Monday 15 January 2018

Women Perpetrators of Crimes against Humanity

Women perpetrators of crimes against humanity

In 2010, a judge in the United Kingdom denied refugee status to a Zimbabwean woman, known as SK. According to a report by David Gardner in the South African Mail Online, (“Woman who took part in violent attacks on farmers in Zimbabwe denied UK asylum” 16 September 2010) SK had admitted attacking white farmers and beating up ten black workers and their families; she beat one woman so badly that she thought the woman would die. But she said she had done so to prove her loyalty to Zimbabwe’s then dictator, Robert Mugabe, who was deposed in late 2017 by a military coup.

Zimbabwe had been ruled by Mugabe’s terrorist dictatorship since 2000. Mugabe encouraged “land invasions” of white-owned farms, driving almost all white farmers out of the country. This seriously undermined the country’s capacity to produce food, as the “liberated” lands were distributed to Mugabe’s family and cronies, many incapable of large-scale farming. About 1.5 million black farm workers and their families were also driven off the land. Meantime, in “operation drive out trash” another 1.4 million people were driven out of cities in 2005, losing their homes and livelihoods. Zimbabwe went from being a bread-basket of eastern African to dependency on the World Food Program. Many Zimbabweans had barely enough food for one meal a day.

Women members of the opposition to Mugabe, and women whose only crime was to be related to members of the opposition, were systematically raped and tortured, especially during the election period in 2008. Some women resorted to prostitution to support themselves because the economy was in such disarray as a result of Mugabe’s policies. Millions of women and their children had barely enough to eat. Hospitals and schools closed.

SK was a woman; we tend to think of women as victims of political violence, not its perpetrators. According to Gardner’s report, SK didn’t claim that she was entitled to any special treatment because she was a woman, but the judge seemed to think he should nevertheless comment on her gender. He compared SK to female Nazi concentration camp guards. While those women did not initiate the Nazi policy of genocide, they did willingly carry it out; they were not forced to be guards. Indeed, according to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial 1997 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, some of these women exceeded their orders at the end of the war, driving Jewish women prisoners to their deaths on forced marches even after they had been ordered to be less cruel, as the leaders of Germany were afraid of the consequences once the Allies took over.

But the judge did not have to look so far afield for examples of savage women to whom to compare SK. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the Minister for Women’s Affairs encouraged her own son to rape Tutsi women. Three Rwandan nuns were convicted in Belgium for the crimes they committed in Rwanda.

These horrible instances contradict many feminists’ assumptions that women are more caring than men, more empathetic, far less likely to commit crimes against humanity or genocide than men. What is SK’s responsibility? She claimed she had to prove her loyalty to Mugabe, and that may be true: until a couple of months ago in Zimbabwe, if you were not for Mugabe, you were against him. But how far did she have to go?  Did she really have to participate in land invasions, or did she do so at least partly by choice? From 2000 to 2017 Zimbabwe was a free zone for people who hated whites.  Even if SK hated whites and wanted them driven out of Zimbabwe, what motivated her to beat up fellow black women?

We do not know from Gardner’s report if SK was an educated, upper-class Zimbabwean or a poor person. Nor do we know if that should matter. Should a person who is not educated be assumed not to be able to tell right from wrong, like some of the male killers in Rwanda who after their orgy of bloodshed regained their senses? While international courts do take into consideration whether people who commit crimes against humanity are leaders or followers, they do not let anyone off on the grounds that he was just following orders. Nor is lack of education an excuse, although it may be a mitigating factor.

The judge in the UK made the right decision. Women, like men, have to take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Otherwise, feminism simultaneously demands equality and undermines it by suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Note:  I originally wrote this blog for another site in 2010, but decided it was worth updating a re-posting here. 
suggesting that women are less capable than men of morality and good judgment.  

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Statelessness in the Caribbean by Kristy Belton: Book Note

Some scholars maintain that in developed democracies, legal citizenship is losing its salience, as such democracies tend to grant most human rights to everyone resident in their territories, even including undocumented (‘illegal”) migrants. Kristy Belton disputes this contention. She argues that even if migrants are afforded human rights in some democracies, this privilege does not extend to the stateless.  You can find this argument in her 2017 book, Statelessness in the Caribbean: The Paradox of Belonging in a Postnational World, published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
Belton argues that statelessness in the 21st century is very different from the statelessness that Hannah Arendt analyzed in her Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt wrote about stateless migrants, wandering the world to find a place that would take them in after their own countries expelled them or forced them to flee. By contrast, Belton argues, in the 21st century many people are rendered stateless in situ, in the place where they are born.

