Sunday 5 November 2023

Responsibility for the (Israel/Gaza) war is not one-sided


On October 27, 2023, Harry Shannon, an emeritus professor at McMaster University, published the following article (now slightly revised) in the Hamilton Spectator, p. 27.  I tried to post a link to it on my Facebook account, but was prevented from doing so by Facebook’s ongoing dispute with the Canadian government. Facebook does not permit sharing Canadian news at the moment. However, Harry has given me permission to post the whole thing, so here it is.  I think Harry’s balanced and compassionate opinion on the Israel/Gaza war is well worth reading. 

Responsibility for the war is not one-sided

by Harry Shannon

Author’s siblings in kibbutz near Gaza narrowly avoided fate of residents in nearby community

"My brother lives with his wife on Kibbutz Saad, near the Gaza border. That weekend, my sister was visiting from Jerusalem. Saad is right in the middle of some 20 or so villages and kibbutzim which were attacked by Hamas. Literally across the road is Kfar Azza, where there was a horrible massacre. Documents recovered from dead Hamas terrorists showed detailed plans to attack Saad. But for some reason, Saad was spared and my family members survived.

At the same time, I have Palestinian friends. I have worked with health researchers in Ramallah. I know many Jews would be afraid to visit the West Bank. Several years ago, I told an Israeli cabby that I was going to Ramallah. “Don’t tell them you’re Jewish,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

He was very wrong. I have been warmly welcomed, not in spite of being a Jew, but even because of it. The vast majority of Palestinians just want what we in Canada consider a normal, peaceful life.

But instead they’re subjected to arbitrary arrest, separate roads, a separate legal system, travel restrictions, and so on, all based on their ethnicity – apartheid by any other name.

I’ve been appalled at some of the recent rhetoric, not just what’s been said, but also what hasn’t been said. Sarah Jama’s post on X (Twitter) on October 10 has been castigated for not condemning Hamas. She certainly should have and she belatedly did so. Those who have criticized Jama are absolutely right to revile Hamas. But they are equally wrong not to denounce Israel’s grossly disproportionate response.

Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard believes “Israel is racing to the moral abyss.” He writes that 75 years of imposing refugee status, 56 years of occupation, and 16 years of siege on millions of Palestinians “have normalized a situation where there are people worth less. Much less.” He cited a statement by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, considered a moderate. Appallingly, Herzog said that all Gazans are responsible for Hamas’ crimes.

Jews of all people should understand the potential consequences of demonizing an entire population.

Justin Trudeau and other Western leaders have been quick to condemn Hamas and support Israel, though they caution that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) must be obeyed.

 Yet it is clear that Israel is violating IHL. The blockade of water, food, and medicines (and more arguably, fuel) is collective punishment of civilians – not just a breach of IHL, but also thoroughly immoral and indeed a contravention of Jewish law. The demand by Israel that over a million civilians move from northern to southern Gaza is likely a violation – and most certainly inhumane. Even so, Trudeau, Biden, and other leaders issue Israel a free pass. They are spinelessly silent on Israel’s flouting of IHL and they have failed to press for a ceasefire.

Hamas’ murders and abduction of hostages, while horrendous, did not come out of thin air. When I spoke to my sister on October 7, she reacted (albeit before she knew the full extent of what happened): “I guess we [Israelis] deserve this – but that doesn’t make it any easier when you’re going through it.” She knows that Israeli settlers on the West Bank have for years committed terrorist attacks on and murders of Palestinian civilians, usually with impunity. Unlike terrorism by Hamas, they are almost never condemned in the West.

As does Michael Sfard, my sister acknowledges that responsibility for the war is not one-sided.  If the conflict is ever to be resolved, both sides and their supporters must first own up to their crimes."



Saturday 21 October 2023

My Letter to Prime Minister Trudeau urging him to encourage Israel to lift its Siege of Gaza

Note: I am not an expert on Israel/Gaza, although I have posted some blogs on Gaza and the West Bank from research I conducted for my book, State Food Crimes (Cambridge University Press, 2016). I've posted blogs on water rights of West Bank Palestinians,; on Palestinian property rights: a blog explaining my position on criticizing Israel: I believe that Israel is a state that has the right to exist in peace, but that it must also obey international law. 

 So I am not going to post blogs on what I think should be done regarding the current Israel/Gaza conflict..  But I do oppose the siege of Gaza. I post below a letter I sent today to Canada's Prime Minister.

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

I am a Jewish Canadian living in Hamilton Centre.  I am also a scholar of international human rights: in that capacity I have researched the high rates of malnutrition in Gaza and the West Bank before recent events, and the responsibilities of Israel and Egypt in creating that malnutrition.

I appreciate your support for Israel’s right to defend itself, a right asserted in international law. I also agree with you that Hamas is a terrorist organization holding the majority of the population of Gaza hostage. I also appreciate your insistence that Israel should obey international laws of warfare. In that connection I urge you to continue encouraging Israel to cease its siege of Gaza, and to permit the normal 100 truckloads of aid Gaza needs every day to survive.  

