Friday 29 December 2017

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Islam: Book Note

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam: Book Note
A couple of weeks ago (mid-Dec 2017) I read The Golden Legend, a novel by the British-Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam. According to his Wikipedia biography, Aslam has lived in the UK since he was 14, when his father, a communist, fled the regime of President Zia. 

Nadeem Aslam
This is a good novel for anyone not familiar with life in Pakistan in the era of militant Islamists, US drone strikes, and police and military corruption. The main interest of the novel, though, is the difficulty of being Christian in Pakistan. The story recounts the trials of three Christian Pakistanis. Christians are a minority in Pakistan, about 1 per cent of the population.

The central figure in the novel, Nargis, is a Christian masquerading as a Muslim. Raised in the relative security of the home of her uncle, a Christian bishop, she decides at college to pretend she is a Muslim. It seems much easier than constantly enduring ostracism and persecution because she is Christian. She marries Massud, a Muslim man, without telling him the truth. They both become architects, living a tranquil life until Massud is killed in a shoot-out between a couple of Islamists and an American diplomat/CIA agent. At the same time, she and Massud have been acting as patrons of a young woman named Helen, the daughter of the Christian couple who are their servants. Helen’s father, a rickshaw driver, is in love with a Muslim widow whose husband was killed and son severely injured by an American attack. Without giving away the story, a military official pressures Nargis to forgive the American in return for a million dollars in blood money. Meantime, Helen is endangered as well. They both flee the city with the help of a young Muslim man who is in love with Helen.

Aslam's depiction of his fictional Christians is not an exaggeration, according to an article in Foreign Policy (May 16, 2016) by Usman Ahmad entitled “Is Pakistan Safe for Christians?”  Ahmad explains that many Christians are converts from lower-caste Hindus and are commonly known as “sweepers” (a low-caste occupation). This term is used in Aslam’s novel. Sometimes Pakistani employers looking for sanitation workers deliberately advertise for non-Muslims; that is, Christians. In recent years there have been several attacks on Christian churches and schools in Pakistan, in part because Christians are identified with the West: that is, with the United States and its campaign of bombing and drone attacks against perceived Islamist militants in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. At Easter 2016 more than 70 Christians were killed by a Taliban bombing in Lahore. Forced marriages and conversions of Christian girls to Muslim men are common, and the girls are afraid to testify in court because they are in the custody of the families that kidnapped them.

Blasphemy against Islam is a crime in Pakistan, and Christians have been severely punished for it. Somewhere in the novel a character mentions that it’s easy to accuse a Christian neighbor of blasphemy. The payoff is high; if your neighbor is jailed for blasphemy, you may be able to acquire his house or property. This kind of thing also goes on in Iran, when people denounce members of the Baha’i faith, just as it did in Germany and Eastern Europe under the Nazis, when you could acquire really good houses and apartments by denouncing Jews. 

At the moment, Christians are under attack in several countries in the Middle East and Asia.  Coptic Christians, about 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, have endured several violent attacks on their churches. Coptic Christianity predates Islam; Copts are among the very earliest converts to Christianity.

One can assume that since his father was a communist, secularism was not a dirty word in Nadeem Aslam’s household when he was growing up.  Now secularism appears to be something that is considered dangerous even in the West. I have written about this before in an entry to this blog called “I Am an Atheist Blogger” , where I mentioned that many Americans consider atheists to be worse than Muslims. It is important that we should protect everyone who is persecutes for their faith, wherever the country.  But we should also be protecting the principle of secularism, the rights of individuals to marry whomever they want regardless of their religion, and the rights of individuals to be non-believers.

Monday 30 October 2017

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

An Older Woman's Story: My Own Experiences with Sexual Harassment

A few weeks ago the world learned that a famous movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was a serial sexual harasser who had paid off several women so that they would not reveal his activities in court. Some of the things he did were so disgusting that I won’t repeat them here.

A woman at my gym asked why it had taken so long for his behavior to be revealed.  I answered that he was very powerful, so each individual woman would have been afraid that he could sue her for libel or ruin her career. As is usual in these cases, once one woman comes forward, others speak out. It seems several famous actresses such as Angelina Jolie suffered harassing incidents with him. Personally, I was not surprised by this as I’ve long assumed that all powerful men have extra-marital affairs and harass women (or men, depending on sexual preference).

After Weinstein’s behavior was revealed, someone started a #MeToo hashtag, so that women who had experienced harassment could discuss their own experiences. Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail then wrote a piece called “Please Turn down the Volume on the Outrage Machine” (October 21, 2017, p. F7) 

In her column Wente discussed what she called “the standard menu” of what happened to women in their teens and twenties when she was growing up (as I was too ) in the 1960s and 70s. The menu included “sidewalk catcalls, being trailed on the street at night, dates who wouldn’t desist until we got really angry, a few flashers…bosses who tried to kiss us…a handful of overly friendly colleagues, someone’s dad who made a pass when we were underage.”  All of these things, Wente noted, had happened to her. She argued that we should not pretend that these everyday incidents were the equivalent of actual rape. A few days later a retired (female) police officer wrote to the editor to point out that every one of the things that had happened to Wente was now illegal.

I thought about this for a while as I reviewed my own past. I also wondered if I should write about this at all on my own human rights blog.  Is it too personal, or should an older woman who is a human rights scholar write about this topic?  

I recently read an article by the distinguished geologist and memoirist, Hope Jahrens (Lab Girl, 2016)  that convinced me all older women should speak out. Jahrens wrote about how one of her best ever female students was considering leaving science because of sexual harassment by a professor.  According to Jahrens, this is one of the major reasons there are so few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields: women keep leaving because there is nothing they can do to stop the harassment. If you are working with the single most distinguished professor in your field, and he harasses you, what do you then do?  Find another supervisor and lost grant money? Switch universities and lose grant money? Or leave the profession entirely?