Belton’s evidence for this contention is drawn from her case studies of the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Both are democracies, and both have significant minority populations of people of Haitian descent. Drawing on her own interviews with local officials, NGO actors, stateless individuals and others, as well as upon interviews conducted by other individuals and organizations, Belton paints a picture of people living in limbo or liminality, part of the society but not formally members of the polity, in effect “noncitizen insiders”(p. 10). Technically eligible for Haitian citizenship, they are stateless de facto, as they are often not aware of their eligibility and in any case, do not wish to be considered Haitian.

These individuals are not wandering stateless migrants: they were born in the Bahamas or the Dominican Republic but are not entitled to citizenship in those two countries, at least not at birth.  In the Bahamas, they have a narrow one-year window at the age of eighteen to apply for citizenship. During this period they are often rendered de jure stateless for a few months, as they are obliged to renounce their nominal Haitian citizenship before being registered as Bahamian citizens. In the Dominican Republic, things are much worse. Not only may people of Haitian descent not obtain citizenship at birth, but a law passed in 2010 retroactively deprives hundreds of thousands of citizenship. Only those of Haitian descent who can prove they are descended from individuals born in the Dominican Republic before 1929; that is, four generations ago, are now entitled to citizenship.

Bureaucratic inertia and deliberate obfuscation of the seemingly non-discriminatory rules surrounding citizenship compound the disadvantages imposed on people of Haitian descent by these laws. Often individuals born in the Dominican Republic do not know that they are actually considered to be citizens of Haiti, nor do they know how to go about obtaining confirmation of that citizenship. When persons of Haitain descent turn 18 in the Bahamas, they may not know of the one-year window available to apply for registration as citizens. They may also be denied the documents, such as birth registration, needed to make their applications. Some are also victims of gender-biased policies that grant citizenship to children of citizen fathers born abroad, but not to mothers in the same circumstances. Belton argues that they should have the right to know about citizenship rules, and be ensured the right to judicial review of sometimes arbitrary decisions about their citizenship.

The quasi-stateless individuals of Haitian descent are often victims of racism, enduring discrimination in employment, housing and education. In the Dominican Republic, people identify themselves as white or “Indio” and look down on black people of Haitian descent. In both countries they are considered impure, equated with dirt and criminality. Belton quotes heartbreaking stories from her informants of deplorable living conditions, racist school bullying, and opportunities denied.

Technically speaking, many of the “stateless” individuals of Haitian descent in the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic are not stateless; if they knew how to go about it, they could claim Haitian citizenship.  But that is not the citizenship they want. They want to be citizens of the countries where they were born and raised, where they attended school, where their families are. They want to realize their ambitions, to get an education and a job and start a family, in the country to which they are attached.

Without legal citizenship, these de facto stateless individuals cannot realize their life projects. Bahamian-born minors of Haitian descent possess identity documents, but cannot use them for travel; thus young people are unable to compete in international sports competitions or accept scholarships to study abroad. Persons of Haitian descent in both countries are at high risk of illiteracy, undermining their capacity to understand the procedures and documents necessary for them to obtain citizenship. They are ghost people, un-noticed and uncared for, denied social membership in the places of their birth and personal identification.

Belton closes her book with an eloquent plea for citizenship to be considered an aspect of global distributive justice which, she argues, should not be confined to material goods. It should encompass citizenship, necessary in order to enjoy all other human rights. Citizenship is also necessary to the right to belong, to feel oneself part of the community in which one has grown up, and part of the territory to which one is attached.

Everyone, contends Belton, should have the right to citizenship in the place of one’s birth. In making this argument she draws upon ideas of social membership and sense of place. In the light of her two case studies, this assertion makes sense. But it might not make sense for the many people who are victims of prior forced displacement or who are born in countries of which they would rather not be citizens. The next step, then, is a right to migrate. But such a right would upset completely the sovereign prerogative of all states to decide who should be its members, regardless of the criteria they use.