Aside from urgent humanitarian reasons to cease the siege, there are compelling political reasons. Nothing can be gained from a siege of 2.2 million people who have no means of escape from Gaza.  This siege will only encourage the enemies of Israel and of the West in general. That these enemies include many dictatorships such as Iran does not obviate the need for world peace.

Yours sincerely,

Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, CM, FRSC, Ph.D.

Thursday 10 August 2023

A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad: Book Note

 Last month (July 2023) I read A Stranger in Your Own City, by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad (New York, Alfred A Knopf, 2023). Abdul-Ahad’s city is Baghdad, before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, now twenty years ago. Originally trained as an architect, Abdul-Ahad spoke very good English and became a translator for foreign journalists during the invasion, then a journalist in his own right.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

This is not an outsider’s book about Iraq, it’s an insider’s, and therefore all the more disturbing. Abdul-Ahad describes the years of the UN-imposed sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and the damage they did, causing the deaths of half a million children.  Then he turns to the American invasion.

Abdul-Ahad states that the American provisional authority “represented the worst combination of colonial hubris, toxic racist arrogance and criminal incompetence.” (p. 56) Their simplistic belief that the only relevant division in Iraq was between Sunni and Shia Muslims intensified religious divisions, especially after the Americans substituted a regime of Shias for the former regime, which they believed had been only Sunni. Abdul-Ahad describes how all over Iraq, Sunnis and Shias who had previously lived together in peace now started separating their neighbourhoods, fighting and killing each other.

The Americans fired all “Ba’athist” civil servants, whom they believed to be committed Sunni supported of Saddam Hussein.  By doing so, the Americans ensured the complete breakdown of civil administration, including education, hospitals, infrastructure, etc.  Yet these “Ba’athist” civil servants were often members of the Ba’ath party in name only, as that was the only way to get a job under Saddam Hussain. Contrast this to the conquest of Nazi Germany in 1945, when most civil servants, including leading and committed Nazis, kept their jobs. Nothing good that had occurred under Saddam, including land reform that gave land to peasants, remained after the Americans took over. It was American marines, not Iraqis, who toppled the statue of Saddam (p. 43)

So many other military and political actors emerged after the invasion that I cannot even begin to summarize them.  Among them were tribal chieftains, terrorist Islamists, and various people out to line their own pockets, sometimes even just small groups of young men.  Iraq was one giant location for looting, raping and pillaging.

Among the people Abdul-Ahad interviewed were leaders of the various factions and militias that emerged after the Americans invaded. He was able to interview people few if any outsiders could ever interview, and even to embed himself with the troops of various factions. He survived a direct American hit on a crowd of civilians in 2004, in which 13 were killed and 60 injured. (pp. 72-75). Everyone should read this detailed account of men and boys bleeding, moaning and dying, all because the Americans were targeting one armored vehicle to prevent insurgents from using it.

My friend and colleague Abdullahi A. An-Naim is emeritus professor of law at Emory University.

Abdullahi An-Naim

Originally from Sudan, he was a committed supporter of international human rights when I met him over 40 years ago. Now, he considers human rights and international humanitarian law to both be colonial (see his Decolonizing Human Rights, Cambridge University Press, 2021). He especially opposed humanitarian intervention, on the grounds that the intervening powers lack the time, resources, local knowledge, language skills, and cultural competence to create a rights-protective regime (or even a democratic one) even when they might wish to. The American invasion of Iraq was not for humanitarian motives and the United Nations did not support it. But An-Naim is right nevertheless: the Americans didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and their invasion set the country up for all the internecine, tribal, religious and terrorist wars that followed.


Thursday 20 July 2023


In the Midst of Civilized Europe by Jeffrey Veidlinger: Book Note

This past month (July 2023) I read In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust 

Jeffrey Veidlinger
(HarperCollins 2021). The title is ironic. Historian Jeffrey Veidlinger’s book is about the pogroms of as many as 100,000 Jews in what is now Ukraine, during the many wars for Ukraine’s territory in the period 1918-21. The reference to “civilized Europe” is from an open letter, expressing concern about Ukraine’s Jews. The lead signatory of the letter was the French author Anatole France.

In 1917, the Bolsheviks (Communists) under Vladimir Lenin took power over former imperial Russia. They immediately made peace with Germany. Ukrainian democrats and nationalists saw this as an opportunity to claim their own independence from Russia. Various political actors then engaged in struggle for control of the territory we now call Ukraine over the four years Veidlinger covers. These included Ukrainian democrats, who never had much control over any part of Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalists supported by the dreaded (by Jews) Cossack horsemen. They also included Polish invaders, German invaders, White (anti-communist) Russian invaders, and Bolsheviks. Finally, they included local warlords. Bolshevik Russia finally subdued or negotiated with all these other actors, and incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union.

With the exception of the Ukrainian democrats, who tried to introduce rights for national minorities, including Jews, all these groups were responsible for pogroms against Jews. While Bolshevik officials did not have a policy of persecuting Jews, their underlings occasionally instituted pogroms. The other groups enthusiastically conducted pogroms, often killing every Jew in towns that they controlled, usually after raping the women and girls first. Both those who instituted the pogroms and local townspeople and peasants from surrounding villages cheerfully looted Jewish homes and other properties. Veidlinger’s final estimate is about 100,000 Jews killed.

