebec Values.” The political party in power in Quebec is a minority nationalist one, the Parti Québecois. According to numerous news reports (I can’t find the actual Charter on the Internet yet) this Charter is a statement of “values” that will ostensibly entrench religious neutrality in Quebec by prohibiting either providers or seekers of government services from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as hijabs (headscarves for female Muslims), turbans (for male Sikhs), and kippas (skullcaps for male Jews). As a sop to neutrality, Christians will also be prohibited from wearing large, conspicuous crosses. Small (discrete) crosses for Christians, and Stars of David (for Jews) will be allowed.  So if you live in Quebec and wear such symbols, get out your measuring tape!
Premier of Quebec Pauline Marois
One could of course ask, what business does government have proclaiming the “values” of its entire population? In democracies, citizens are supposed to have the right to whatever values they please. Sometimes they may not be permitted to act on those values, if they are against the law.  For example, some people may hate Sikhs, Jews, or Muslims, but they can’t refuse to hire them. But wait a minute, they will be able to do so in Quebec! If you are in the government in Quebec, even if you don’t hate Sikhs, Jews, or Muslims; even if in fact you rather like them, or are one yourself, you won’t be permitted to hire them for any kind of government job if they wear turbans, kippas, or hijabs.
Even more ridiculous, Sikh women and Muslim men will be okay, as most Sikh women don’t wear turbans and Muslim men don’t wear hijab (though some wear a small religious skull-cap, much like some Jewish men). Religious Jewish women may be okay as well: some married Jewish women wear wigs or hats, but hats appear not to be banned by the new Charter. So far beards aren’t banned either. Some Muslim and Jewish men wear long beards (so do some Amish and Mennonite men, but I don’t know if any of them live in Quebec) so if they are banned in the public service the problem will be, do you wear a beard because you are religious, or because you just don’t like to shave? If the latter, can you get a certificate to that effect?
These new rules even apply to government services such as day care. God forbid (sorry, the new value is secularism, so God shouldn’t really enter into this, unless he is Catholic: see below) that a child should have a kind, loving, carer who wears a hijab. Everywhere else in Canada, if you are a parent and your child asks why her carer or teacher wears a head-scarf, you could just say, because she is a Muslim. The child could then say, “Oh,” and ask for a cookie.  But now in Quebec when your kind, loving, day-care worker disappears because she’s been fired for wearing a hijab, you will have to say to your child, “because our government thinks it is wrong for her to care for you.” 
I’m all for separation of church and state, having been a victim of religious discrimination myself in Quebec a long time ago. When my parents brought me to Quebec from Europe as a young child, I was bilingual: we had been living in Belgium and I had learned to speak English in my home and French elsewhere. My father, a multilingual European, wanted to register me and my sister in French schools, but they wouldn’t accept us because we were not Catholic. My father would have had to pay fees for us, which he couldn’t afford, so we went to English schools.
This didn’t only happen to me. A friend from France had to attend English schools because he wasn’t Catholic: his mother was Jewish. A friend whose parents were from Italy and who learned French on the street was kicked out of French schools because he wasn’t Québecois (a person of French and Catholic ancestry) but the son of immigrants, and had to go to English Catholic schools instead.  (The education system in Quebec until fairly recently was confessional: there were French Catholic Schools, English Catholic schools, and Protestant schools; the latter attended by Protestant Protestants, Jewish Protestants, Muslim Protestants, etc). This went on until Bill 101, mandating that all immigrants must attend French schools, was passed in 1977, finally ending state-sanctioned religious discrimination in Quebec.
But the new Charter doesn’t advance separation of church and state: it discriminates against minority religious groups. The government of Quebec is claiming there’s a social problem where there is none. It seems to think wearing a religious symbol is the same as proselytization, trying to convert someone to your religion. It isn’t. Maybe what’s really going on in Quebec, as some commentators think, is that the Parti Quebécois is trying to play to the basest instincts of some sectors of the population, in order to get votes in the next election.
Meantime, probably so that the same people, of French and Catholic background, will vote for the Parti Québecois in the next election, the government has proclaimed that the Crucifix (a symbol of Roman Catholicism) hanging in the National Assembly, the provincial legislature, will remain. So, according to the September 11 Toronto Globe and Mail, will thousands of crucifixes that already exist in public buildings. Apparently this is part of Quebec “culture,” implying that the Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews who live in Quebec are not part of that culture. Perhaps they are just add-ons, superfluous groups who annoy “real” Québecois by insisting on reminding them that it’s okay to live in Quebec even if you aren’t French/Catholic (or at least, it used to be okay).
One thing’s for sure: there’s going to be a migration of professionals—especially doctors—from Quebec.  Doctors are a mobile group and there are a lot of places in Canada and the US where they can practice while wearing turbans, hijabs, or kippas. This is a shame for the people of Quebec, where there is already a severe shortage of doctors.  The five-year grace period that the Quebec government proposes for people to adapt to this new “secular” (but actually Catholic) Charter of Values will give all these people time to arrange for their migration.  

