Thursday 29 November 2018

70 Years of International Human Rights

70 Years of International Human Rights

December 10, 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Since then an enormous body of international human rights laws has been developed.

Some people think that human rights should not be universal.

Some critics believe that human rights are an example of Western cultural imperialism. They claim that non-Western countries did not participate in drafting the Universal Declaration. Yet non-Western countries have been involved since the earliest stages in drawing up human rights documents. This is so even if, like Western countries, they are quite hypocritical when it comes to applying the laws they agree to.

Other critics argue that human rights promote selfish individualism. Instead of caring for the family or community, people only care for their own rights. But in countries like Canada where human rights are by and large respected, it’s only because citizens do have a sense of community and care for each other. Housing advocates, food bank workers, and millions of volunteers help make human rights “work” on the ground.

Yet other commentators claim that as China and other non-democratic countries become more powerful, human rights will be less important internationally. It is true that such countries will work to undermine many human rights, at home and at the UN. But that makes human rights more relevant, not less. We all need protection against abusive governments.

Human rights are still relevant, and new rights are evolving. 

One recent sign of progress is in LGBT rights. This topic is difficult to discuss internationally, because some African and Middle Eastern countries are still very homophobic, as are some religious groups, in the Western world and elsewhere. We don’t yet have an international declaration on LGBT rights, but the UN is paying more attention to them.

In the last twenty years, much attention has been paid to “collective” human rights. These are rights than belong to groups of people and that one individual can’t exercise if others can’t also exercise them.

Indigenous rights are collective rights. Indigenous peoples cannot live together as collectivities if their ways of life, languages, religions, cultures, and land bases are threatened. In 2007 the UN passed UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada voted against the Declaration, but later reversed its position. By 2016 the government declared its full support for UNDRIP.

A collective right that affects everyone everywhere is the right to a clean and healthy environment. This includes the right to protection against climate changes that undermine our livelihoods and well-being.   

Another collective right is the right to peace. Viewed narrowly, this is the right not to live in a state of war. In 2018, many people still live in war-torn countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Others, as in Ukraine, live in fear of war. And we all live in fear of nuclear war.

Both climate change and war create huge refugee populations. By 2050, it’s thought, there will be 200 million “climate refugees” fleeing rising sea levels. Add to that the refugees who are fleeing large-scale crime, like the Central American migrant caravan currently trying to get into the US.

The UN recently agreed on a Global Compact for Migration, setting out voluntary principles meant to save lives and ensure successful migrant integration into new countries without unduly burdening social infrastructure such as health care. But the real problem is to ensure people don’t have to leave home at all.

One way to ensure more people stay at home is by developing their economies. The right to development is a collective right. Development activists usually try to reduce both poverty and inequality. There’s been an enormous reduction in world poverty over the last 25 years, even as inequality has been growing in most countries. This means it’s easier to fulfill what is known as economic human rights, such as rights to health, education, and housing. Very little of this change results from foreign aid; most is a result of the spread of market economies.

Many people in many countries have benefited from globalization, though others, such as industrial workers in Canada and the US, have lost their jobs. This is one of the reasons for the spread of anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner sentiments in the Western world. Unless we can figure out a way to control these sentiments and reduce the need for people to flee their own countries because of war, crime, and climate change, we are facing an uneasy human rights future.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

The End of the Cognitive Empire by Boaventura de Sousa Santos: Book Note
Note: This is a revised version of an academic book review that will be published in Human Rights Quarterly: I am including it on my blog with the permission of Bert Lockwood, HRQ’s Editor. I’ve removed footnotes, but can supply the footnoted version to readers on request; email me at .