We know about these pogroms in great detail because Jewish community leaders, both in Ukraine and abroad, encouraged survivors to detail and document what they experienced and witnessed. We also know about them through the records of commissions of inquiry into the various pogroms, including many commissions held by the Bolshevik authorities in the 1920s.  While many records of the pogroms were later lost, enough survived that Veidlinger was able to read them and in some chapters, provide detailed and horrifying descriptions of local pogroms. He appears to read both Russian and Yiddish (the latter the language of many Eastern European Jews, now more or less a dead language).  

The Bolsheviks who instituted commissions of inquiry were the same authorities that instituted their own terror against opponents (real and perceived) via their state institutions, including the Cheka secret police. They were also the authorities who stole food from Ukraine in 1920-21, shipping it to Russia proper while Ukrainians starved (as they did again during the state-induced Holodomor famine in 1932-33, which I discuss in my 2016 book, State Food Crimes, pp. 22-27).

Indeed, Veidlinger explains in his last chapter why so many Ukrainians welcomed Nazi rule during WWII and why so many willingly assisted the Nazis in their program to exterminate the Jews. Many Jewish people had joined the Bolsheviks, including the Cheka, in the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks were the only people who extended a modicum of protection to the Jews from the pogroms instituted by almost all the other actors in the civil wars of 1918-21. Ukrainian peasants whom the Bolsheviks had twice starved saw those Jews who survived the earlier pogroms and did not emigrate as privileged people, simultaneously capitalist and communist. In reality, both before and after 1918, most Jews were small business-people or craftsmen, not rich bourgeois. Many ethnic Ukrainians, moreover, had been persecuted by the Cheka, or had relatives who had been persecuted. The Bolsheviks had also expropriated the property of many Ukrainians. Thus, many blamed “Jewry,” write large, for the actions of some individuals Jews who were Bolsheviks, even when most Bolsheviks were ethnic Russians, not Jews.

This absolutely does not excuse Ukrainians who persecuted Jews in 1918-1921, or who cooperated with Nazism in the 1940s to murder even more Jews. Murderers are murderers and génocidaires are génocidaires. But if we want to eradiate genocide, we need to understand the underlying political, economic, social and ideological factors that cause it. This applies as much to the extermination of the Jews in “civilized” Europe as to any genocide elsewhere.

Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet Union. I remember being a member of a visiting delegation of scholars to the Institute of State and Law at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in 1990. In discussion, I said that I thought Ukraine would want its independence, especially because of memories of the Holodomor. A member of the Russian side said that she was an ethnic Ukrainian and Ukraine would always remain loyal to Russia. Hah!

Ukraine had no history of being independent in the modern sense of statehood prior to 1991. Before then, the territory now known as Ukraine was divided up at various times among Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and so on. But that does not validate Vladimir Putin’s argument that Ukraine is Russian territory now. Once the international community recognizes as State as independent and sovereign, that’s that. So, Israel has the right to exist as a state, whatever one might think of its policies toward the Palestinians. So does Serbia, forged in blood after committing terrible atrocities against other groups—especially the Bosnians-during the break-up of Yugoslavia. So do South Sudan and Sudan proper, both countries with terrible records of mass atrocities.

The history of Ukraine 1918-2021 put me in mind of politics in Africa today, especially in eastern Congo. There too, for the last 30 years various groups have been competing for control, including both ethnic Hutu and Tutsi. There too, invading forces from foreign nations—Zimbabwe and Rwanda especially—have committed mass atrocities. There too, local warlords have sprung up and committed atrocities. “Civilizations” in both Europe and Africa disintegrate easily, revealing mankind’s worst instincts for torture, death, looting, and revenge.


Monday 3 July 2023

Announcement: My Appointment to the Order of Canada


Order of Canada


On June 30, 2023, the office of the Governor-General of Canada released the names of new Members of the Order of Canada.  I am one of them.  I am not permitted to know who nominated me or when, but my best guess is that I was nominated in the late 2010s by Wilfrid Laurier University, where I held the Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights from 2023 to 2016.  The Governor-General’s office is just cleaning up the pandemic backlog now.  The Order of Canada is analogous to the UK’s system of Order of the British Empire. There will be an official investiture sometime in the future, but in the meantime I'm allowed to call myself a Member and wear the official insignia.


Here is the official citation and link to the announcement:

 Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, C.M.

Hamilton, Ontario

For her extensive scholarly contributions and steadfast commitment to the advancement of international human rights.

 Also for background, here is the link to my Wikipedia page:

 I also include my new formal image in this blog. The white button I am wearing on my left shoulder signifies Order of Canada, the reddish one signifies Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an honor I’ve held since 1993.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier: A Defense

In this blog I discuss Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Washington; D.C., Regnery Publishing, 2020). Many people think you should not read this book: I think you should.

A Canadian Case

In late April, 2023, Lane Tredger, the first non-binary member of the legislature of Yukon Territory, Canada (population 44,000) complained to the library at Yukon’s capital city, Whitehorse (population 28,000). They had noticed that the library had posted Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, as a staff pick. This is a common procedure in Canadian libraries, where members of staff advertise a book they consider particularly worthwhile.  Tredger argued that Schrier’s book was “blatantly transphobic.”