Belton’s arguments are sophisticated and theoretically rich, and her compassion for the subjects of her research suffuses her analysis. This is an excellent study of what might be considered the “forgotten” stateless, people who are not members of stateless groups such as the Rohingya of Myanmar, but are rather individuals forced into social liminality and legal insecurity by borders, immigration laws, and racism.  

Note: I wrote this review for Human Rights Quarterly, whose editor, Bert Lockwood, kindly agreed to let me post irt on my blog as well. 

Thursday 4 January 2018

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Note

Another Day in the Death of America, by Gary Younge: Book Notes

Gary Younge, a black British journalist who lived in Chicago for several years, is the author of Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (Nation Books, 2016). Each chapter documents the life and death of a young American between 9 and 19 who died by gunfire in the 24-hour overnight period of November 22-23 2013; all are male and most black or Hispanic. This was, incidentally, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though that doesn’t seem to have affected Younge’s decision to choose that particular date. On an average day, seven American children will be shot dead.
Gary Younge

Three of Younge’s observations particularly struck me.

The first was the perhaps universal tendency to assume that victims of crimes have to be innocent; if not, they somehow deserve their fate. The opening chapter in Another Day recounts the story of Jaiden Dixon. Jaiden was nine when one day he opened the door  to the father of one of his older half-brothers. The father shot him, then sped away to shoot a woman he’d previously been involved with. She survived the shooting, and was terrified that he’d find her again until she was told that the police had killed him.

This was a story of domestic violence, and Jaiden, by all accounts a sweet child, was clearly innocent; his murderer was trying to get revenge on his mother. Several of the other murder victims were older teens, some of whom had been gang members and one of whom, Younge observes, was just as likely to have been the perpetrator as the victim of murder. In the public eye and that of the media, Younge observes, these victims somehow “deserved” their fates in a way that Jaiden did not. But as a black child, had he been a few years older his death might have garnered less sympathy.

Younge’s second observation was the way that everyone accepted the presence of guns in their lives as inevitable and a fact of life.

The only white child to be killed in this one-day period was 11-year-old Tyler Dunn. Tyler was playing with his friend Brandon in Brandon’s house. Brandon’s father, Jerry, was supposed to be supervising them, but he left them alone while he was working. The boys found a gun, assumed it was unloaded and played with it: Brandon killed Tyler. Jerry, a convicted felon, was found guilty of improper safeguarding of his guns, and inadequate supervision of his son. 

Tyler’s family just assumed that nothing could be done about guns. And tragically, this was also the attitude of the black and Hispanic families featured in the book.  Edwin Rajo was accidentally killed by a female friend when they, too, were fooling around with guns without adult supervision.
Nor was this attitude at all unrealistic. Despite repeated surveys showing that the majority of Americans support gun control, the power of the National Rifle Association over candidates for election is so powerful that nothing is ever done, even after the Sandy Hook tragedy, when a mentally-ill young man killed 20 tiny children and their teachers. Then-President Obama tried and failed to institute tighter controls over gun sales at that time.

The black families in this book react to the presence of guns by trying to control their children’s access to “the street”. The best way to protect them against random gunfire or mistaken identity (such as wearing the wrong color hoodie in an area in which gang members identify themselves by the color they wear) is to keep them indoors as much as possible, ferrying them by car from home to school to church and other activities. Younge points out that black parents are just as concerned as white parents about their children’s safely, but they have fewer resources to protect them.

The third observation that really stuck with me is Younge’s description of some of the worst areas of South Chicago and Dallas as “open-air prisons.” 

Housing, schools, public amenities, and private businesses are all run-down or lacking in these areas. So also are employment opportunities; indeed, for many young men, the only available employment is drug-dealing or other forms of crime. Tax-payers in wealthy areas of the same cities seem happy to let their municipal authorities neglect these areas. Murders of blacks by blacks are not a matter of concern, sometimes not even reported in the press, other times meriting only a short paragraph in the local paper. The implication here is that as long as the imprisoned population stays in these areas, they are free to kill each other.

The gun culture in the US is inexplicable to the rest of the Western world. It seems to have something to do with libertarian political culture, as well as particularly wrong-headed interpretations of the US Constitution. As a Canadian, I worry about its spread here, as well as the illegal importing of guns. We too have gun-related crime, and we too have citizens who believe that everyone should have the right to own a gun for self-defense.

But Younge shows us how gun culture, like everything else, is tied to racism, economic inequality, and publicand public neglect of black and Hispanic citizens.