September 11, 2013: 40th Anniversary of the Chilean Coup

September 11: 40th Anniversary of the Chilean Coup
Today is September 11th, the day most North Americans will think of as the 12th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York City (and on the Pentagon). But it is also the 40th anniversary of the right-wing coup d’état in Chile.
Salvador Allende- Wikipedia Commons
In 1970 Salvador Allende, a socialist, was elected President of Chile, a country with a long-standing democratic tradition. One of his policies was nationalization of mineral and other industries, including property owned by foreign investors. This didn’t sit well with members of Chile’s political right, or with the Americans—or Canadians, for that matter. On September 11, 1973 he was overthrown by a military coup lead by General Augusto Pinochet.  An extended period of severe repression followed. At least 2,200 people were murdered and 30,000 more were tortured (for a fictional representation of this event, see the 1982 movie, Missing, directed by Costa-Gravas).
The coup in Chile and the subsequent (1976) coup in Argentina contributed to the delineation of a new crime, “disappearances.” The army and police would “disappear” people, taking them away from their home in the middle of the night, torturing them to death, dumping their bodies from helicopters into the ocean. Families would not know what had happened to their loved ones; even now, 40 years later, some families are still trying to find out. Pinochet remained in power until 1990.

Chilean National Stadium as a prison camp- Wikipedia Commons

The Chilean coup had one positive result for international law. In 1998 Augusto Pinochet, no longer President, visited Britain. A Spanish judge, Baltasar Garžon, tried to have him arrested under the principal of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity, including torture. Although Pinochet hadn’t personally engaged in such crimes, he had certainly been responsible for them. Britain had signed the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture; its signature went into effect in 1988. So the British Law Lords ruled that Pinochet could be tried for crimes that he had committed between 1988 and 1990. He was never tried though, as the British released him on grounds of ill health, from which he miraculously recovered when he returned to Chile. (For more on this, see Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, The New Press, 1999, chapter 10).

Pinochet- Wikipedia Commons

I am not saying Allende was an angel, nor do I know enough about how he nationalized property to judge whether he conformed to the international law that owners are entitled to fair compensation when their property is confiscated. But he was elected democratically.
We might think about the Chilean example when we consider Egypt now. Allende wasn’t like Mohamed Morsi, the recently ousted President of Egypt. Morsi, who represented the Muslim Brotherhood, was showing signs of undermining basic democratic principles. There was a real danger that the new “democracy” following the 2011 uprising against the almost 30-year reign of the dictator Hosni Mubarak was going to be of the “one man, one vote, once” variety. But as in Chile, the new military rulers in Egypt have been using force—murder and torture—against their opponents. They have outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and are busy rounding up its leaders.  I don’t know what to do about political parties that come to power democratically yet don’t respect democratic principles. I do know that murder and torture are illegal under any circumstances.