The library eventually decided that the book would remain in the Whitehorse collection, but without the staff pick sticker, and that it would be more rigorous in selecting staff picks. To its credit, the director of the Yukon Public Libraries said that “Libraries aren’t the arbiters of hate speech: that’s for the courts to decide.”.

What Shrier Argued

I wonder if Lane Tredger actually read Schrier’s book. I have. Shrier does not claim that no one is genuinely trans: she interviewed several adult trans people whose chosen trans identities she respected. She specifically stated “I have nothing but respect for the transgender adults I’ve interviewed. They were among the most sober, thoughtful, and decent people I have come to know in the course of writing this book” (219).

But Shrier is concerned that far too many young girls believe that they are actually boys, and that far too many parents, teachers, medical professionals, and other adults are willing to “affirm” these statements about identity. Her book is full of stories of girls who thought they were boys.

In the 2010s, Shrier states, claims of adolescent gender dysphoria increased by 1,000 per cent in the US (32). She is particularly concerned with what she considers the “craze” of rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), often found within girls’ friendship groups, several members at a time of such groups identifying as trans (26). Shrier attributes this craze in part to “transgender influencers” on social media. These influencers, she asserts, coach girls to lie to doctors, inventing histories of gender dysphoria while omitting details of their mental health history, to convince doctors to immediately start gender transition treatments even though ROGD might mask other mental health problems (34, 55).

 Girls are susceptible to this RODG craze, Shrier argues, because of several factors affecting their sense of identity. These include the social isolation of today’s adolescents, compounding the normal stresses of female puberty. Such problems are also influenced, paradoxically, by the current narrowing of gender roles, so that girls who “act like” boys begin to believe they actually are boys (pp. 3-18). “Gender-nonconforming” females are seen as actually, or somewhat, male, overturning the long-ago gains of the feminist movement that defended women seen as unfeminine because of their interests in “male” pursuits such as athletics or engineering (63). Notably, there does not appear to be a reverse trend, in which unprecedentedly large numbers of boys suddenly claim they are girls. Perhaps this is in part because being female is still lower status than being male.

In general, Shrier believes that patients are often drawn to “symptom pools,” or “culturally acceptable ways of manifesting distress that lead to recognized diagnoses” (136). Thus, young girls who are distressed about several different aspects of their lives might self-diagnose as in need of gender transition. Such other aspects could include being sexually attracted to girls and women, instead of boys or men; dressing or acting in ways not conforming to pervasive gender stereotypes; or having interests not typical for young girls. Shrier states that several young girls she interviewed told her that lesbians were mocked for being girls who could not admit they were boys, “trans” identities being higher status in high schools than “lesbian” identities (151).


Young women who “failed” at being girls, according to Shrier, could transfer their identity to being male, and as trans people, moreover, could enjoy the “pleasure” of being “oppressed.” This particularly appealed to young white girls who otherwise had to categorize themselves as members of the oppressor class. Now they could “take cover” in being members of a victim group, women no longer being considered oppressed (154-7).


Shrier is concerned about the effects on girls’ health of early transitioning. Future infertility, she maintains, is one such problem. Others are a higher risk of osteoporosis as bone density is suppressed, interference with brain development, possible loss of sexual function, cancer, endometriosis, hysterectomies, and even heart attacks (82-83, 165, 169-70). Gender surgeries, Shrier argues, are experimental and lack proper oversight (142). Even binding one’s breasts can have detrimental health consequences (47).


At least one medication, Lupron, prescribed to block puberty had not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for that purpose at the time of writing, yet it was commonly used  (164). In general, “The dangers [of trans medications and surgery] are legion. The safeguards absent” (183). Yet gender reassignment clinics are multiplying in the US, in part because insurance companies are obliged to pay for gender reassignment treatment on the grounds that otherwise they would be discriminating. In 2007 there was only one gender-reassignment clinic, at the time Shrier wrote there were over fifty (167).


Shrier’s allegation are backed up by the personal testimony of one transgender man, who accumulated one million dollars in medical bills for treatment that left them with several severe medical complications. Yet they could not sue their doctors as there were no standards of care in transgender medicine to which the doctors were obliged to adhere. ( (


Shrier argues that many health professionals who presumably would not accept patients’ self-diagnosis in any other situation, be it physical or mental health, are now convinced that they should accept and affirm children’s self-diagnosis of gender identity (97-121). Yet, Shrier asserts, several studies show that about seventy per cent of young children who experience childhood gender dysphoria grow out of it, if they are not encourages to socially transition (119). One study showed that 85 per cent of children exhibiting gender dysphoria outgrew it (256, n. 11).

Shrier’s book should not be censored.  Yet this is what the American Booksellers’ Association essentially did in July 2021 when it apologized for its “violence” in sending free copies of Shrier’s “anti-trans” book to 750 member bookstore.  The apology backfired, however, as publicity surrounding it resulted in an increase in the book’s sales.


Evaluate and Disagree: Don’t Censor


People who disagree with Shrier should first carefully read her book.  Then they should address her evidence, as a professional psychologist, Christopher Ferguson, did. He criticized Schrier for not being sufficiently conversant with the scientific evidence that sex is not determined only by X or Y chromosomes but instead resides in the hypothalmus, and as such, “is largely immutable.”


