Friday, 4 April 2014

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

21st Century Malnutrition among Canada's Aboriginal Peoples

Readers of this blog may recall that in the last year I’ve posted a book review about how Canada used starvation in the 1870s to force its Aboriginal peoples onto reserves, thus opening Canada’s West for settlement by Europeans http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014/02/book-note-james-daschuks-clearing-plains.html  I’ve also posted a blog on nutritional “experiments” in Canada’s residential school system that deprived some Aboriginal children of food http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013/07/canada-malnourishment-of-aboriginal.html.   

Malnutrition among Canada’s Aboriginal peoples still exists. In 2011, 27.1 per cent of Canada’s Aboriginal households were food insecure, as opposed to 11.5 per cent of non-Aboriginal households. A nutrition survey conducted in 2004 found that 33 per cent of off-reserve Aboriginal households were food insecure, compared to 9 per cent of other Canadians. In part, this food insecurity was attributable to higher rates of reliance on social assistance and higher rates of lone parenthood among Aboriginals than non-Aboriginals, but even controlling for these risk factors, Aboriginal households’ rates of food insecurity were 2.6 times higher than non-Aboriginal households’ rates.

Some of this malnourishment might be a consequence of the high cost of transporting nourishing food to remote Aboriginal communities; for example, in 2012 residents of Nunavut, one of Canada‘s Northern territories where most people are Inuit, spent $14,815 per year on food, compared to $7,262 in Canada overall. A 2007-08 study of Nunavut preschoolers found that 56 per cent were food insecure.
A head of cauliflower for $8.15- Wiki Commons

Aboriginal food insecurity can be attributed in part to their sad history. Suffering from the debilitating psychological effects of having been incarcerated in residential schools, removed from their families, forbidden to speak their native tongue, and subjected to long-term physical and sexual abuse, many Aboriginal individuals found and find it difficult to obtain hold down a job.  An under-financed on-reserve school system exacerbates these difficulties in the 21st century. With much higher rates of unemployment than the general Canadian population, many Aboriginal individuals become homeless or are incarcerated. Indeed, the Economist reported in 2013 that Aboriginal Canadians were “more likely to go to jail than graduate from high school.”

Another reason for food insecurity among Aboriginal Canadians is reduced access to traditional foods—especially meat—which is much healthier than the processed foods that Aboriginal people are likely to eat, especially in remote areas where it is difficult to import or cultivate fresh dairy products, fruits and vegetables. One major cause of lack of access to traditional foods is loss of land and limitations of rights even to use the land supposedly reserved for Aboriginal people. Another cause is loss of culture, especially transmission of hunting skills over the generations; the kidnapping of children and their confinement in residential schools meant that they could not learn how to fish and hunt from their elders.

As I discussed in my review of Peter Kulchyski’s book, http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2014/02/book-note-peter-kulchyski-aboriginal.html, some scholars of indigenous rights think that human rights are a “Western” invention that does not pertain to indigenous peoples. But it is precisely the lack of human rights that has enabled the Canadian state to treat Aboriginal people so badly for so long.

For many decades after Canada became a nation in 1867, Aboriginal people were legal minors who could not vote. Aboriginal individuals could get the vote if they left their reserves and assimilated into the wider population, but in so doing, they lost their rights to live on the reserve and be part of their community. Aboriginal people living on reserves were not permitted to vote until 1960.
Aboriginal peoples were also denied freedom of association. In 1927 the government passed a law that prohibited Aboriginals from collecting funds for advancement of land claims; in effect, the amendment prohibited all national organization. When one hereditary Iroquois Chief tried to go to the League of Nations to plead his people’s case, the government stationed a permanent police presence on his reserve and deprived hereditary chiefs and councilors of their positions. The ban on Aboriginal political activism was not removed until 1951.
Meantime, a pass system was rigidly enforced prohibiting Aboriginal freedom of movement, while restrictions on commerce meant that Aboriginals could not participate as equals in Canada’s evolving capitalist economy. Even service in Canada’s armed forces did not mean that Aboriginals got equal rights. Micmac veterans in Nova Scotia were pleading for rations in 1953, in part because they did not receive the land grants available to non-Aboriginal veterans.
So, Aboriginal Canadians have been formally entitled to the full range of civil and political rights for little longer than 50 years. And they are not yet protected (if they ever will be) by the collective rights enshrined since 2007 in the Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights; although Canada expressed its support for this Declaration in 2010, as of 2014 it was not yet law.
This is a shameful record for a wealthy democratic country in which all human rights are supposedly guaranteed to all citizens.  