Nothing really terrible every happened to me. In 41 years as a professor, preceded by 10 as a student, no professor, student or colleague ever sexually harassed me. Perhaps this is because I have a sharp tongue, am relatively self-confident for a woman (by Canadian standards, anyway) or because by the 1980s there were strict controls about harassment in Canadian universities.

I did have a few incidents when I was younger. When I was eleven a man entered the bedroom I was sharing with my sister at a summer cottage, but I woke and called for my father before anything much could happen; my parents called the police. When I was seventeen a man exposed himself in the lobby of a building I was passing: I didn’t call the police, nor did I report it to any older person. When I was eighteen a boss made what we would now call an “inappropriate” remark to me, but I made a caustic reply, and he never bothered me again (though I heard from another girl about something truly appalling he’d said to her.)

When I was 21 a man lurking in the book stacks of the McGill Library exposed himself to me; a friend and I chased him into the arms of a security guard. That guard called the chief of security, who interviewed the man and then told me that he was a visiting professor from somewhere in Eastern Europe. I agreed not to press charges if he would visit a psychiatrist, as I was concerned about what would happen to him if I did and then he had to go home to a Communist country. You might think in retrospect that I should have pressed charges, but I could not take that responsibility and I am still glad I did not.

Once when I was a young professor, I attended a party for a distinguished visitor given by one of my husband's colleagues.  The visitor, who was drunk, grabbed me in a way that even then would have been considered assault.  I didn't say anything because I didn't want my husband to attack him, I didn't want to spoil the party, and I figured no one but my husband (whom I told later) would believe me anyway. 

In my first year as a professor (1975-76) I had a colleague who kept a large semi-pornographic poster of a nude woman in his office. It bothered me, and I assume it bothered his students.  In 1991, I had a meeting with a Dean (now deceased) in his office: he had a framed poster on his wall of a nude woman tied to a chair with a bag over her head, implying she was about to be tortured. I didn’t say anything in either of these two cases, in the latter because I was afraid the Dean would take revenge on me in some way if I said anything.

So that’s my #MeToo story. Nothing too dramatic, nothing seriously dangerous, nothing warranting the label “victim,” though some these of incidents were illegal and others would be considered inappropriate in a university setting now. It was, as Wente said, a normal part of being female at the time. But it’s a good thing it isn’t considered a normal part of being female any more.  And it is a human rights matter.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Nazism Then and Now

Nazism Then and Now

Back in Germany in the 1930s, my father had a second cousin who drove a taxi. He was a Jew and a Communist. One day some Nazi cab drivers beat him to death. No one did anything about it: it was OK to murder Communist Jews in those days.

Nazi Brownshirts at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I remembered this story while thinking about the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend (August 13, 2017), where there was a legal demonstration by American Nazis and their sympathizers. The demonstration was ostensibly to protest a decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Southern slaveholder and rebel who led the Confederate Troops against the legitimate government of the United States in the American Civil War of 1861-65. There was also a counter-demonstration. One of the Nazis drove a car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators and killed Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman. Nineteen other people were wounded, including one young man severely beaten around the head. On August 13 it was reported that five people were in critical condition in hospital.

But you might say there’s no equivalence between Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and Nazism in the US now. There’s still a free press and free speech in the US, and many people denounced the white supremacist and anti-Semitic marchers. The man who drove the car was arrested (though I’m not sure about the people who beat up and injured the other 19 people). Even President Donald Trump (sort-of) denounced the Nazis, though he claimed there were good people on both sides. That’s hard to believe if you watched (admittedly liberal, anti-racist) CNN, and saw footage of protesters shouting “blood and soil” (a slogan from 1930s Nazism) and “Jews will not replace us!” (I’m not sure what the latter slogan meant).

But there is a kind of equivalence between German and American Nazism. With all the other stuff going on, we forget that the unarmed counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville were extremely brave people. They faced a group of heavily armed men carrying assault rifles; Virginia is an “open-carry” state, where citizens can legally carry weapons. According to an African-American pastor whom I saw last night on CNN, they also carried improvised weapons such as bottles filled with urine and cans with concrete. So as shocking as events in Virginia were, we should be grateful that nothing worse happened. One or more of the Nazi terrorists could easily have started firing and killed scores of people.

The US has two sets of laws that would be inconceivable in any other Western democratic state. The first is gun laws that permit practically anyone to buy outrageously dangerous weapons. The second is unrestrained freedom of speech laws. In Canada, if people shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans at a demonstration, they could be charged under hate-speech laws. Laws prohibiting late speech are also permitted by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a Convention that the US originally opposed because it would have prohibited some of its racial segregation laws. I am a strong supporter of freedom of speech, but I also support hate-speech laws.

Some of the white supremacists wore white robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan. Others wore military-style clothing. All of this was legal. To me, this looked like armed private militias, which are against the law in most countries. That the US tolerates such armed militias suggests a further resemblance to Nazi Germany. Hitler’s militias started making trouble in the 1920s, and by the 1930s many people tolerated them. 

I am not suggesting that the US is likely to become a Nazi state. I am suggesting that the new, proud and public Nazism we saw last week reflects a President and Administration who—if they are not white supremacists themselves—certainly seem to sympathize with those who are. The President denounced white supremacists and the KKK in what appeared to be a scripted speech on August 14, but then reneged on his denunciation the next day.  Probably his Jewish daughter and son-in-law had pressured him to say something he didn’t really believe. 

When he reneged on his condemnation, Trump asked, “who’s next?”  If we remove statues of Robert E. Lee, he asked, will people soon want to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, early US Presidents who were also slave owners?  Perhaps that’s a good idea. Alternately, all statues of former slave-owners, or buildings built by slaves, or universities funded by slave-owners, should have plaques placed on them, explaining their relationship to slavery.

I am not one of those Canadians who goes around flaunting moral superiority to Americans. To the contrary, I support all those American liberals who find themselves having to defend freedom of the press, racial equality and other liberal values against the extremist and possibly Nazi-sympathizing individuals who currently inhabit the White House.