This volume is an exemplar of a new kind of academic literature that denigrates the universality of human rights, seen by the author as an imperialist concept that denies the particularity of suffering in the South. Santos is a sociologist of epistemology, the science of knowledge, who relies on a conceptual opposition of the “South” and its systems of epistemologies, to the “North” or “West” (used interchangeably). This opposition is a metaphor for two kinds of thinking; the North rational, scientific, objective, aggregative, globalizing and imperialist, committing epistemicide on the emotional, corporeal, subjective, particularist, local, and resistant epistemologies of the South. Santos’ purpose is to “de-monumentalize” the North’s bloodless and emotionless system of scientific knowledge, compared to “knowledges” from the South. An “abyssal line,” he claims, separates the two areas.

Santos does not explain what “knowledges” means; perhaps scholars familiar with the critical literature on epistemology do not need such instruction. It appears that whatever a Southern individual might think or claim to know is an epistemology or “knowledge” in itself. Thus people from the South have multiple, indeed millions, of knowledges while the North--confined as it is to reason-based thinking epitomized by well-known philosophers and (social) scientists--is confined to one ”knowledge.”

Nor does Santos explain what exactly an “abyssal line” means. It appears to apply to the Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups with whom he has worked in the actual geographical South, and whose situation one might readily agree is truly abyssal. Otherwise, the line seems to be wherever Santos puts it. The North enforces the line via the trilogy of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, although Santos concedes that some “satellite versions” of these phenomena sometimes exist in the South. Throughout, Santos refers to this trilogy in rote fashion, without analyzing whether their linkages are necessary or merely contingent.

It is difficult to argue against the empirical accuracy of Santos’ claims, because he specifically states that to him, the North and the South are not geographical regions. They appear, rather, to be mindsets. Santos’ North is rooted in Enlightenment philosophers’ stress on reason over emotion, on abstraction over concrete experience. His South is composed of people who struggle against oppression, who rely on experiences and emotions. If Santos approves of an epistemology or sociology, then it is Southern; if not, it is Northern. Nevertheless, his frequent references to Northern, Western, or Eurocentric ways of thinking or conducting research suggest that his usages of these terms are more than mere metaphors.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Santos posits a false opposition, between Northern thinkers and scientists and Southern people(s) engaged in struggle. His empirical references for evidence about Northern ways of thinking are the philosophers he cites in his footnotes. But very few real people in the geographical North actually read the philosophers that Santos claims created the modernist, Northern mindset. Most Northern individuals live their lives much as individuals in the South do, thinking with their emotions and feelings, celebrating joyously on some occasions; their reasoning is as much “warmed up” (Santos’ conception of corazonar) by experience and emotions as the reasoning of people living in the South. They live their knowledge much as Southerners do, albeit usually in much more comfortable circumstances.

Nor is it true that Northern philosophers created their ideas purely from whole cloth, unmindful of the corporeality of people’s lived experiences within their own bodies, a mindfulness that Santos claims is confined to the knowledges of the South. Philosophers of the past, like Northern human rights scholars and activists today, are well aware of the corporeality of victims of human rights abuses. That is why they oppose torture, rape, and murder, and why they promote economic human rights such as shelter, food, and health care, which protect the vulnerable body. According to Santos, though, these rights are irrelevant to people living below the abyssal line.

The North, says Santos, has neglected what he calls the “sociology of absences….” and the “sociology of emergences. This is not so: Northern sociologists have been dealing with absences for fifty years, since feminist scholars first began to note the absence of gender analysis. There has also been much attention to previous exclusions of race, indigeneity, and sexual orientation and identity from sociology and epistemology. Northern critical theorists of fifty years ago were not unaware of Fanon, Nkrumah, Freire, or many other Southern theorists/activists whose thought Santos analyses.
Santos particularly admires Gandhi, especially his synthetic approach to “knowledges” from the North and the South, a capacity for intercultural translation that Santos appears to believe is absent in the North. Yes despite his stress on the sociology of absences, Santos himself relegates to a footnote what he considers to have been Gandhi’s “complex” relations with the struggles of Dalits and the Adivasi (tribal) people.

