Monday 24 February 2014

Book Note: James Daschuk's Clearing the Plains

Book Note: James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains.
James Daschuk’s powerful book, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life (University of Regina Press, 2013), tells the horrific story of how Canada used famine to clear the western plains of Aboriginal people, facilitating the opening up of that vast territory to settlement by European immigrants and the linking of the country “from sea to shining sea” via the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In the 1870s and 80s, the various Aboriginal communities who lived in the West began to suffer from famine. The immediate cause of this famine was the destruction of the Aboriginal peoples’ staple food, the bison. Some Aboriginal people were over-hunting. Meanwhile, commercial cattle-ranching was developing, and bison were driven out because of competition for forage and the spread of disease from cattle to bison. And the American government was killing large bison herds to force its own Aboriginal peoples under its control. 
Clearing the plains- Wiki Commons
Added to the shortage of food was the spread of tuberculosis. Medical authorities first did not know how tuberculosis was spread among humans: later, they did not know that bovine tuberculosis, rampant among bison in the late nineteenth century, was transmittable to humans.
The result of the decline of the bison herds and widespread disease was starvation. Aboriginal peoples in western Canada were reduced to eating their horses and dogs, the carcasses of wolves, and wild roots. With few if any substitutes for bison meat, they were forced into dependence on the government. The government then threatened to withdraw their rations if they refused to accept treaties, in which they gave up substantial portions of their traditional lands in return for small areas of reserved lands and minimal food rations.
At one point, the government ordered that food would only be given to Aboriginal people on reserves, and forbade those living on reserves from providing food to those still living off-reserve. The Aboriginal people were supposed to learn to farm on their reserves, under the watchful eyes of Indian agents, eventually to become self-sufficient agriculturalists.
Aboriginals were confined to their reserved against their will, only able to leave them if they had an official pass. The pass system meant that they could not look for work off the reserve which might enable them to buy food.  Meantime, famine continued. One-third of the original Aboriginal population was estimated to have died in a period of six years, leaving about 15,000 people on reserves, no longer interfering with plans for European settlements.
The official Canadian response to this famine was paltry. Officials debated how much food Aboriginal people should be given. Some argued that food should only be given in exchange for work, but the Aboriginals were so weakened that work was impossible. Women and children could be seen almost naked, having sold their clothes for food; many endured rape by white men as the only means to acquire food.  Yet food lay rotting in storage on reserves until officials decided that Aboriginals were sick and starving enough that some should be distributed.   Meanwhile, corruption fed indifference to the famine; John A. Macdonald, the Prime Minister, and other senior officials were investors in the railway system that required the confinement of Aboriginal peoples to reserves.
After a rebellion by some of the remaining Aboriginal peoples in the west in the early 1880s, the government retaliated by cutting off even more food rations. The general viewpoint was that Aboriginals should be given just enough food to prevent their actual death by starvation, but no more. Macdonald assured Parliamentarians that the government would be “rigid, even stingy” in distributing food, refusing it “until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense” (quoted by Daschuk on p. 134). Even the willingness to provide food when Aboriginals were on the verge of starvation was driven by fear of scandal in eastern Canada, if the government actually tolerated starvation.
Daschuk refers to the actions of the Canadian government as “dominion [of Canada] indifference.” This is a generous interpretation of the central government’s actions and decisions. Although the famine was not caused by any actions deliberately taken by the dominion government, the government did contribute to the famine’s prolongation. The government chose to reduce rations because, some officials believed, Aboriginal people were refusing to work for food.  It also chose to reduce or suspend rations in order to force Aboriginal people to accept treaties and move onto reserves. Faced with overwhelming evidence of starvation being relayed to it by missionaries, traders, doctors, and government officials, the central government nevertheless permitted Aboriginal people to starve.
It is difficult to imagine that Canada’s government would have been oblivious to similar starvation among the white population. It’s a painful legacy for all non-Aboriginal “settler” Canadians, one that we’ve barely begun to confront, let alone compensate for.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