Even worse are those Republicans who don’t hold white supremacist or anti-Semitic views, but who support Trump because he promises to lower their taxes. Just as in Germany, it’s not only the disenfranchised working class that supports Nazis. Many of Hitler’s supporters were rich, upper-class people who wanted to protect their property and privilege against the Communist threat. There’s no such threat in the US, but there are still a lot of rich people who want to become even wealthier than they already are.

This shameful behavior by Republicans is even more a threat to American democracy that the horrible Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville last weekend.

Monday 10 July 2017

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exploration

Recently (June 2017) I read The Autograph Man, a 2002 novel by Zadie Smith. She is the daughter of a Caribbean mother and an English father, who often writes about “multicultural” issues of various kinds. The protagonist of The Autograph Man is Jewish, son of a non-Jewish Chinese father and a Jewish mother (presumably of European descent).  His friends are an African-American Jew and two “white” Jews. 

The novel is full of rather learned, if not arcane, references to things Jewish, especially the Talmud and the Kabbalah, so much so that I wondered if Smith were Jewish. Apparently she is not, and apparently there was a debate at its time of publication about whether The Autograph Man was a case of cultural appropriation. Perhaps only Jews should be permitted to write funny novels about Jews, incorporating religious references along the way.

About the same time as I reads Zadie Smith’s book, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, one of his series of novels about Precious Ramotswe, the founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. McCall Smith is a white man, an eminent professor of medical law, born in 1948 in what is now Zimbabwe. Precious Ramotswe is a much beloved fictional character, a “traditionally built” middle-aged African lady of tremendous human warmth, perspicacity and kindness. I wondered if anyone had ever accused McCall Smith of cultural appropriation, or whether, perhaps, at least some Botswanans are pleased that so many people are reading about their peaceful, well-governed country, sadly still a rarity in Africa. (Update November 14, 2018: In an interview with Ken Cuthbertson in the Global and Mail, November 10, 2018 p. P18, McCall Smith explained his own view of this by referring to "cultural admiration," as opposed to cultural appropriation). 

While reading these novels I thought about a quite acrimonious debate that’s been occurring in Canada lately, about whether white (or indeed non-white) “settler” Canadians should “appropriate” the culture of indigenous Canadians. In this debate, anyone who is not indigenous is a settler who has participated in the theft of indigenous lands, regardless of how recently he or she may have come to Canada. The question is whether people who are not indigenous, or who have only partial and remote indigenous ancestry, should write novels about indigenous people.  One of the people caught up in this debate is the novelist Joseph Boyden, who has been accused of mis-representing himself as indigenous while writing novels about indigenous Canadians.  Apparently he is of mixed ancestry, and was interested in exploring that part of his ancestry that was indigenous.

Several Canadians of European ancestry have been caught up in this, according to various newspaper reports I’ve read. An artist named Amanda PL (yes, that’s correct) was going to exhibit at Visions Gallery in Toronto, but then people started noticing her paintings’ strong resemblance to those of Norval Morrisseau, an indigenous artist. Perhaps she thought her paintings were an homage to Morrisseau, or perhaps she was merely exploring indigenous art, but she was accused of cultural appropriation. The gallery cancelled her exhibit.

Hal Niedzviecki was the editor of a small literary magazine called Write, a quarterly published by the Writers’ Union of Canada. He edited a special issue of works by indigenous writers, but in the same issue he wrote an editorial defending non-indigenous writers’ right to engage in “cultural appropriation” by writing about indigenous characters. In fact, he even went so far as to propose, presumably tongue-in-cheek, an “appropriation prize.” Several non-indigenous Canadians tweeted their support for the prize (undoubtedly a stupid thing to do: irony does not play out well on Twitter).

Then Jonathan Kay, Editor of The Walrus magazine, Canada’s answer to The Atlantic or The New Yorker, resigned, apparently in response to social media criticism. Kay’s sin was to write an article in The National Post, a conservative Canadian newspaper, defending the right to debate the question of cultural appropriation.

One question I asked myself when reading accounts of these debates was whether the resignations constituted censorship. Many literary magazines in Canada receive subsidies from various levels of government, as does The Walrus, and I wondered whether governments had some responsibility to protect the freedom of speech of editors and contributors. Probably they did not, as long as Niedzviecki and Kay resigned voluntarily.

On the other hand, I worry about the arts and academic atmosphere in Canada. I suspect that some individuals who adjudicate grant applications believe that you should not write about cultures other than your own. Some people also think that you shouldn’t be involved in indigenous affairs if you are not indigenous yourself, even if you are trying to help them, as a couple of my white students and colleagues have discovered over the years.

So where does this leave me on the debate about cultural appropriation? I enjoyed both The Autograph Man and The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon. I think Zadie Smith had every right to explore Jewish liturgy and lore and create funny Jewish characters, whether or not she is Jewish. I also think Alexander McCall Smith should continue writing his books about Botswana. 

And I think Canadians of all ancestries should be permitted to explore indigenous history and culture. Some may do so in ways that are insensitive or offensive and if so, their critics will have every right to say so. Similarly, if artwork is bad or derivative, critics can say so. But other writers and artists may be able to imagine the lives of indigenous people in ways that are sensitive, enlightened, and even contribute to the remediation of the grievous ills that indigenous people in Canada have suffered over the centuries. This is cultural exploration, a common way for writers and artists to explore—often with sympathy and grace—the lives of people unlike themselves.

It was foolish at best, disrespectful at worst, to propose a cultural appropriation prize. A little civility goes a long way. On the other hand, I have very little respect for those who countenance censorship by social media. Freedom of speech and expression are important human rights, and they are so with good reason. No one should be allowed to stop anyone from expressing himself solely on account of his real or presumed racial, ethnic, or any other identity.

