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.