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On February 7, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly released a report by a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea: you can find it here: .  The report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.  This Council isn’t exactly representative of rights-protecting countries: its 2014 membership includes China, Congo, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.  But it seems that the human rights violations in North Korea are so bad that even these countries feel safe commissioning a report on it.
It’s a very strong report. The COI calls North Korea a totalitarian state, and lists numerous ways that North Korea commits crimes against humanity. These include—but are not limited to-- extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, enforced disappearances, and knowingly causing starvation. It makes special reference to the use of food as a political weapon, thus clearly stating that the famine of the 1990s, in which 3 to 5 per cent of the North Korean population, or 580,000 to 1.1 million people, are conservatively estimated to have died, was a political, not a natural, catastrophe.  It points out the North Koreans are still suffering from severe malnutrition. About the only thing it doesn’t mention, at least in the short version of the report, is that the situation is so bad that there are actually reports of cannibalism. The COI calls on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer those North Korean officials—government, military, and security officials, including the so-called Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un-- to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trial.
ICC Logo- Wiki Commons
There isn’t anything in this report that activists and scholars concerned with human rights in North Korea haven’t known for at least ten years. But it’s very important that a Commission established by an organ of the United Nations (even if it’s the normally very hypocritical Human Rights Council) has recognized these crimes against humanity. Some scholars might go further and say some aspects of the abuses in North Korea constitute genocide; for example, murder of Christians, or the ethnic infanticide of children born of North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers, when the mothers are forcibly returned to North Korea. But the charge of genocide would be hard to prove, whereas there is overwhelming evidence that North Korea commits crimes against humanity.
Why has it taken so long to get this far? One reason is the diplomatic concern with North Korea’s nuclear program. Since 1993 periodic “Six-Party Talks” among North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan have taken place, with the other five countries trying to persuade North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons.  Despite this, it’s conducted three tests of such weapons, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.  “Loose nukes trump human rights,” is more or less what international policy has been.
The other reason it’s taken so long to get this far is that China supports North Korea, although it’s been less willing to do so in the recent past and did not veto the latest round of UNSC sanctions against North Korea after its 2013 nuclear test. The Chinese aren’t pleased that these tests have been conducted close to its borders. Also, they seem to have been trying to persuade North Korea to adopt liberalizing economic reforms, such as they themselves started in 1978, but one of the people seemingly most interested in these reforms was Kim Jong-un’s uncle, recently executed.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un- Wiki Commons
The Chinese view of the COI shows they aren’t willing to accept any responsibility to help North Korean victims of crimes against humanity. The Chinese regard the COI as unnecessarily “politicizing” human rights: they oppose directing criticism against any particular country’s human rights violations. The Chinese deny that the perhaps 200,000 North Korean refugees in their country are legally political refugees: they claim they are economic migrants, whom they are within their rights to deport. They deny that people deported back from China to North Korea are subjected to executions, rape, torture and –in the case of women pregnant by Chinese men—forcible abortions and infanticide.  They claim that voluntary and Christian groups that help fugitives in China are in it to make money, deliberately confusing them with the traffickers who force North Korean women into prostitution.  
On the other hand though, the Chinese might be pressuring the North Koreans in secret to engage in some reforms. It doesn’t do China’s reputation any good to be known to protect one of the worst countries on the planet.  And reforms might mean fewer North Korean refugees in China itself.
One good thing about this report is that it takes the ICC spotlight off Africa. Since it was established in 2002, all the ICC prosecutions have been of Africans. This isn’t because of racist or colonialist bias: in most cases, it’s been because African leaders referred individuals for prosecution. But these same leaders –for example, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni—are becoming worried that they themselves might be referred for prosecution; this is what happened to Kenya’s now President and Vice-President, both of whom are accused of having stirred up murderous ethnic violence during the 2007-8 elections. These Africans are playing the anti-Western card, claiming they are victims of colonialism. But if—and it’s a big if—the UNSC actually does refer North Korea to the ICC, they will be less able to make that claim
For other blogs I’ve written about North Korea, see (North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die))