Friday 30 August 2013

Ai Weiwei: Chinese Artist and Human Rights Activist

Ai Weiwei: Chinese Artist and Human Rights Activist
This past week (August 28, 2013) I attended an exhibit of works of the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. I urge anyone reading this who lives in the Toronto area to go and see it.
Ai Weiwei is not only an artist, he is also a human rights activist who has taken considerable risks in order to protest rights-abusive actions of the Chinese government. One of his exhibits, in fact, is an enlarged photograph of a brain hemorrhage he sustained after being hit by a policeman; fortunately, he was on his way to Munich when this happened and was hospitalized and treated there. He is currently not allowed to leave China.
Ai Weiwei in 2009
The exhibit opens with a large set of photographs Ai Weiwei took of devastated lands expropriated by the government to permit construction of new buildings. Since all land in China belongs officially to the government, people whose homes or small businesses are destroyed don’t have the right to protest. This violates both the right to housing and the right to property.
Another set of photographs is of the famous “Bird’s Nest” Stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which Ai had helped to design. He refused to be involved further in Olympic propaganda, however, once he realized that people were being arbitrarily displaced in order to provide room for the Olympics. Many of the displaced were “illegal” (unauthorized) internal migrants to Beijing from other parts of China. All Chinese must take part in the household registration system, a form of internal passports. Migrants to Beijing who don’t have official permission to live there lack many fundamental rights; for example, many of their children can’t attend school.
Ai Weiwei was also horrified by the death toll from the 2008 earthquake in the region of Chengdu.  An estimated 90,000 people died, including thousands of school children who perished in the shoddily-constructed, government-built schools. Against the wishes of the authorities, Ai assembled a team of researchers who eventually accumulated names, ages, and other information about 5,186 school children. One of the most moving pieces in the exhibit was a wall installation of all the names and other information about the children. Although I do not read Chinese, I was still moved by the columns of birth dates of those who died. Also, Ai had used Twitter to teach people all over the world willing to read out the names of the dead, so as I read the birthdates, I heard a recording of voices—often those of children—reading the names. 
Free Ai Weiwei atop the Kunsthauses Bregenz Exhibition Centre
Ai weiwei thinks naming the dead is important: a quote from him about the installation read “A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights; no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.” If we name the dead, we bring them back to life and remove them from the unfathomable multitudes, the millions who die.  Ai’s installation reminded me of an exhibit on Cambodia I saw in the University of Connecticut Museum in 2001, with pictures of some of the 20,000 people—many children—tortured and then murdered in the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh during the reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.  These people remained nameless, but their faces reminded us of their individuality.
Since the United Nations’ Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, the official line of the human rights establishment has been that all human rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—are interdependent and indivisible. Certainly this is something I’ve been arguing for a long time. It seems that there is more than one path to “development,” considered merely as economic growth. One path was the messy model whereby Western Europe and North America became wealthier and freer, eventually—after much struggle by--protecting most human rights for most citizens most of the time. The other path is the East Asian model, where economic growth eased the lives of many people while the governments—as in South Korea until the late 1980s—remained dictatorial. China is definitely much wealthier than it was before it turned to state-organized capitalism in 1978, and many Chinese people live much easier lives than did their parents under communism. But as Ai Weiwei shows, without property rights the state can take away your home.  Without freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly, the state can construct shoddy schools in which your children may die, and you can’t do anything about it.  Without artists like Ai Weiwei—as the Chinese government knows full well—it is difficult to represent their own suffering to the Chinese people. Ai Weiwei’s is an extremely powerful voice for freedom in China.
There was one discordant note in this exhibit. The souvenir shop attached to it was selling small books of reproductions of Chinese government propaganda posters.  I’m not sure what to think of that: I know that propaganda posters can be considered art that is interesting in its own right, but it seemed as if the Art Gallery of Ontario hadn’t got Ai Weiwei’s message at all.   