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro

Venezuela: Demonstrations and Repression under Nicolas Maduro
Readers of this blog may know that in the last couple of weeks (February-March 2014) there has been a great deal of civil unrest in Venezuela.  There have been massive demonstrations in the streets against the President, Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez.   Estimates of death in the reports I’ve read or heard vary so far from 13 to 50.
 Demonstrators include students and middle-class elements, according to the reports, but the problems in Venezuela are not just ones that wealthier people object to.  Venezuela has been descending into dictatorship since 2002, with increasing restrictions on the media, the judiciary, freedom of association, and all other democratic checks on government. Elections are still held on a regular basis, but the restrictions on the opposition are so severe that you might consider the elections rigged.  They are free, but not fair.
Tear gas being used against protesters- Wiki Commons
The biggest problems for ordinary citizens, though, is severe shortages of food and other basic goods, such as toilet paper. These shortages started around 2007 and have been getting worse and worse. The causes are very high rates of inflation (56% in 2013); price controls on staple goods which result in shortages because producers can’t produce and wholesalers and retailers can’t sell at the “control price”: and underproduction of food caused by nationalizations and land invasions. In 2013 the cost of food rose by 74 per cent.
Right now the fight is between Maduro and his supporters (including armed militia groups), and the democratic opposition, although one of the main opposition leaders, Leopoldo López, is now in jail.  Some critics think the US is involved, hoping to destabilize Venezuela, with its socialist tendencies. These critics think the US would like to undermine the anti-American bloc in Latin America, which includes Argentina (also becoming an economic basket-case) and Cuba.  I don’t doubt that the US would like to see Maduro gone, but I think Maduro and Chávez created their own problems.
Protesters protesting food scarcity- Wiki Commons
 I’ve tended to describe Chavez’ and Maduro’s economic policies as incompetent, but I may have been too charitable towards them. When you reinforce your economic incompetence with increasing restrictions on civil and political rights, and you make sure your opposition doesn’t have access to the media or a fair chance at the polls, then you are deliberately maintaining policies that you know make it difficult for your people to find food.  Also, it seems that what food is available through the public system of subsidized markets is more likely to go to government supporters or potential supporters than to others.  This is one reason why many poor people still seem to support Maduro, although pretty well everyone is suffering from the shortages.

Venezuelans now live under a dictatorship under cover of increasingly farcical “democratic” elections.  Let’s hope that the food shortages don’t result in malnutrition a few years down the road.  
For more on Venezuela, see my two earlier posts,
“Hugo Chávez and the Right to Food, (March 11, 2013)
and Venezuela Update: Food Situation Worse Under Maduro than Chavez,” (October 10, 2013)
If you’d like to read a very detailed analysis of the food problems in Venezuela, you can also access my unpublished article from my university website, under “working papers.”
Or contact me directly for a copy at hassmann@wlu.ca.