And Santos does not mention at all Gandhi’s relations to women. Recent research (available since at least 2012) has confirmed that Gandhi slept naked with naked women, including his own grand-niece, in an attempt to show that he could resist sexual temptation. This peculiar practice was well-known during his lifetime but knowledge of it was suppressed after his death. This posthumous #MeToo information does not mean that Gandhi’s teachings are no longer relevant. But if an author purports to be concerned with patriarchy, then surely he should acknowledge his own sociological “absence” in ignoring the sexually exploitative, indeed incestuous, activities of one of his own epistemic heroes.

What does this book have to say to human rights scholars who are not concerned with the epistemology or sociology of knowledge? Not much. Santos rejects human rights and democracy for the South, claiming that such concepts were “developed by dominant social groups to reproduce domination.” They are useful concepts for “nonabyssal exclusions” in the North, he says, but they have no bearing elsewhere. It is difficult to understand why. Perhaps people engaged in struggle- especially the Indigenous and Afro-descendants communities among whom Santos himself has conducted research and for whom he has much sympathy—are so committed that they are willing to give up their lives, thus have no use for international laws or practices that might protect them from torture or arbitrary execution.

Santos also rejects Northern-based (if not all) NGOs, perhaps because they are committed to rational planning and other aspects of modernism. He views them as agents of capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal domination, including a scathing paragraph listing the many failings of which some NGOs have been accused.

Santos’ recommendations for what he calls “rearguard” as opposed to “vanguard” intellectuals might have some bearing on some types of “post-abyssal” research; that is, by  researchers who wish to cross the abyssal line. Anthropologists and some sociologists studying human rights will no doubt agree that if they can live with and among the people they study and see the world through their eyes, they will be less guilty of “extractivist” research than if they merely visit a society, ask questions, and then disappear. Santos argues for long, discursive interviewing styles in which those being interviewed can raise whatever topics they wish, tell stories, and express their emotions to the researcher, as in his own research project on Voices of the World. Such a style of interviewing has been common in sociology for decades; it is known as open-ended, unstructured interviewing.   

If one accepts Santos’ theoretical premises, moreover, then that might lead one to conduct a new kind of human rights research, based in praxis, the unity of theory and action. The only legitimate researchers, according to Santos, are those who participate directly in struggle with the people about whom they are learning. Research in these conditions is co-creation of knowledge; there are no objects of research, only subjects; the objective is “knowing-with,” not “knowing-about.” In Canada, there have been lively discussions of the ethics of conducting research among Indigenous communities without their cooperation and input, for at least twenty years, reflecting precisely these concerns about scholarly extractivism. Researchers in the geographical North are as capable of self-reflexivity as researchers in the geographical South, but Santos might argue that those capable of self-reflexivity are therefore, by definition, part of his metaphorical South.

The type of research that Santos advocates is very different from that conducted by human rights lawyers for the purpose of building legal cases. In such circumstances, lawyers may have to ask questions that might shed light on abuses that violate international law, at the expense of the larger stories that victims might wish to tell. And not all struggles are confined to the local level. Some research requires aggregation, large-scale surveys, and statistical sophistication; statistics are not merely an example of Northern modernist empiricism. The method depends in part on the objective, and researchers can assist those struggling against oppression (but not, according to Santos, for their human rights) even if they are not embedded in the day-to-day lives of people of the South.

Santos’ personal commitment to the struggling communities of both the metaphorical and the geographical South is obvious and admirable, but he has created a false opposition of regions, mindsets, and epistemologies. Within his limited dichotomies, there are some ideas that human rights scholars and activists might find worth pondering. Unfortunately, the book is characterized by verbose, obscure and almost impenetrable language, reducing its value to those who do not devote their time to debates on the sociology of knowledge.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Free Speech in an Age of Massacres

Free Speech in an Age of Massacres

A few months ago I read Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton. Rushdie is the British author of Indian Muslim background against whom Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa in 1989, calling for his death. In the Ayatollah’s view, Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, blasphemed Islam. Rushdie went into hiding, adopting the name Joseph Anton, after Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. He survived, but several of his translators and editors worldwide were assassinated or injured.