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Water Rights of West Bank Palestinians

Water Rights of West Bank Palestinians

On May 17, 2013 I posted a blog on Palestinian property rights: I was interested in this question because of my research on malnutrition in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), comprised of the West Bank and Gaza. This is part of a larger research project on malnutrition which also includes North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. I’ve also posted a blog explaining my position on criticizing Israel: I believe that Israel is a state that has the right to exist in peace, but that it must also obey international law. From what I’ve learned, Israel is not obeying international human rights and humanitarian laws that require that Palestinians enjoy their right to clean water. Some of what I’ve written in this post is based on a 2009 report by Amnesty International, “Troubled Waters-Palestinians Denied Fair Access to Water: Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories  I’ve also used other sources that I can provide to interested readers.

The United Nations has proposed a human right to water, referring especially to the right to “an adequate standard of living” mentioned in Article 11, 1 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the right to the “highest attainable standard of physical…health” mentioned in Article 12. Israel ratified this Covenant  in 1991.The right to water is most clearly elaborated in the 2002 General Comment 15 of the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” International humanitarian law also states that an occupying power must ensure that the occupied population has sufficient water. Israel is also obliged under international law to ensure equitable distribution of groundwater between itself (as occupier) and the inhabitants of the area it occupies.
Access to clean water is a major problem for Palestinians in the West Bank. While Israelis in 2009 consumed about 300 liters of water per day,  Palestinians consumed about 70 (Amnesty International 2009, 3). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the percentage of people with access to improved water sources in the OPT as a whole declined from 97 in 1991 to 85 in 2010.
Israel has expropriated much of the water in the West Bank for its own use. The main source of water in the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, but Palestinians in 2009 had access to only 20 per cent of the water it produces, while Israel used the rest. The right to water also includes protection from arbitrary interference in the water supply, yet Israelis authorities frequently cut off water from Palestinians. Individual Israeli soldiers often destroy private water cisterns and other traditional means by which Palestinians collect and conserve water. The Israeli military requires that Palestinians obtain permits to build new cisterns, yet often does not grant them.
States are also obliged by international law to “prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water,” yet Israel permits Jewish settlers in the West Bank to draw on water supplies traditionally used by Palestinians, even permitting individual Jewish households to have swimming pools while nearby Palestinians endure severe water shortages.  Many Palestinians rely on water brought in by tankers, yet segregated roadways often make it difficult for the tankers to reach Palestinian villages. Palestinians also have to tolerate deliberate contamination of their water supply by Jewish settlers who, for example, throw garbage or even dirty baby diapers into Palestinians’ water containers. Lack of water for agriculture means Palestinian farmers must rely on purchased food. As one farmer told Amnesty International (p. 23 of the AI report), “We can’t keep more goats because we can’t afford the water, and we can’t grow food for us and fodder for the animals, so we have to buy it and this is too expensive.”
As of 2008 Israel obtained almost 50 per cent of its drinking water and 40 per cent of its agricultural water from the West Bank. As early as 1990 the Israeli Agriculture Minister warned that Israel would lose nearly 60 per cent of its water if it relinquished control of the West Bank (Amnesty International 2009, 47). This strategic need for water may explain the desire to occupy the West Bank even more than does the desire for Jewish settlements. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require a detailed agreement on water resources, but Israel may not be willing to give up its access to West Bank water.
I used to be impressed when I heard people say that the Israelis have “made the desert bloom.”  Yet I now realize they’ve done so by using stolen water.