Some evidence is now emerging from countries other than the US that supports Shrier’s point of view. In Sweden, there was a 1,500 per cent increase between 2008 and 2018 in gender dysphoria among people “born as girls” between 13 and 17 years old.. In the UK, 1,806 girls were referred for gender treatment in 2017/18, as compared to only 40 in 2009/10. As of August 2022, a class action suit against the Tavistock Institute, the UK’s former center for gender dysphoria treatment, was in preparation, claiming that children were “rushed into taking life-altering puberty blockers without adequate consideration or proper diagnosis.”


As I said at the outset of this blog, I am very concerned by people who denounce books and advocate their withdrawal from the public view, rather than taking authors’ arguments seriously. Maybe Shrier has it all wrong. But maybe, as the evidence from other countries suggests, she doesn’t. In any event, the thing to do is read her book and make up your own mind.


Thursday 22 June 2023

Driving with Will: A Memoir of Will Coleman

Note; readers of my blog may not know that for many years I have published poetry in various local and Canadian outlets.  Recently, I've taken up trying to write creative non-fiction.  Below is my memoir of the distinguished Canadian political scientist, Will Coleman, who died on March 24, 2023.  Will was my friend and colleague for over 40 years.



My friend Will died on March 24. He’d been suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, but died of a stroke.

I have many memories of Will, starting in the late 1970s when we were both young faculty members at McMaster University.

I left McMaster for Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in 2003. After Will joined the University of Waterloo a few years later, we started commuting together when our schedules permitted. I would pick him up at his house at 8:00 AM, by which time he’d already been up and working for three hours. Normally a very quiet person, Will would start talking as soon as he got into the car, telling me everything that had happened to him since we’d last driven together. Or almost everything: I was completely unaware of a blossoming friendship with a woman down the street, Suet-Ha Loo, until he told me a few days before the event that they were getting married.

Will was extremely proud of his children and grandchildren. He loved his Sunday mornings baby-sitting Quinn, the son of his own son Matthew. Will and Quinn would sit on a bench on Aberdeen Avenue near where Quinn lived with his parents, and Quinn would shout “car,” or “truck” at every vehicle that passed.  I also enjoyed hearing about Will's daughter Kaitlyn, who’d obtained a degree in Museum Studies, and her interesting job helping to explore Toronto construction sites for historical artifacts. Will always spoke with great admiration and affection for his mother, whom he visited twice yearly in British Columbia until she died.

Will talked a lot about the various marathon races he competed in. At one point he was particularly peeved by a competitor from Niagara Falls who kept winning first place in their age category while Will came second, in part because he (the competitor) was at the lower end of the age range. Will thought this was scandalous. Once, the competitor was disqualified so Will came first. The competitor was annoyed, but Will felt he had won fairly.

I used to tease Will about his annual trips to a Buddhist retreat where he would be silent for a week or more at a time.  He was an extremely quiet person, so I thought he should go to noisiness retreats instead.  He accepted my teasing graciously.

After Will retired, I had lunch with him a few times.  We spent one long summer’s afternoon on the patio of Quatrefoil Restaurant in Dundas, with a couple of colleagues who’d come from Waterloo to see us.  Will was anxious to get home though, to feed his new wife’s cat.  The last time I saw him, I invited him to lunch with me and my husband at our house.  I’d gone to the local health food store on Locke Street, to buy some vegan food for him; even as his disease progressed, he still diligently maintained his vegan habits.  His eyes lit up when I told him I’d bought some vegan chocolate chip cookies and he was welcome to take the leftovers home.

Will was my friend: may his memory be a blessing.

Monday 5 June 2023

Readable Books on Human Rights

 The owners of a website called Shepherd: explore, discover, read," ask scholars to recommend readable books in their area of expertise in return for publicizing one of the scholar's own works.  Today (June 5, 2023) they posted my five recommendations.  The books I recommended were Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood;  Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape; and Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.   You can read why I chose these books here:

Tuesday 2 May 2023

Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners: Book Reviews


Benign Professions, Malign Practitioners

This month I read two books about severe medical mal-practice, both lent to me by Peter Rosenbaum, a specialist in pediatric cerebral palsy here in Hamilton, where I live.

Peter grew up in Montreal and attend McGill University. The first book is by a friend of his from that time, Harvey Weinstein (no, not the movie mogul, another one).  Weinstein published a book in 1988 (Toronto, James Lorimer and Company) called A Father, A Son, and the CIA.   Canadian readers of a certain age will already guess what this is about; it’s about how the CIA provided funds to one Dr Ewan Cameron, a psychiatrist at McGill, to conduct “patterning” experiments (a.k.a. brainwashing) on patients. This occurred in the 1950s and 60s, and became a national scandal when an NDP Member of Parliament revealed that his wife had been one of the patients. 

Weinstein’s description of his early childhood years is straight out of a Mordechai Richler novel. His father had a dress factory that was doing well, and the family lived in a wealthy part of English Montreal.  Then his father developed severe anxiety and was referred to Cameron.  Cameron’s “treatments” included frequent electric shocks, playing recordings over and over again for hours or days to comatose patients, and trying to reduce patient to the status of infants, even without control of their bowels and bladders.  When Weinstein’s mother questioned the treatments, she was told to go home and trust the doctors. 