Monday 19 June 2017

Human Rights in Africa: Guest Blog by Chidi Odinkalu

Three Decades On, the Protection of Human Rights in Africa Comes of Age?
(Note: Chidi Odinkalu is a distinguished Nigerian human rights scholar and activist.  He originally posted this blog on the site of the Africa program of the London School of Economics, where at the time of posting he was Senior Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights. You can read more about Chidi here:  I am re-posting this article on my blog with Chidi’s permission. I have added my own set of pictures)
Chidi Odinkalu
When the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 2 November 1987, as the continent’s pioneer regional human rights oversight institution, few thought of it as anything other than a plaything of the continent’s big men.
The pioneer Chair of the Commission was the personal lawyer to Gabon’s long-serving President, Omar Bongo. His Vice was a senior Egyptian Ambassador. The rest of the Commission was made of the Interior Ministers to Congo’s President Sassou Nguesso and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Mali’s Foreign Minister; three very senior judges from Botswana, Senegal and Tanzania respectively, a law professor from Nigeria and two other lawyers from Uganda and Zambia. The only woman was Mrs Esther Tchouta-Moussa, the pioneer Secretary of the Commission borrowed from the Secretariat of the AU’s predecessor, Organisation of African Unity (OAU), where she worked as Legal Adviser.
Many people justifiably doubted whether this body could confront or address the challenge of protecting human rights on the continent. While most members among the initial composition of the Commission did not necessarily bring personal credibility and expertise to the question of human rights, they enjoyed access to rulers around the continent, an invaluable position for laying the foundation for regional human rights institutions in Africa.

Recognising the political context in which they operated, the Commissioners agreed to a goal of building a regional system that would “stand on a solid foundation” and for this purpose to “make slow but sure lasting progress.” With its Secretariat in makeshift headquarters in Banjul, The Gambia, and a Secretary borrowed from the OAU, the Commission took its first tentative steps towards fulfilling an ambitious mandate.
No Longer a Toothless Caricature
Three decades on, this modest beginning has spawned a regional human rights system for Africa that now comprises a very complex network of norms, institutions and procedures. It is hardly recognisable from its earliest incarnation. The Commission’s membership now has a majority of women and all of its recent Chairpersons in the past decade (including the incumbent) have all been female.
Since the Commission was established, the continent has adopted regional treaties on the rights and welfare of children, on the human rights of women and on internal displacement. Seven years after they came into existence, the African Commission persuaded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to authorise negotiations for an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. In 2016, the Court, with its headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, marked ten years of its existence.
The family of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo benefited from an African Court ruling that found that the previous government may have been complicit in his killing and in failing to find out who killed him.
This difficult history will be lost on many who reflect on the protection of human rights in Africa today. Around the continent now, the reality of institutions that receive complaints from citizens and can decide against powerful governments in cases of human rights violations is taken for granted. The African Commission itself has received over 600 of such petitions since it began and had decided nearly 450 by the end of 2016.
Countries that used to be reluctant to obey decisions of these bodies now do so. For instance, when the Commission found that Cameroon had violated human rights in unlawfully firing Judge Abdoulaye Mazou, the government reinstated him and paid compensation. Botswana reinstated the citizenship of opposition politician, John Modise and his children, after it had unlawfully rendered them stateless. The Commission saved the life of Nigerian General and diplomat Zamani Lekwot, sentenced to death by a military tribunal without a right of appeal. Burkina Faso has paid compensation to the family of slain journalist, Norbert Zongo, after the African Court found that the previous government may have been complicit in his killing and in failing to find out who killed him. The Commission now also has several special procedures patented for diverse human rights issues, including extra-judicial killings and human rights of women. It has issued standards and guidelines on various issues from free expression to counter-terrorism. Its Model Law on Access to Information in Africa has inspired the adoption of about 15 new national level laws on the same subject across the continent.
The record of the African Commission has made the continent’s leaders somewhat more accepting of regional supervision of human rights in Africa. Therefore, in the period since the Commission was established, the African Union has made human rights a fundamental principle for regional inter-governmental relations in Africa. Several of the continent’s economic integration bodies, including those in west, east and central Africa, have also established regional courts of justice, nearly all of them with jurisdiction over human rights. This could hardly have been foreseen when the African Commission first convened in 1987.
A Mixed Record and an Unfinished Agenda
Notwithstanding this evidence of progress, the record of Africa’s regional human rights courts and tribunals remains mixed. Despite some progress, they have been unable to prevent mass atrocities on the continent or to ensure firm accountability for them. The African Commission’s mission to Sudan in 2004, helped make the case for the international commission of inquiry that ultimately recommended the referral of situation in Darfur, Sudan, to the International Criminal Court. The Rwanda genocide must rank as one of the Commission’s greatest failures. Furthermore, other situations of grave violations of human rights, including Burundi and Central African Republic, have festered without effective regional response.
However, there is still a lot of room to reimagine Africa’s regional human rights system. Poor funding suggests a lack of commitment from the governments that should support it the most. The fact that Africans still cannot enjoy effective protection around their continent implies an unwholesome separation of economic from political rights. As Rwanda President Paul Kagame recently recommended in his review of the institutions and organs of the African Union (AU), there must be room to re-examine the multiplicity of overlapping regional courts and tribunals in order to save costs, reduce confusion and improve efficiency.
Above all, the persistence of mass atrocities challenges the aptitude of the continent’s institutions and the commitment of its governments. It is also the ultimate major test of the efficacy of Africa’s regional courts and tribunals. The continent cannot continue to outsource accountability to the rest of the world but the rest of the world cannot also continue to infantilise Africa or perpetuate the notion that the only place in which Africans who violate their own people can be effectively held to account is outside the continent. The recent conviction of Chad’s former President, Hissene Habre, by an AU-supported court in Senegal is evidence that it is possible to address high-level accountability for mass atrocities in Africa. This is why the proposal for an international crimes complement to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights should not be dismissed lightly.
Those 11 men and one woman who met in Addis-Ababa on 2 November 1987 at the First Ordinary Session of the African Commission may not have reflected anyone’s idea of traditional champions of human rights. Few of that pioneering set of commissioners would be eligible for election to the Commission today. That demonstrates how far the system has come. But they were also true to their word as the progress has been “slow but sure”. Whatever their flaws, the foundation of Africa’s regional system has been “solid”, if unspectacular. All this suggests that they were canny and, in their own way, committed to a better continent.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova; Book Note

Street without a Name by Kapka Kassabova: Book Note

In 1990 I visited what was then still the Soviet Union, as part of an exchange of American with Soviet human rights scholars (I am not American, but the delegation needed a woman, which I am). While there a Russian member of Amnesty International invited us to her apartment. This was a very big deal, as only a short time previously this woman would have been arrested for being in AI, let alone inviting us to her apartment. 