Monday, 24 February 2014

Book Note: James Daschuk's Clearing the Plains

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

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea

Crimes against Humanity in North Korea
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On February 7, 2014 the United Nations General Assembly released a report by a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into human rights in North Korea: you can find it here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx .  The report was commissioned by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.  This Council isn’t exactly representative of rights-protecting countries: its 2014 membership includes China, Congo, Ethiopia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.  But it seems that the human rights violations in North Korea are so bad that even these countries feel safe commissioning a report on it.
It’s a very strong report. The COI calls North Korea a totalitarian state, and lists numerous ways that North Korea commits crimes against humanity. These include—but are not limited to-- extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, enforced disappearances, and knowingly causing starvation. It makes special reference to the use of food as a political weapon, thus clearly stating that the famine of the 1990s, in which 3 to 5 per cent of the North Korean population, or 580,000 to 1.1 million people, are conservatively estimated to have died, was a political, not a natural, catastrophe.  It points out the North Koreans are still suffering from severe malnutrition. About the only thing it doesn’t mention, at least in the short version of the report, is that the situation is so bad that there are actually reports of cannibalism. The COI calls on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to refer those North Korean officials—government, military, and security officials, including the so-called Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un-- to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trial.
ICC Logo- Wiki Commons
There isn’t anything in this report that activists and scholars concerned with human rights in North Korea haven’t known for at least ten years. But it’s very important that a Commission established by an organ of the United Nations (even if it’s the normally very hypocritical Human Rights Council) has recognized these crimes against humanity. Some scholars might go further and say some aspects of the abuses in North Korea constitute genocide; for example, murder of Christians, or the ethnic infanticide of children born of North Korean mothers and Chinese fathers, when the mothers are forcibly returned to North Korea. But the charge of genocide would be hard to prove, whereas there is overwhelming evidence that North Korea commits crimes against humanity.
Why has it taken so long to get this far? One reason is the diplomatic concern with North Korea’s nuclear program. Since 1993 periodic “Six-Party Talks” among North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia and Japan have taken place, with the other five countries trying to persuade North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons.  Despite this, it’s conducted three tests of such weapons, in 2006, 2009, and 2013.  “Loose nukes trump human rights,” is more or less what international policy has been.
The other reason it’s taken so long to get this far is that China supports North Korea, although it’s been less willing to do so in the recent past and did not veto the latest round of UNSC sanctions against North Korea after its 2013 nuclear test. The Chinese aren’t pleased that these tests have been conducted close to its borders. Also, they seem to have been trying to persuade North Korea to adopt liberalizing economic reforms, such as they themselves started in 1978, but one of the people seemingly most interested in these reforms was Kim Jong-un’s uncle, recently executed.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un- Wiki Commons
The Chinese view of the COI shows they aren’t willing to accept any responsibility to help North Korean victims of crimes against humanity. The Chinese regard the COI as unnecessarily “politicizing” human rights: they oppose directing criticism against any particular country’s human rights violations. The Chinese deny that the perhaps 200,000 North Korean refugees in their country are legally political refugees: they claim they are economic migrants, whom they are within their rights to deport. They deny that people deported back from China to North Korea are subjected to executions, rape, torture and –in the case of women pregnant by Chinese men—forcible abortions and infanticide.  They claim that voluntary and Christian groups that help fugitives in China are in it to make money, deliberately confusing them with the traffickers who force North Korean women into prostitution.  
On the other hand though, the Chinese might be pressuring the North Koreans in secret to engage in some reforms. It doesn’t do China’s reputation any good to be known to protect one of the worst countries on the planet.  And reforms might mean fewer North Korean refugees in China itself.
One good thing about this report is that it takes the ICC spotlight off Africa. Since it was established in 2002, all the ICC prosecutions have been of Africans. This isn’t because of racist or colonialist bias: in most cases, it’s been because African leaders referred individuals for prosecution. But these same leaders –for example, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni—are becoming worried that they themselves might be referred for prosecution; this is what happened to Kenya’s now President and Vice-President, both of whom are accused of having stirred up murderous ethnic violence during the 2007-8 elections. These Africans are playing the anti-Western card, claiming they are victims of colonialism. But if—and it’s a big if—the UNSC actually does refer North Korea to the ICC, they will be less able to make that claim
For other blogs I’ve written about North Korea, see
http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_10_01_archive.htm (North Korea: Still One of the World’s Most Awful Places to Live (and Die))

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

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

Book Note: Peter Kulchyski, Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights
I met Peter Kulchyski, author of Aboriginal Rights are Not Human Rights, (published by ARP Books, Winnipeg, in 2013) on January 23, 2014 when he visited Wilfrid Laurier University.  Kulchyski is a very interesting individual, who attended a government residential high school in Northern Manitoba in which he was one of the few non-Aboriginal students. You can find his autobiography here http://canadiandimension.com/articles/3639.
By saying Aboriginal rights are not human rights, Kulchyski means that they are a separate category of rights and ought to be recognized as such. Aboriginal rights, he says, are rooted in Aboriginal land title and Aboriginal customs, which he defines as “bush culture” as opposed to contemporary Canadian “mall culture”.
Aboriginal Rights Are Not Human Rights- Wiki Commons