Friday 19 July 2013

Canada: Malnourishment of Aboriginal Children

Canada: Malnourishment of Aboriginal Children
This week (July 15-19, 2013) the Canadian media has been awash with stories about  malnourishment of Aboriginal (“Indian”) children in nutrition experiments carried out from 1948 to 1952. The source of the media’s information is an article by historian Ian Mosby, “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942-1952” (Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol. 46, no. 91, May 2013, pp. 145-172; ). Mosby recounts experiments in Indian residential schools from 1948-52 that would violate today’s ethical standards. In an attempt to improve Indian children’s nutritional status, researchers gave experimental nutritional supplements to some children in some schools, but left other students and schools without such supplements, as “control” groups. They also denied some children dental care in order to observe the effects of malnourishment on the children’s teeth and gums.  
A Photograph of a Canadian Residential School, Wikimedia Commons
The larger story behind these experiments, as Mosby makes clear in his article, is severe malnutrition among Canada’s Aboriginal populations in the 1930s and 40s. According to Mosby, the children who were the subjects of these experiments were already malnourished in the residential schools where they were forced by the government to live, with little if any contact with their parents or other Aboriginal adults. The experimenters who left some “control” children malnourished while feeding others experimental nutritional supplements were trying to find ways to improve Aboriginal peoples’ diets without addressing long-term, structural problems. These structural problems included erosion of Aboriginal people’s traditional diets and inadequate funding both of schools and Aboriginal reserves by the relevant national government departments.
The economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen, has famously suggested that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy” (see his Development as Freedom, 1999, p. 178). The reasons for this, Sen argued, are that in democracies citizens have access to a free press, they are allowed to criticize their governments, and they can vote their governments out of office. But Aboriginal Canadians did not have these rights in Canada at the time that they were suffering from severe malnutrition. Indeed, if you were recognized as a “status Indian” and lived on a reserve, you couldn’t simultaneously be a citizen with the right to vote in federal elections until 1960. The government also restricted Aboriginal Canadians’ rights to freedom of association.
And of course, Aboriginal children had no rights at all. Those who lived in residential schools were effectively prisoners in “total institutions,” institutions where the inmates were totally controlled by those in authority. Total institutions of this kind—residential schools, prisons, orphanages, homes for the disabled—are notorious in Canada for abuse of the inmates; over the last 30 years Canadians have heard horrific story after horrific story about these places, often, like Indian residential schools, run by various Christian denominations. Aboriginal children were torn from their families, who in turn had no say over how their children were treated in residential schools, whose notorious purpose was to “take the Indian out of the child.” And the children knew that if they complained about their hunger, there would be “consequences,” as one survivor of the residential school system said on the radio. This survivor was so hungry that he used to go into the woods with his friends after school and hunt for small birds to eat. When I heard him say this, I thought of what I’ve been learning recently about state-induced famine in North Korea in the 1990s. There, if you foraged for food, you ran the risk of execution. At least things weren’t that bad in Canada, but Aboriginal children did go hungry for years on end, afraid to say anything to their “caretakers” for fear of brutal punishment.
Ironically, the reports of Ian Mosby’s article broke in Canadian newspapers just as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is trying to find out the truth about white Canada’s relations with Aboriginal people, and in acknowledging that truth to come to some form of reconciliation between the two groups. Yet at the same time, the Commission is having trouble getting access to all the government’s records of how it has, historically, treated Aboriginal people. Now we know why.
Not surprisingly, Canada’s Aboriginal leaders are demanding an apology from the government for these nutritional experiments. But that is not enough. Every living survivor of this experiment deserves substantial financial reparation. And I think those survivors’ children and grandchildren deserve apologies and reparations too, as the long-term effects of malnourishment may well have reduced the survivors’ abilities to make a living and support their descendants.
The American legal scholar David Marcus coined the term “faminogenesis” in 2003 to refer to state activities “creating or aiding in the creation of famine.” He described four degrees of faminogenic behavior. These four degrees are intentional famine, using famine as means of extermination; reckless famine, continuing policies despite evidence of famine; famine by indifference, turning a blind eye to mass hunger; and famine as a consequence of incompetence (see David Marcus, “Famine Crimes in International Law,” American Journal of International Law, vol. 97,no, 2, 2003, pp. 245-81). Canada didn’t create famine, but it did recklessly contribute to the malnourishment of Aboriginal children and adults, in its overall policy of underfunding reserves and schools and in the experimenters’ decision to leave some children malnourished in the interests of “scientific” rigor. The experimenters could easily have fed the children they were studying enough food, but they didn’t; they were indifferent to the children’s suffering.  If anyone who conducted these experiments in the 1940s and 50s is still alive today, he or she should be held accountable, as should the federal government. This is one week that I am truly ashamed to be a Canadian.