The apartment was in a very ugly block of high-rises in a suburb of Moscow. I noticed long, uncut grass around the blocks, providing a nice refuge for rats. Also there were no street names.  Our hostess explained that the authorities thought if there were street names, the CIA would be able to use them for its nefarious purposes. But you could find where you were going as the authorities had recently decided to paint different-colored decorations on the different blocks, so you could tell your visitors, for example, to visit the blue block.

I thought of this when I recently (April 2017) read Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria (Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2009). Kassabova was born in 1973 and lived in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, until 1990, when her parents emigrated with her and her sister to New Zealand. The first half of the book recounts her childhood, and the second half her visits back to Bulgaria in the early 2000s. 

Kapka Kassabova
Like my Soviet host, Kassabova lived on a street without a name. Her parents, a professional couple, were interested in literature, arts, politics—all the usual “bourgeois” preoccupations of European intelligentsia—but knew better than to speak their minds about the Bulgarian dictatorship. In extremely cramped quarters, with neighbours who could hear everything and who might very well be spies, it was best to keep one’s own counsel. The price for minimal material security was political silence.

The poverty is pervasive and all-consuming. Kassabova’s father spends six months at a university in the Netherlands on an exchange program. Later, some Dutch colleagues come to visit. They comment that the the shops display many goods, and the Kassabova family does not explain that these are for display only: to get any of those goods requires connections and long wait times. At one point they all visit a rural village, and the Dutch colleagues suggest having a barbeque. Knowing that meat is very expensive for Bulgarians, they suggest that Kassabova’s parents bring potatoes. There is a mad scramble for the potatoes, eventually supplied by the hosts at the cottage where they are staying, as the family doesn’t want to admit to the Dutch people that even potatoes are scarce. The Dutch visitors, meanwhile, have given up on their idea of camping in Bulgaria after they discover how filthy the campground toilets are.

Kassabova glosses over some significant incidents in her life. In 1986 she was hospitalized for some time after contracting a “mysterious” immunodeficiency disease. This was, not coincidentally, just after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. When she returned home in the early 2000s, she learned than several people she’d known as a child, including fellow schoolchildren, had died of cancer.

Kassabova also discusses a little-noticed incident in Bulgaria’s history, shortly before the fall of communism in 1989. This was the de facto expulsion of about 300,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria in the 1980s. As Kassabova says (p. 114) “The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State.” In principle, there was no need to go into exile: the government was demanding that all ethnic Turks change their names to Bulgarian ones: you couldn’t register your baby at birth, for example, if you hadn’t changed your name. But those who didn’t want to do so fled to Turkey. This expulsion was a precursor of the ethnic wars in former-Yugoslavia, which started only a few years later.

On one of her trips home Kassabova meets a woman on a train who tells her that she was one of the 1,643 infant and child prisoners in Bulgaria’s communist prison camps. According to her account (pp. 315-17) when her mother was being sent to the camp a guard grabbed her baby and dumped her into a pail of dirty water, since children would not be able to survive in the camps. Another guard fished her out and gave her back to her mother. This woman was trying to obtain compensation, so far unsuccessfully. She described the camp to Kassabova as equivalent to Nazi concentration camps for Jews, which I have no difficulty believing, although Communist camps were not overtly exterminationist. But then she told Kassabova that this was only for comparative purposes, as the Jews hadn’t really been exterminated and the Holocaust was a Zionist conspiracy. It’s a shame she knew so little about Bulgaria’s own history, as it was one of the few countries in Europe that refused to deport Jews during WWII.

I didn’t know anything about Bulgaria before I read this book, and I am terrible at geography, so I sat with an old hard-copy atlas beside me (National Geographic 1975!) while I read this memoir. Bulgaria is in South-east Europe, very close to Turkey: it has an extremely long history and in earlier times profited from the confluence of civilizations, Muslims mixing with Sephardic Jews and Armenians as well as with ethnic Bulgarians and Gypsies (as Kassabova refers to them).  Now it’s Bulgarians and Gypsies, the latter far worse off than the former. It’s a shame that in this otherwise engrossing and intelligent book, Kassabova seems rather insensitive to the plight of Bulgarian Roma.

Friday 14 April 2017

Human Rights or Global Capitalism by Manfred Nowak: Book Note

Human Rights or Global Capitalism: The Limits of Privatization, by Manfred Nowak: Book Review (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

\Note: I am posting this review with the permission of Bert Lockwood, editor of Human Rights Quarterly, in which this review will be published.)

Shortly before I read Manfred Nowak’s important new book on privatization, I came across an article in the business section of Toronto’s Globe and Mail discussing a promising new investment opportunity. The author alerted his readers to the anticipated increase in the number of for-profit prisons in the US as a result of President Trump’s announced policies to get tough on crime and immigration, and suggested that readers could invest in the companies running those prisons. Manfred Nowak has collected much evidence that privatization of essential social services undermines all human rights, civil and political as well as economic and social.

Nowak’s principal argument is that international human rights law cannot be neutral regarding whether services essential to the fulfillment of human rights may be privatized. Such a position, he argues, abnegates responsibility to assess the actual consequences of privatization. International law requires progressive implementation of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of a country’s available resources. Thus, Nowak argues, it also prohibits introduction of “deliberate retrogressive measures.” (p. 42). He also argues that the requirement of progressive implementation applies to civil and political rights as well as to economic, social and cultural, although it is unclear whether this is the consensus among international human rights lawyers. Thus, Nowak argues, a thorough human rights impact assessment is required before any privatization program is undertaken, and private providers must be held accountable to the same high human rights standards as States.