One thing that shocked me reading this memoir was that more than one radical British Muslim had appeared on television supporting the death threat, saying that Rushdie should be killed. I was shocked that these individuals were not arrested for inciting violence. It seemed to me that when one British citizen publicly called for the murder of another British citizen, he should have been held to account. Perhaps the British authorities were afraid that if these individuals were arrested, protests would then worsen among segments of the British Muslim community.

I am equally shocked that it now seems fine for American citizens to call for other American citizens to be murdered. At Trump rallies in the last few weeks, crowds have yelled “shoot her” when Trump mentioned Nancy Pelosi, soon to be Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives. They also yelled “shoot her” when Trump mentioned Maxine Waters, a long-standing Congresswoman from California. This threat is much more serious, since Waters is an African-American. She was one of the targets of bombs that a Trump supporter sent to several prominent Democrats.

Trump is normalizing murders of African-Americans. Anyone who yells, “shoot her” (murder her) in a public place should be arrested and charged. This is more than hate speech. 

The (UN) International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969, Article 4) outlaws hate speech.  Hate speech is illegal in Canada, though the boundaries of what constitutes it are narrow. I am not a free speech absolutist: I think hate speech should be outlawed. We can’t pretend that all “bad speech” can be overcome or neutralized by “good speech.” We’re in a new world now. Lies, prejudice, and incitement to violence spread easily on the Internet, as much it seems on legitimate Internet sites as in the dark web.

This is why at the end of October 2018 there was much discussion in the Canadian press about whether the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto should have hosted a debate between David Frum, a Republican critic of Trump, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and an advocate and organizer of right-wing populism in North America and Europe. The organizers of the debate said it was in the public interest to expose Bannon’s view directly to them. Critics argued he should not receive a platform. I was torn, though if the Munk School paid Bannon for his appearance, then I found that extremely unpalatable, as it would help him to promote his political agenda. 

Nevertheless, I worry about the likelihood that hate speech laws will be used to stymie legitimate speech. Last week (Nov. 8, 2018) I posted a blog about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology to Canada’s Jewish community for our government’s anti-Semitic policies during WWII. In this apology, he denounced “BDS [boycott, divestment, and sanctions]-related intimidation” of Jewish students in Canada who, he said, were made to feel “unwelcome and uncomfortable on some of our college and university campuses.”

The Prime Minister rightly denounced anti-Semitism on campus by some BDS activists, without suggesting that the BDS movement as a whole is illegitimate. But this may not have been enough for some supporters of Israel, who think that the entire BDS movement is anti-Semitic and that its criticism of the state of Israel are forms of anti-Semitic hate speech that should be outlawed.

 And that’s the danger of hate speech laws. Incitement to violence is clear and should be stopped. Some kinds of hate speech, we also know, are calls to genocide, especially dehumanizing rhetoric that calls future victim groups vermin, as in Nazi Germany, or cockroaches, as in Rwanda in 1994. Whether incitement to genocide or to massacres of some citizens by others, as happened in Canada on January 29, 2017 against Muslims in Quebec City, and now happens with alarming frequency against African-Americans in the US, such speech should be penalized. So should speech and social media posts suggesting that Muslims should massacre non-Muslims for criticizing Islam or merely as acts of vengeance (see my blog on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, January 9, 2015).

On the other hand, it is legitimate for Canadian citizens to criticize the policies of a foreign state, even if many Canadians are emotionally attached to that state for reasons of religion or ethnicity. Sometime one person’s hate speech is another’s free speech: therein lies the rub. I wish I could think of a suggestion as to how to solve this problem.

Thursday 8 November 2018

Trudeau apologizes to Canada's Jewish Community

Trudeau Apologizes to Canada’s Jewish Community

(please note: I published a shortened version of this blog in The Hamilton Spectator, November 10, 2018, p. A16)

Yesterday, (November 7, 2018) Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an apology in Parliament to Canada’s Jewish community for an event that occurred almost 80 years ago. 