Friday 5 July 2013

Iranian Prison Massacre: 25th Anniversary

Iranian Prison Massacre: 25th Anniversary



This week, with his permission, I am re-posting a blog by Jafar Bekhish, originally posted at:

Jafar is an Iranian who immigrated to Canada in 2002.  As you will see from his post, he spent 15 months in jail in the 1980s, and lost several siblings who were executed, three in the Evian prison massacre of 1988.  Jafar’s post is about the search for truth and justice by his family and the many other families who lost loved ones in prison executions.  These family members do not know why their loved ones were killed, or where exactly they are buried, but they continue to memorialize them every year. Jafar’s sad story shows us how important it is to their survivors to know exactly what happened to family members who are murdered by vicious political regimes.



Mothers of Khavaran; a Strong Voice for Truth and Justice in Iran


Kaveh Shahroz’s article in Ottawa Citizen on May 28, 2013, “How Canada Can Lead On Iran

explains very well the pain that has been inflected by the Islamic Republic of Iran (the IRI) on the victims and victims’ families in last thirty five years, prevalence of “The culture of impunity” and a long overdue proper reaction/action by international community on systematic and widespread human rights violations by the IRI. However, I would like to look at the 80s atrocities and their consequences from a different aspect, which has not been elaborated in Kaveh’s article.

Kaveh wrote about his young uncle, Mehrdad, 20 at the time of arrest in 1980. Mehrdad was sentenced to ten years imprisonment in the early 80s. After seven years of hardship and torture inside prison, Mehrdad was hanged along with four thousands political prisoners, in the 1988 prison massacre, under the direct order of ayatollah Khomeini, the then supreme leader.

It is heart breaking when Kaveh wrote:
“We still don’t know exactly when he was executed or where his body is buried.
My family has never truly recovered from that loss.  My grandmother and mother have both passed away since then, both with the unfulfilled wish of seeing justice in Mehrdad’s case. “
This is a pain shared by many similar families in Iran.  

In transitional justice literature, it is claimed that although, dictatorial regimes suppress political and social activists, ironically, the suppressions lead to other types of resistance. Victims’ families and many others become active in order to save the life of their loved ones and ask for truth and justice. Is Iran an exception?

It has been 33 years since the mass executions of political activists in the early 80s, and 25 years since the 1988 prison massacre, yet victims’ families still do not know the truth and have not seen justice. It is important to ask, with about 20,000 thousands victims, and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and exiles; why has a strong movement for truth and justice not been established in Iran? Is it only because Canada and other countries did not act properly? Then, why is it that such a strong movement for truth and justice in Latin America and other parts of the world is evident, despite the fact that in many cases, United State, Russia (Former Soviet Union) and China and their allies supported the dictators?

In the 80s, the IRI put enormous pressure on the victims’ families to stay silent in the face of the atrocities that were happening inside prisons all around Iran. Although a majority of victims’ families were forced to comply with this brutal policy, few hundreds of victims’ families, known as Mothers of Khavaran, became a voice for justice and truth inside Iran.  

Before 1988 prison massacre, these families, tried to save their loved ones or improve the prison condition. They knew that the prisoners did not have any right to defend themselves. So it was up to family to do that. I remember in the 80s, my mother along with other mothers, sisters and wives of political prisoners, gathered in front of governmental buildings to submit their requests for fair trial and improvement of prison conditions

In the 80s, each Friday, and despite all the harassment, they went to Khavaran cemetery, a piece of land where non-believer victims were buried in single or mass graves. The authorities named it “doomed land”, to show their disrespect.

In the 80s, family arrest was very common. In 1984, when I released from prison, after they kept me inside for 15 months, without any accusation, two of my siblings were killed and were buried in unknown grave in Khavaran and three others were in notorious Evin prison.  Families like mine acted as a connecting point between families of political prisoners and executed.