In assessing the consequences of privatization, Nowak suggests as a baseline measure the status quo at the time each State ratified the various relevant legal instruments, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This appears to be a good principle, but it does assume that what States reported to be the provision of services and protection of human rights at the time of ratification actually was the case.

Manfred Nowak
In chapters 3-6, Nowak provides much evidence that privatization of education, health, social services and water has resulted in poorer services overall. But he does not compare the results of these policies with the reality on the ground before they were implemented. He assumes that all privatization –especially that connected with the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) instituted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank —leaves people worse off. This is not necessarily the case. It may appear, for example, that resort to private schools in sub-Saharan Africa is a regressive measure, compared to earlier guarantees of free government-provided primary schooling. But the reality in many government-supported public schools, both before and after SAPs, was that classrooms were overcrowded, supplies non-existent, and many teachers unqualified or underpaid, if indeed not paid at all. In one study of public schools (described in the Economist, January 28, 2017) in seven African countries, children received less than two and a half hours of teaching per day, although there was no evidence that private schools were any better.

Like the educational systems, so also government-provided health services may have been more fictitious than real. Hospitals were often undersupplied; patients and their families had to buy their own bandages, drugs, and food; and they routinely had to bribe doctors in order to obtain treatment. It is, indeed, appalling that SAPs required governments to reduce spending on already inadequate health and education services, but we should not be misled into assuming that these services were either universally available or accessible to all on an equal basis. Nor were they ever free: they were supposed to be tax-supported, but countries with very low tax bases, either because of administrative inefficiencies, tax-payer resistance, corruption, or a combination of all three, routinely do not provide these services.

On the other hand, according to Morton Jerven in his Africa: Why Economists get it Wrong (Zed Press, 2015) statistical data suggesting improvements in economic performance in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 90s after SAPs were introduced may also be an artifact of mis-reporting rather than a reflection of the reality on the ground. SAP-induced cutbacks applied to statistical offices as well as to other state institutions, reducing their capacities for accurate reporting compared to late colonial and early- post-colonial times. Thus, the economic growth that various international institutions claim occurred after SAPs were imposed may be more an artifice of guesswork and estimates than of actual data. If this is so, then supposedly positive effects of privatization on economic growth may be more mythical than real, as may be privatization’s supposedly positive effects on States’ capacities to fulfill economic human rights. 

While Nowak’s comments on the detrimental effects of SAPs may be sound, he exaggerates the detrimental consequences of globalization. He maintains in his introduction that “globalization driven by neoliberal market forces” has resulted in “growing inequality, poverty, and global economic, food, financial, social, and ecological crises.” (p. 1) The type of inequality—whether within states or between states, among individuals only within one state or among individuals world-wide, depends heavily on public policies. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that poverty as a whole has increased: rather, there is substantial evidence that the current era of globalization coincides with decreased poverty. A 2017 World Bank study estimated that from 1993 to 2013, the number of the world’s poor fell by about 1 billion, from one-third to one-tenth of the world’s population. According to Branko Milanovic in his book, Global Inequality, (Harvard, 2016), the “big winners” in this reduction of poverty were the new Asian middle class, while the big losers were the Western working class. The biggest winners of all were the global plutocrats, or multi-billionaires.

This extreme inequality does indeed point to the danger to human rights of unregulated profit-seeking global capitalism. But it does not mean that globalization has caused increased poverty, as Nowak himself later concedes, saying “I am fully aware that neoliberal economic policies in times of globalization have led to rapid economic growth, which…has enabled millions of human beings to lift themselves out of poverty…” (p. 3). This shows the misleading nature of the book’s title, Human Rights or Global Capitalism. There is no known economic system other than market economies that coincides with the institution of rights-protective societies. Capitalism appears to be a necessary, although hardly sufficient, condition for human rights. In this respect, Nowak’s reference to property rights as “bourgeois” is also misleading. Although he is correct that the history of the right to own property is rooted in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the monarchs and nobles of early modern Europe, that right is now essential to peasants, indigenous peoples, urban slum dwellers, and women worldwide, precisely to protect themselves against global capitalism and expropriation of the resources that they own and use.[6]

The book’s sub-title, The Limits of Privatization, clarifies this. The question is not whether capitalist market economies spread worldwide; it is if and how governments regulate them, and whether governments are willing to turn over the fulfilment of economic human rights to private, profit-making enterprises. When Nowak addresses actual privatization policies, he is on much solider ground that when he condemns globalization outright. Addressing education, for example, he shows that the introduction of vouchers that parents can use to send children to any school they wish, either public or private, has actually resulted in increased inequality of educational opportunity, an impermissible regressive measure. This makes for sad reading, considering the recent appointment of Betsy DeVos, an advocate of school vouchers, as Secretary of Education in the US. Regarding the right to health, Nowak again provides evidence from selected cases that privatization is often regressive. On the other hand, he does not consider the problems of entirely tax-funded health systems that experience shortages of doctors, hospitals beds, and operating time in part because of government decisions to reduce access to save money, as in Canada. This is becoming a severe problem as the population ages.

In his chapter on the right to water, Nowak describes the well-known protests in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, against water privatization. But he does not assess whether as a result of the government’s decision to abrogate its treaty with the US water multinational, Bechtel, Bolivians now enjoy better access to clean water. Water is not a free good, nor, as Nowak contends, are “simple tools” (p. 99) such as wells always enough to access it. In some parts of the world, water-borne disease is rampant. I agree that governments are responsible to provide water and sanitation, and should supervise any private enterprises involved in that provision. But there may be times when municipal bureaucrats are incompetent or corrupt, and private providers are more efficient. As Nowak acknowledges, between 1990 and 2012 2.3 billion more people worldwide obtained access to clean water, in large part because of the “construction of water pipelines by private companies.” (p. 116). The trick is to provide efficient, knowledgeable, and incorruptible oversight by public officials of private companies, not to object to privatization per se. 