Needless to say, when Weinstein’s father was released, he was ruined.  He could no longer work and lost his business; the family had to sell their house and move into a small apartment.  In 1988, legal cases against McGill were still on-going.

The other book Peter lent me was Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna, by Edith Sheffer, a historian. (W.W, Norton, 2018). If you or a family member have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, be aware that your diagnosis is named after a genocidal Viennese doctor.  Asperger was one of the doctors in Vienna who “selected” disabled children for murder by the Nazis, in a regime that Sheffer calls “psychiatric genocide,” facilitated by a “diagnosis regime” that decided who was worthy to live.  

These were children confined or referred to a specific children’s “home” called Spiegelgrund, on the outskirts of Vienna, often for reasons such as unruliness or low cognitive function (so Down’s Syndrome children could be exterminated, as could runaways from abusive parents). Others had physical disabilities.  The ostensible criterion was whether a child could be integrated into the community or not.  The reigning principle was “Gemüt”, or community, which was seen as equivalent to membership in the Nazi Volk: no individualism was permitted.  Incidentally, Asperger was also a sexist: he protected some high-functioning boys with his “syndrome,” claiming they could be useful to the community, while consigning high-functioning girls to death.  


789 children were sent to their death from Spiegelgrund. Survivors spoke of the horrible sadistic was they were treated by the doctors and nurses. Preserved brains and body-parts of the murdered children were used for research in Austria through the 1980s.  Asperger himself continued his career after WWII: he had protected himself by never officially joining the Nazi party.

While reading these two books I happened to also come across an article about the pioneering educator, Maria Montessori, in the New York Review of Books, (Kathryn Hughes, “A Complicated Reformer”, NYRB March 9, 2023). At least I won’t have to worry about her being a fascist, I thought. Nope. Montessori was a big fan of Benito Mussolini. In fact she wrote, “my method [of education] can collaborate with fascism so that it will… create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers’(p. 30). 

Another warning that members of the seemingly most benign professions can have sinister motives.


Thursday 13 April 2023

State and Society in the Violation and Promotion of Human Rights

 Recently I published a 5-page "interview" called "State and Society in the Promotion and Violation of Human Rights" in the International Affairs Forum, vol. 15, no.1 (2023) published by the Center for International relations in Washington, DC. You can find the full issue, including articles by my colleagues Bonny Ibhawoh, Mark Gibney, and Sonia Cardenas, here: my interview is the first article.

In the interview, I answer questions about my research on state food crimes, citizenship laws, globalization. I also refute the suggestion that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a colonial document, and discuss how human rights can be protected in democratic states.  Below is a Word copy of my interview. 

Interview with International Affairs Forum, vol. 15, no. 1, January 2023

1.You’ve discussed instances where state policies are the primary cause of human rights violations.  A type of government-promoted human rights violation is what you’ve termed State Food Crimes.  Would you explain what that means and provide some examples (e.g., Korea, Venezuela)? 

State food crimes are crimes by states that intentionally, recklessly, by incompetence or by indifference deprive their citizens or others under their authority of food (Marcus, 2003). These four categories are not discrete, however. Moreover, intention is hard to prove, as opposed to recklessness, incompetence and indifference. Therefore, it is very difficult, but not impossible, to prosecute an individual leader for intentionally depriving their citizenry of food.

The four cases I discussed in State Food Crimes (2016) were North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. North Korean citizens were starving in the 1990s and 2000s as a result of both intentional and reckless state policies. Malnutrition and some starvation continue to the present day. This starvation was the result of deliberate state policies that prohibited a national private market in food, prohibited importation of food, wasted national resources on a nuclear weapons program, and prohibited any free expression of people’s opinions and concerns. What I call penal starvation also occurred in North Korea’s vast network of concentration camps.

Intentional and reckless “nationalization” of white-owned productive land in Zimbabwe from 2000 until President Mugabe’s resignation in 2017 resulted in under-production of food, as well as mass unemployment of agricultural workers. This was compounded by the decisions to give formerly productive white-owned farms to Mugabe’s relative and cronies. Indifference to the suffering of the masses, prohibition of citizens’ rights to protest, and manipulation of elections compounded the problem. 

A similar scenario occurred in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) instituted policies that President Nicolas Maduro (2013-present) has intensified. Both leaders confiscated productive farms. They instituted and maintained price controls that reduced the food supply, because producers who could not charge the full cost of their production withdrew from the market. They also plundered the earning and assets of the state-owned oil firm, in order to import the food that Venezuela had previously been able to produce. Corruption was rampant, the state manipulated the mass media and elections, and protestors were arrested and sometimes tortured.  By 2021, over five and a half million people had fled (United Nations High Commission on Refugees

The situation in the West Bank and Gaza was somewhat different. There was no mass starvation, but Israeli policies such as permitting Jewish settlers in the West Bank to acquire land previously owned by Palestinian farmers reduced the food supply. This policy violated international humanitarian law, which forbids transfers of population into conquered territory. Israel also built a wall that cut off some Palestinian farmers from their land. The International Court of Justice ruled this wall illegal, as part of it was built in the West Bank itself, not in Israel proper. Israel also imposed controls on how much food could cross the border from Israel to the West Bank and Gaza. Periodic blockades by both Israel and Egypt (of Gaza) worsened the situation. The result was high rates of malnutrition in the West Bank and Gaza.