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Book Note: Peter Kulchyski, Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights

Book Note: Peter Kulchyski, Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights
I met Peter Kulchyski, author of Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights, (published by ARP Books, Winnipeg, in 2013) on January 23, 2014 when he visited Wilfrid Laurier University.  Kulchyski is a very interesting individual, who attended a government residential high school in Northern Manitoba in which he was one of the few non-Aboriginal students. You can find his autobiography here
By saying Aboriginal rights are not human rights, Kulchyski means that they are a separate category of rights and ought to be recognized as such. Aboriginal rights, he says, are rooted in Aboriginal land title and Aboriginal customs, which he defines as “bush culture” as opposed to contemporary Canadian “mall culture”.
Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights- Wiki Commons

Kulchyski objects to Aboriginal rights’ having been included within the international human rights framework through the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He considers the UN human rights system to be Eurocentric. This is a common critique which ignores the fact that most countries have ratified the major UN human rights treaties, suggesting that at least in principle they accept human rights.
Kulchyski also argues human rights are individualistic and tend to be asserted in urban environments. If this is so, it is because most people now live in urban areas. Aboriginal Canadians living off-reserve in urban areas need human rights protections even more than non-Aboriginal Canadians do.
Finally, Kulchyski considers the universality of human rights to be a totalizing framework that would erase Aboriginals’ different cultures. Universalism, for him, implies assimilation. He believes the international human rights regime is a liberal project, a means to promote the interests of capital. He particularly mentions the human right to own property, but this right can be used by Aboriginal peoples, to claim their property—their lands-- by rights of possession.
I looked for examples in Kulchyski’s book that would illustrate why he is worried about the totalizing, assimilative influence of human rights, but could find only three.
The first was the unfortunately-named 1969 Canadian White Paper on Aboriginals, which proposed abolishing the Indian Act and integrating Aboriginal Canadians as equal individuals into mainstream Canadian life. After protests from Aboriginal leaders the federal government withdrew this proposal, which would have deprived Aboriginal people of their treaty rights. Kulchyski is correct that the White Paper was deeply assimilative.
Kulchyski’s second fear was that a universal approach to human rights might mean the end of special programs like affirmative action. But special programs to remedy past inequalities are permitted by the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Article 4.
Kulchyski’s last example is the case of a young man who was isolated from his community without food for several days as part of an initiation ritual. If this young man was under the age of 18, then leaving him in the bush was a violation of his rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Kulchyski seems to think there should have been no debate about this case, as it was part of “bush culture.” My own preference would be to wait until the “young man” was over the age of 18, and could take part in this ritual on a voluntary basis.
Peter Kulchyski
Kulchyski also objects to what he see as the state “giving” rights; in his view, rights are taken from below. He is quite right that rights require struggle from below, states do not simply grant them.  But the 2007 indigenous rights declaration is a quasi-legal document, which may someday become a Convention, a treaty to be signed by states. Everyone in the world lives in a state and the purpose of human rights treaties is to encourage states to live up to their obligations.
Conversely, Kulchyski dislikes what he considers the Declaration’s portrayal of Aboriginal peoples as weak victims of states. But this is true for all human rights documents; all are premised on individuals’ need for protection against the state.
Kulchyski objects to the Declaration being one among many human rights documents; he wants it to be outside the human rights framework, so that the individualist nature of human rights does not undermine the collective nature of Aboriginal rights. The Declaration, however, does recognize that collective rights are necessary; that is one of its major thrusts, in several of its Articles. The Articles not specifically on indigenous rights are reaffirmations of rights that everyone (ought to) enjoy; it’s common to put these reaffirmations in human rights documents pertaining to particular groups of people.
Kulchyski argues that “a human rights agenda must inevitably dismiss Aboriginal cultural distinctiveness and align …with a totalizing state” (p. 73). But there is no evidence so far that the human rights agenda has resulted in this; rather it’s been expanded to promote the cultural distinctiveness--and land rights, on which that distinctiveness is based-- that Kulchyski prizes. Evidence of this is in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which Kulchyski thinks is a better document than the UN Declaration. The Canadian Charter includes a clause limiting the application of human rights so as not to undermine Aboriginal (collective) rights.
Finally, Kulchyski notes that the UN Declaration does not confer sovereignty on indigenous peoples. He is correct: the UN is a collection of member states, and no UN document will allow secession by any group from the authority of the state. The most that Aboriginal collectivities are likely to obtain by way of “sovereignty” is political arrangements analogous to municipal or provincial style authority, and there will continue to be quarrels over “national” resources such as subterranean and ocean resources in Canada’s north.
The 2007 Declaration is one small step toward protecting the rights of Aboriginal peoples. It isn’t totalizing, it isn’t Eurocentric, and it isn’t individualist. It takes a significant step back from the liberal project of undermining non-capitalist collectivities. But it is also not enough.