Concentrating so much on international law, Nowak does not consider the realities of budget and other types of constraints in even the most rights-protective Western countries in the 21st century. He notes favorably that current social policies encourage transfer of incomes from the young to the old, without considering demographic changes that have severely increased the burden on the young of providing pensions for an expanding older generation. Nowak avoids these questions by noting that his book is only about “the permissibility of privatization under international human rights law,” and is “not primarily concerned about the consequences of privatization.”(p. 2)  But if we are concerned with the fulfilment of human rights, then we should be concerned with privatization’s consequences and how they compare to the reality—not merely the legal myth—of state-supplied services in both poor and rich countries.

One of Nowak’s strongest chapters discusses privatization of personal security by the “global prison industrial complex” (p. 121), although this complex is mostly confined to the US and UK. It is outrageous that any government, anywhere, would entrust the administration of prisons to profit-making entitles. As Nowak states, “the very idea of delegating the custody of prisoners to for-profit companies and thereby treating prisoners as a commodity violates their human rights to personal liberty and dignity.” (p.173) Deprivation of personal liberty should only occur under the most drastic of circumstances, after a fair trial and other guarantees of the rule of law. Moreover, under international law prisons are supposed to engage in rehabilitative measures; instead, for-profit prisons cut costs as much as they can. At the same time, they encourage policies that incarcerate more and more people, since higher rates of incarceration mean higher profits.

In another very strong chapter, Nowak discusses privatized services that often undermine the most basic human right to personal security. He argues that some states, especially the US and UK, deliberately use privatized security forces to commit such acts as torture that violate international humanitarian and human rights law. Just as running prisons is a core function of the state, Nowak argues, so also “internal and external security belong to the core functions of the modern constitutional state,” (p. 159) and ought not in any circumstances to be contracted out to private for-profit firms.

 One final critical point. Nowak introduces his argument by contrasting the “Western” with the “socialist” perspectives on human rights. It is illogical to contrast a geographical region with a philosophical position. He should either contrast the “Western” with the “non-Western” or “Southern” position on human rights, or he should contrast liberalism with socialism. In fact, Nowak begins his section on the socialist position by referring to the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two people from Germany who spent much of their professional lives in England, surely a quintessential Western country. More than that, one of Nowak’s central arguments is that socialism is indeed a Western philosophical position. He provides very interesting information on how welfare states emerged in Western Europe, and he shows how two Westerners, the Canadian John Humphrey and the Frenchman René Cassin, were instrumental in including economic human rights in the Universal Declaration. His chapter on social security begins with a discussion of how Western countries introduced these “socialist” policies.

This criticism is not merely a matter of semantics. As long as the myth that civil and political human rights are “Western” and that Westerners are not concerned with “socialist” economic and social human rights persists, then civil and political human rights are an easy target for ideologues and repressive political leaders, as in China. At the same time, the myth does a disservice to non-Westerners who not only accept, but often risk their lives to protect, civil and political rights. Scholars of human rights should combat this myth, not support it by use of inaccurate terminology. Nowak’s discussions of welfare states clarifies that  the libertarian position opposed to collective social and state responsibility for economic and social human rights currently dominating the US is not the common “Western” one. To the contrary, the “Western” position on human rights has included economic and social rights for over 150 years. Western states have provided the relevant social services in large part because citizens have exercised their civil and political rights to force them to do so. Without civil and political rights, constitutions such as that of the Soviet Union, which Nowak cites as an example of protection of economic and social rights, are worse than a farce. They are a cynical attempt to cover up massive denials of the right to work or the right to equal access to health care and education, as opposed to superior education and health care for the privileged Party elite and their families.

Despite these critical comments, I recommend this book highly. Nowak has pulled together much information about the dangers that privatization poses to human rights, and made persuasive legal arguments for prohibition of retrogression and the imperative of human rights impact assessments before any privatization policy is instituted.  One can disagree with some of his summary comments and terminology, yet still learn much from this volume. 

Tuesday 14 March 2017

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

Last week (March 2017) I read Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (published in 2016 by Random House Canada).  Rawlence is a journalist and former researcher for Human Rights Watch. In this book, he focuses on nine (pseudonymous) people who live in the Dabaad refugee camp in eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border. About a half-million people live in the camp, which is in reality a huge city. Most residents are ethnic Somalis from Somalia, but others are refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. Some, indeed, are Kenyans who live in the camp and register illegally as refugees in order to have access to free food. 

This doesn’t seem like a camp full of refugees in the usual sense, since many who live there cross back and forth to Somalia, the country they ostensibly fled. Maryam travels from Mogadishu to Dabaad to marry Guled, who has fled the terrorist Al-Shabaad group that had forcibly recruited him. Her mother comes with her, but later returns to Mogadishu and persuades Maryam to return there as well. They would rather live in a house with adequate food, even at the risk of being bombed, than live in a tent in Dabaad, reliant on rations that are often cut. In any event terrorists, presumably al-Shabaad, start attacking the camp itself, so one way or another, they face the threat of bombs. Meantime international aid personnel live in walled compounds.

Ben Rawlence
The camp is also are rife with what we might call corruption, but in practice is normal business. While the World Food Program (WFP) distributes rations on a strictly equitable basis, food is bought and sold. Even starving people sometimes sell their rations so that they can acquire enough funds to make a phone call home. Food destined for the camp is sold en route, and food distributed in the camp leaves it for Somalia. Some people amass fortunes while others starve.  The Kenyan police who are supposed to maintain order can be bribed and bought. An honest Kenyan police supervisor is quickly dismissed, perhaps because the corruption reaches to the very top of the Kenyan political structure. Some WFP food even ends up in the hands of Al-Shabaad, the terrorist Islamist group whom the Somalis are ostensible fleeing.
Dabaad refugee camp

One reason for the corruption is that refugees are not permitted to work in the camp or outside it, as scarce jobs are reserved for Kenyans. Expatriate personnel are, however, permitted to offer refugees “incentive jobs” where they can work and learn skills at a tenth or less than other people are paid for the same job. There is fierce competition for these incentive jobs, as even the tiny amounts the refugees can earn put them at a distinct advantage over those who simply languish in tents, waiting for food handouts.