One thing that all these cases demonstrated is that civil and political rights are key to the right to food. Freedom of speech, press and assembly are necessary so that citizens can voice their concerns about the lack of food.

2. Another instance of state action is manipulating citizenship policies and laws.  How widespread has this been and what have been/are the impacts?

Some countries grant citizenship by virtue of jus soli; that is, by virtue of birth within a country’s territories. Some are also relatively generous in granting citizenship by naturalization. Others rely on jus sanguinis, or the right of citizenship by “blood” or ancestry. This can create problems, for example if you are born in a country that does not grant citizenship by place of birth, but your parents are citizens of another country that will not grant you citizenship unless you are actually born there.

These rules disproportionately affect women and children. For example, there are still some countries where women must give up their original citizenship and take their husband’s citizenship, if it differs from their own. Then if they divorce, they may be rendered stateless if they can no longer retain their husband’s citizenship. This can also affect their children,

On the other hand, there is also “sticky citizenship.” (Macklin, 2015) Under international law, no country may deprive an individual of citizenship if it leaves that person stateless. However, there have been cases, as in the UK, where the courts have decreed that mere eligibility for citizenship elsewhere means the government can deprive an individual of citizenship.

The United Nations High Commission for refugees NHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million stateless people in the world,, as a result of the kinds of policies I describe above.  Sometimes, deprivation of citizenship is a precursor to genocide, when states decide to deprive entire categories of people of citizenship. In 1935 the Nazis deprived all German Jews of citizenship; in 1982 Myanmar deprived the Muslim Rohingya community of citizenship.  

There is also de facto statelessness. In 2010 the Dominican Republic deprived residents of Haitian descent of citizenship if their ancestors had arrived in the DR after 1929, claiming they were still Haitian citizens. But many of these individuals had no family in Haiti and no resources to live there (Belton, 2017). 

In general, citizens of wealthy, developed democratic countries have won the “birthright lottery” (Shachar, 2009). Although most people in Canada and the US don’t realize it, their citizenship is their single most valuable possession. Not only does it grant them the right to live in a prosperous democracy, but it grants them the right to move relatively freely around the rest of the world.

3.Your book, Can Globalization Promote Human Rights? analyzes the question and provides positive and negative reflections to help answer it.  Much has happened concerning globalization since its publication in 2010.  How would you address the question presented by the title of the book now?

In my book, I presented both positive and negative scenarios for the interaction of globalization and human rights. Looking at the economic side of globalization, I concluded that global free trade was good for human rights, whereas policies of international financial institutions, and the international financial network as a whole, appeared to have negative repercussions for human rights. I also considered the question of absolute incomes versus relative inequality and concluded that although inequality within (but not between) states was widening, there was a considerable reduction worldwide in absolute poverty since about 1980.

In 2010, growth in what was then known as emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) seemed likely to reduce poverty and inequality, but since then growth in these states has slowed down. Inequality within states has contributed to severe social and political problems (Hill, 2021) even though inequalities between states have lessened in the last twenty years (Chancel et al., 2022, p. 11).

Another problem is the re-emergence of protectionism. Part of this is the result of claims by populist politicians that foreign countries are “stealing” jobs, such as former President Trump’s accusations against China, or indeed, President Biden’s hope to keep jobs in America for Americans. Since February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a new focus on protectionism in countries whose economies are negatively affected by the war.

If I were rewriting this book today, I would devote more space to the downsides of globalization, such as international criminal networks, and (as a subset of such crime) the increased possibilities of corrupt appropriation of state assets provided by the international financial system. I would devote more space to global capacities for surveillance. And I would write more on international migratory flows as a consequence of poverty, wars, and climate change.

Finally, although I did include a chapter on the resurgence of religion and nationalism, I would devote more attention to the politics of resentment, especially resentment of “the West,” not only for its economic and political strength but also for its promotion of what some states or societies view as non-traditional, non-indigenous rights such as LGBTQ+ rights. Much of this resentment, however, is created by the political elites of some states in order to stir up hostility to perceived “enemy” countries, such as Russia’s obsession with LGBTQ+ rights as a way of distracting the population from more serious problems such as poverty.

I stand by my analysis of the positive effect of globalized social movements, such as the international feminist, Indigenous, and environmental movements. I did not anticipate that social media would result in globalized racist and proto-fascist social movements, however, nor that it would result in the globalized capacity of foreign countries to intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

Events since 2010 thus suggest that the beneficial aspects of globalization have been outweighed by the detrimental aspects of protectionism, nationalism, racism and homophobia, and authoritarianism. The negative scenario I proposed in my book seems a better descriptor of the world in 2023 than the positive scenario.

4. some people now argue that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a colonial document. How do you answer that charge?

This is now a common perception among members of the cultural left. It is wrong.