In summer of 1988, when the authorities canceled all prison visits and isolated prisoners, again this group of families went to the officials to find out what was happening inside of the prisons. They felt that something terrible was happening. It was autumn of 1988, after about four months of being in the dark, we received the horrible news. My brothers, Mohammad-Ali and Mahmoud, and my brother in law, Mehrdad Panahi, were among four thousands victims of the massacre.

In 1989, the first anniversary of the 1988 prison massacre, Mothers of Khavaran decided to hold a public commemoration in Khavaran cemetery. Each year on September first or the closest Friday to it, the only semi formal commemoration inside Iran has been held In Khavaran cemetery by Mothers of Khavaran, despite of all the harassment by the IRI. In the last thirty three years, many of them have been arrested or summoned by the authorities.

Mothers of Khavaran also hold commemorations in their residence. Many times the authorities have attacked the ceremonies and summoned the participants. They have collectively gone to officials, sent collective and personal letters, filed complaints, given interviews to media outside of Iran and written numerous articles about the atrocities and harassment that the families have faced.

My mother and my sister are among them. In the 80s and 90s, my mother was summoned several times to the ministry of intelligence to prevent her pursuit of justice and truth. My sister, Mansoureh Behkish, has also been arrested and summoned many times. I was part of this group of courageous families before I immigrated to Canada in 2002.

Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, in her book, “Golden Cage”, explains her experience when she went to Khavaran cemetery:
“I recognized the woman they called Mother, the spokes-woman of their grief… She was about seventy years old.
Mother slowly raised her arm and began to speak. The buzzing stopped,
“Today we’re here to remember. We know that blood can’t wash away blood. We are women, not guerrilla fighters. Wives and mothers and daughters and sisters who have already seen more than enough violence. Killing the murderers will not bring back the victims…”
“silence, infidel! They weren’t victims—they were traitors, and they deserved to die!”
We’d been surrounded by women and men of the goruh-e feshar. The forces that attacked and broke up public demonstrations were once again ready to act.

With the persistence of Mothers of Khavaran, Khavaran cemetery became a prominent symbol of systematic and widespread human rights violation in Iran and Mothers of Khavaran became a strong voice for truth and justice in Iran.

I agree with Kaveh Shahrooz that it is very important that the international community recognize the massacre of 1988 as a “crime against humanity”, it is long overdue.
But it is more important to emphasise that without active and effective dialogue with the younger generations, without an attempt to involve civil society in this discourse; it will not possible to pursue truth and justice.

Facing past atrocities and asking for truth and justice is a social process. Mothers of Khavaran are a nucleus for such social movement. But both opposition political parties that want to overthrow the IRI by any means and reformist faction of the IRI, who have direct and indirect responsibility for the 80s massacres are ignoring them.

 After 33 years of systematic suppression in Iran, and after 33 years resistance by some victims’ families, there is no recognition for Mothers of Khavaran and other groups of families, such as families of the victims of political killing in 1998. May be because, Mothers of Khavaran, distanced themselves from political parties. May be because the families did not discriminate against each other because of political affiliation of the victims? Or maybe because their goal was to neither forget, nor overthrow the government

They simply ask for their basic rights; why, where, when, by whom and under whose orders were the victims executed? Where are their bodies? Why aren’t the families allowed to hold commemorations in public and private spaces? Why do the authorities harass the families when they ask for their basic rights?
This year is the 25th anniversary of the 1988 prison massacre. I urge and ask the human rights community in Canada to recognize and acknowledge the efforts that have been made by Mothers of Khavaran for truth and justice and to ask the IRI to stop their harassment.

Jafar Behkish
June 2nd, 2013 

Note: This article was sent for publication to Ottawa Citizen Newspaper, on June 2nd, as a complimentary article to Kavaeh Shahrooz article on 1988 prison massacre and Campagin88, published by the same newspaper. It has not been published. So I publish it in my weblog.