Meantime the camp is rife with all the problems that any other city faces, including racism. Muna, a young Somali woman, falls in love with Monday, an older Sudanese man. They marry, but they cannot live in a Somali area of the camp because the Somalis as horrified that Muna has married a black man. They retreat to the Sudanese area where they are guarded night and day by Monday’s compatriots. When Muna gives birth, she has to be transferred to a hospital outside the camp because Somali nurses in the camp hospital have threatened to kill her child as soon as it is born.

Other Somali women and girls in the camp are still subject to the control of their male kin. The foreign aid workers offer numerous lessons on gender balance and other liberal norms of the Western world, but women who accept these norms are often considered to be outcasts. They are still expected to marry: relatives arrange their marriages to men who may be in the camp but may still be in Somalia. Dabaad camp is, in effect, merely an extension of Somalia itself.

Sadly, just as I finished reading this book the media started publicizing another famine in Northern Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan. As usual, the WFP and other organizations began to appeal for funds.  After reading City of Thorns, I wondered briefly what the point was of donating money. Would my donation actual reach the people who were starving, or would it merely enrich a businessman in a refugee camp? Worse, would it end up in the hands of Al-Shabaad or one of the unbelievably cruel and cynical warlords now wreaking havoc in South Sudan?  If so, my donation might be used to buy weapons and kill the many people I would like to feed. 

Books like Rawlence’s run the risk of creating isolationists, people who wash their hands of conflicts in faraway places. What is the point of trying to help if so many people profit from the funds that we donate? I decided to make my usual financial contribution nevertheless, hoping that some of it might help to feed a few people somewhere.

Thursday 2 March 2017

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

Recently my former research assistant on Venezuela, Antulio Rosales, forwarded me a report by Anabella Abadi in an English-language website called Caracas Chronicles. The report is called “Caritas Study finds Childhood Hunger Racing to Crisis Levels,” and it summarizes the finding of the Catholic organization, Caritas Venezuela, which surveyed children in several of the poorest regions of Venezuela. You can find Abadi’s article here.

The gist of this report is that in Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, childhood malnutrition in some of the poorest areas of the country has now reached levels of what is called GAM, global acute malnutrition. When ten per cent of kids are malnourished, a region is at the serious level; when fifteen per cent are malnourished, it’s at the critical level. In twenty-five of the poorest parishes that Caritas surveyed, GAM was at 8.9 per cent between October and December 2016. Many of these parishes are isolated, with poor access to public services and high rates of poverty.

I have been following Venezuela for several years, and have posted blogs on the situation there on several occasions. You can access them here:

I’ve also written an article in Human Rights Quarterly (volume 37, no.4, 2015, pp. 1024-45) on Venezuela, which you can access on-line or email me for a copy at And I’ve discussed Venezuela in my recent book, State Food Crimes (Cambridge University Press, 2016). 

At the time I sent my book to the press in October 2015, I had read one report about malnutrition and was worried about what might happen: now I know that it is quite widespread.

Nicolas Maduro
Conveniently, the government of Venezuela no longer releases statistics that could damage its international reputation. According to Abadi’s article, the last time the government released data on childhood malnutrition was in 2007, just at the time that food shortages started. UN data is out of date. And it’s even more worrisome that the Food and Agriculture Organization gave President Nicolás Maduro an award in 2013 for reducing malnutrition, when there was already plenty of evidence of food shortages. Maduro became President in 2013 after Hugo Chávez, the President whose policies started the food crisis, died. 

As Abadi’s article said, the problem is not the low price of oil (which is often reported as the cause of food shortages, at least on CBC radio). And it’s not because of weather events. It’s because of incompetence, corruption, and an evolving dictatorship. For over a decade now the government has controlled the price of food; these prices are so low that many food producers and distributors have gone out of business. The government has also expropriated productive ranches and farms. I personally know a Venezuelan refugee here in Canada whose family’s ranch was expropriated, and now nothing is produced on it at all.

Food is rationed with guards standing outside supermarkets; people have to show their ID to get in and can only shop on certain days of the week.  Sometimes they have to be willing to give biometric information as well. People line up for hours, sometimes for days, hoping to find food. There isn’t enough milk for babies. 

More and more people are moving to other countries to find food. There’s also a thriving smuggling industry where Venezuelans buy food at low prices in Venezuela itself, sell it across the border to Colombia where the price is raised, then other Venezuelans travel to Colombia to buy it back.

Corruption eats up enormous amounts of food, whose distribution is controlled by the military.  Exporters to Venezuela have to pay huge bribes; so do importers, truckers, buyers, local vendors, and everyone else in the supply chain. If you don’t pay the bribes, food is left to rot in plain sight of starving citizens. You can see a detailed article about this corruption here:

According to Abadi’s article, recently a high school student confronted President Maduro to complain that the lunch program at her school had been cancelled. In a show of supreme indifference, Maduro replied by asking her what she personally was doing to solve the food crisis, saying (according to Antulio’s translation) “You cannot just make a request, you have to mobilize, go to the streets so that your word is heard.”  Maduro’s comment is ironic, given that the government has become increasingly repressive, jailing and torturing political opponents.

One of the problems here is that the international community can do so little to help Venezuelans. There’s no international law that says a country’s rulers can’t mess up the economy if they want to. There’s no option of humanitarian intervention. Maduro and his clique don’t care at all about international human rights law. The best option to pressure them is through the Organization of American States and other Latin American organizations, but so far that hasn’t stopped or even modified the corruption around food distribution. 

Malnutrition in Venezuela is entirely avoidable. A brutal, callous, stupid and corrupt leader supported by equally awful advisors caused it and perpetuates it. I don’t know whether Maduro is personally making money from oil revenues and food rations, but a lot of other people are. At best, he is an ignorant thug.