The UDHR is the first of many human rights documents produced by the United Nations. Representatives of 56 states took part in the discussions that resulted in its texts. These included almost all the independent states in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa; the Soviet Union and its satellite countries; and all Latin American countries, as well as the wealthy North Atlantic countries. For example, female representatives from India and the Dominican Republic were influential in ensuring that women’s equality rights were protected in the Declaration. The biggest geographical block left out of these discussions was sub-Saharan Africa, which was almost entirely under colonial rule until about 1960 (and some countries such as Mozambique and Angola until 1975). Indigenous people were not represented at these discussions as they did not—then as now --have their own states.

The Canadian legal scholar, John Humphrey, wrote the first draft of the Declaration after surveying the Constitutions of all independent states. This is one reason why economic, social and cultural rights such as the rights to health care, education, housing, food and an adequate standard of living are included in the UDHR, as they were included in both Soviet bloc and Latin American constitutions. The other is that these countries insisted on inclusion of social and economic rights even when North Atlantic countries resisted them (Morsink, 2022, Sikkink, 2017, pp. 55-93).

The actual colonial powers (Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal) opposed extension of human rights to all the people of the world, wanting to put colonial subjects under a sort of trusteeship instead. They were opposed by the Soviet Bloc and Latin America. They also had to conceded that human rights were universal because of pressure from anti-colonial actors from places such as sub-Saharan Africa (Burke, 2010).

Most of the substantial corpus of human rights Declarations and Covenants (treaties) were written after almost all colonies had become independent. These include the two general Covenants on Civil/Political and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, dating from 1966 but coming into force in 1976 after enough countries had signed on. They also include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981); the Convention against Torture and other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment (1987); the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008), and many other documents. Almost every country in the world was involved in formulating these documents, and almost every country in the world supports them, if often more in principle than in fact.

Thus it is simply untrue to say that either the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the entire elaborate international human rights regime as it exists in 2023, is colonial.

5. Would you briefly discuss achieving human rights in a democratic state versus the possibility of doing so in an undemocratic state? 

It is impossible to achieve the full range of human rights in an undemocratic state. 

There is no non-democratic state that protects human rights as rights. Any non-democratic state that claims it protects human rights is confusing state benevolence with rights. Unless citizens can openly claim their rights, criticize their governments, and if necessary overturn them in elections for not protecting or fulfilling those rights, any positive “human rights” aspects of their lives are a result of ephemeral state choice rather than actual state duty. In this respect, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “fudges” in Article 21, 3, where it does not prescribe competitive multi-party elections, instead merely stating the need for elections. This opened the door to legitimize one-party states.

Aside from political democracy, there are other structural requirements for a rights-protective state (Howard-Hassmann, 2018, pp. 49-71) One is the existence of a regulated market economy based on private property. No state that has abolished private property protects human rights. But private property does not mean unregulated acquisition of property by any means possible. By a regulated economy, I mean one in which monopolistic and oligopolistic control of the economy is prohibited; in which excessively high profits and incomes are taxed away by the state; in which safety and environmental regulations are protected; in which all citizens have equal economic opportunity; and in which labor rights are fully protected.

A rights protective state also requires a functioning government and a competent state bureaucracy. Political order, protected by a functioning government that controls its entire territory, is an underlying condition for any democracy. A competent state bureaucracy requires that personnel not only be educated but also be adequately paid, so that they do not need to rely on corruption or bribes to support themselves and their families. An independent judiciary is also a prerequisite for a rights-protective state, but only if its personnel believe in and are willing to implement human rights, even when the laws of the country undermine them. 

This does not mean that citizens should wait until all these structural prerequisites are in place before demanding their human rights. Rather, rights evolve in a spiraling process, the various rights claims and state responses interacting with one another. It is especially important to note that civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights are interdependent. It is difficult for people to be active citizens if they are mired in poverty or subjected to chronic and debilitating poor health. Citizens lacking education may not have the required tools to make informed political decisions.

Thus, the only type of state that is fully protective of human rights is a social democracy. Social democracy is a variant of liberalism that views the social provision of economic security as an inherent part of respect for the individual. It is characterized by an activist state that tries to provide basic social rights, protect citizens against market forces, and reduce inequality, at the same time as it protects basic civil and political rights, private property, and a market economy.

 Nevertheless, if I had to choose one, and only one, human right, it would be the right to freedom of expression. This means not only free speech and a free press, but also the ability to criticize one’s rulers without fear of arrest, torture, imprisonment, or execution.  It also means freedom of assembly, so that citizens can assemble without fear to discuss or protest state policies. We see how important this right is when we see how many journalists and activists are murdered by various states every year.

Some critics argue that to focus on freedom of speech is to focus on a political right at the expense of economic, social and cultural rights that might be more relevant to people in the Global South. One of the most basic economic rights is the right to food. But in both my earlier (Howard, 1982; Howard, 1986) and my later work (Howard-Hassmann, 2016), I show that without the right to freedom of expression, there is no right to food. People can’t criticize policies that deprive them of food. The best they can do is hope that their government is benevolent enough not to deprive them of their own ability to cultivate their own food, and to distribute food when necessary. Again, this shows the interaction and interdependence of all human rights, in both developed and less-developed societies.


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