Justin Trudeau
 In June 1939, Canada refused landing rights to the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees. The ship had already been turned back from Cuba and the United States. Eventually it returned to Europe, where the refugees were dispersed among Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The latter three countries were later over-run by the Nazis, resulting in the deaths of 254 St. Louis passengers. Here’s the link to the video of the apology.

Passengers embarking on the St. Louis in Hamburg
 Trudeau’s apology was very well-crafted, presumably with input from leaders of Canada’s Jewish community. The Prime Minister set out the context of Canada’s past anti-Semitic policies very clearly. He acknowledged they had helped to facilitate the extermination of European Jews, since Hitler could see that despite their rhetorical denunciations, the future Allied countries did not want to help the Jews whom he was persecuting. 

Trudeau also explained the extent of anti-Semitism in Canada before and after WWII.  He acknowledged that by turning away the St. Louis’ passengers, as well as countless other Jews who tried and failed to find sanctuary in Canada, the country had deprived itself of much useful expertise and many productive citizens. He acknowledged the Jewish community’s contributions to Canada, including its commitment to charitable endeavors (an important statement, given anti-Semites’ belief that “Jews only help themselves.”) His delivery was sober, articulate and sincere. As someone who has studied official apologies as part of her academic career, I could not have asked for anything better.

I didn’t expect when I heard the apology that part of it would be, in effect, to me. The Prime Minister apologized for/to the “7000 Jewish prisoners of war” who, he said, were held in Canada with the very people who had persecuted them. He was referring not to POWs but to internees, Jews from enemy countries (Germany, Austria, and Hungary) who had been in Britain when the war began and were interned under the Enemy Aliens Act until they could be sorted out.  Once that had been done, many of the teenaged boys and younger men were sent to camps in Canada and Australia; some were sent on the same ships as Nazi POWs and some were held—at least initially—in the same camps as Nazi POWs. (My source for this is Eric Koch’s book, Deemed Suspect: A Wartime Blunder, published in 1980 by Methuen).

One of those 7000 Jews (or in his case, “half’-Jew”) was my own late father, who was sent to Canada and held in a camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec, from which he must have been released by late 1941, as he married my mother in Scotland in early 1942. I don’t think he would have been pleased to have been called a prisoner of war by the Prime Minister, such a designation implying that he had fought for an enemy country.  He hadn’t: he was a refugee who after his internment joined the British army.

I wonder as well whether father would have wanted or accepted this apology, had it been offered before he died in 1998. My own opinion, as a descendant to whom the apology was also offered, is that I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that anti-Semitism was rife in Canada before, during and after the war. I’m also grateful that he acknowledges the extent of anti-Semitism now and promised to intensify efforts through the  Security Infrastructure Program to protect places of worship (not only Jewish: mosques and Hindu Temples, for example, clearly need more protection after the mass shooting in a Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2017 and the torching of a Hindu Temple in my own city of Hamilton in 2001). (On the latter, see my blog entry: )

Trudeau also referred to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel and its apparent harassment of Jewish students on Canadian university campuses. The BDS movement is a legitimate protest against the Israeli government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, but it is not legitimate if it targets Jews as Jews. If Jewish students are harassed by activists in that group purely because they are Jewish, then that is anti-Semitism. I would not, for example, harass a Canadian Muslim to protest the actions of the Saudi government in Yemen and against its own citizens. Nor would I harass a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani descent to protest Pakistan’s discrimination against Christians.

The question might arise whether, eighty years after the event, Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology to the Canadian Jewish community actually matters. It does. It matters to some survivors of the St. Louis (one is still alive in Canada), and to the descendants of the St. Louis’s passengers. It may also matter to some people who were interned and their descendants.  It matters, presumably, to those members of Canada’s Jewish community who agitated for the apology. More broadly, it is an educative tool that informs all Canadians about the extent of anti-Semitism and the harm it has done and still does.