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


Friday, 17 January 2014

Religious Accommodation vs. Women’s Equality Rights at a Canadian University
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For the last couple of weeks (early January 2014) the Toronto press has been abuzz with a story emanating from York University. In brief, it is the following.
A male student was taking an on-line course from Prof. Paul Grayson in York’s Department of Sociology.  Although the course was on-line, Prof. Grayson required his students to visit the campus once to take part in a group activity with other students. The male student asked to be excused from this requirement as his religion prohibited his interaction with unrelated women. We don’t know the student’s religion, and Grayson refused to speculate, but he said he did consult with both Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. He then declined the student’s request.
York University Keele Campus- Wiki Commons
Meantime, however, Grayson’s Dean and other senior administrators instructed him to grant the request. One reason for this was that he had excused at least one other student who lived outside Canada from the requirement to be present on campus.  The other reason was that, under the doctrine of “reasonable accommodation,” administrators’ are supposed to decide whether a religious accommodation would harm anyone else’s human rights. The administrators decided—somewhat reluctantly, it seems—that excusing the student from interacting with female co-students would not harm any woman students’ rights.
One question here is whether the harm would be real or merely symbolic. Would the female students be harmed, perhaps, by being deprived of the male student’s brilliant insights? If there was no such harm, did the fact that he did not wish to interact with women somehow constitute a psychological or symbolic harm, suggesting that they were unworthy of his attention, or unclean, or somehow sexual temptresses.
Professor Grayson argued that the York administrators would have been unlikely to assent to the student’s request if he has said his religion prohibited him from interacting with black or gay people.  I think he’s right about blacks: the administrators could not permit racial discrimination, even if it had been hidden (Grayson did not have to tell other students about the request). About gay people, I am not so sure. Religious prejudices against homosexuals are rooted in some of the same prejudices held against women. Women in their bodily functions, especially menstruation, are seen by some religions as dirty and shameful. In this view, gays’ sexual activities also render them dirty and shameful.
Nevertheless, I can’t imagine any York administrators instructing Grayson to grant a student’s request not to interact with gays. So why grant it with regard to women? I think the answer is the long history of separation of women and men in some religions, especially some variants of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This separation is bound up with traditional ideas of modesty and the separation of the sexes for their own good.  So it still doesn’t seem as wrong to say that your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with strange women, as to say your religion doesn’t permit you to interact with blacks or gays.
In preparation for writing this blog I reread an article I published (with Laura Reidel) in 2007, “Human Security and Multiculturalism in Canada” (published in Ineke Boerefijn and Jenny Goldschmidt, eds, Human Rights in the Polder, Oxford, Intersentia).  In that article I discussed a number of debates going on in Canada at the time; about prayer space for Muslims in Quebec universities, gay marriage, the use of shari’a-based arbitration in Ontario, and censorship of cartoons appearing to denigrate Islam.  I concluded the following:
“[T]he right to practice a minority religion should [not] be permitted to undermine the human rights of citizens of liberal democracies. The state should accede to demands for accommodation by religious minorities only when such accommodation is not likely to undermine the human rights of any citizens, whether inside or outside the religious minority…[A]ll citizens are at risk if policies to accommodate the demands of any religious minority undermine the liberal democratic human rights regime.” (p. 35)
On this basis I supported prayer space for Muslim (and all other religious) students (even though space is always in short supply at Canadian universities). But I opposed shari’a based arbitration (as well as arbitration under Jewish law) on the grounds that it can undermine women’s and children’s rights. I supported gay marriage. I opposed banning of cartoons, on the grounds that freedom of speech is more important than protecting believers from offense.
Using the principle that accommodation must not undermine other people’s human rights, I think Professor Grayson did the right thing. Even if there was no immediate material damage to the women in his class, the principle that a man does not have to interact with women in an educational or work setting is denigrating to them. It implies that they are less than fully human, not worthy of the same respect as men.
Of course the York University case gives ammunition to proponents of the Quebec Charter of Values, about which I wrote on September 11, 2013: you can find that blog here  http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2013_09_01_archive.html . The proposed Charter would ban public servants from wearing religious apparel at work. I maintain my view on the Quebec Charter. I see no reason to ban religious apparel from the public sector, although I would prohibit proselytization by public servants at their workplace, whether in Quebec or elsewhere. Banning religious apparel sends an extremely negative message to members of minority religious groups, while permitting it does not undermine anyone else’s human rights.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

From the Shadows of the Soviets

From the Shadows of the Soviets

(Note: I have decided to open up my blog site to the occasional guest blog. The blog below is by my current research assistant, David Clement, candidate for a Master’s degree in political science at Wilfrid Laurier University)

Imagine yourself on an extended vacation as a child, enjoying a new country, its food, its people and its pleasures, all the while knowing that at some point in the near future you’ll be heading back to your beloved hometown. Now imagine, at the age of 16, you are told that your extended vacation is now permanent because everything your family once had back home is gone, either stolen or destroyed. This is how my family came to Canada.

Like most Canadians, I am from an immigrant family. The mosaic that is my familial background includes the Isle of Man and India (on my father’s side) and the United States and Bulgaria (on my mother’s). What makes my Bulgarian heritage so intriguing is the circumstances that caused their migration to the country I have called home for my entire life. My grandmother came from a prosperous business family from Bansko, Bulgaria. My great grandparents, Pauline and Boris Todoroff, were eclectic entrepreneurs in that small ski village nestled at the foot of the Pirin Mountains. They successfully owned and operated a bakery, liquor store and inn at the center of Bansko. Because of their success as entrepreneurs, they were able to afford some luxuries that others could not, most importantly the ability to travel. My great-grandfather, otherwise known as Dadu, decided in the summer of 1938 that his family should take an extended vacation in Canada, for the experience, and to strategically avoid the turmoil that was erupting throughout Europe. What was not known is that their hometown would never be the same, and that they would never return.
A picture of central Bansko- Wiki Commons

In the fall of 1944 Soviet troops invaded Bulgaria beginning the era of Soviet influence in the country. As a result of the invasion, and political upheaval, my family lost everything. Their businesses were seized by the Russians, and their land was partially destroyed. Upon news of the terrible loss, the Todoroff family decided to make London Ontario their permanent home, and it would remain so until my grandmother was well into her 30’s. My family took its entrepreneurial spirit to Dundas Street in London where they owned and operated a shoe repair shop, selling shoes and hats. They represented, both literally and symbolically, the perseverance of a family after losing almost everything. What my Bulgarian family’s story demonstrates first is the importance of migration for Canada. The Todoroff family came to Canada unexpectedly, with few language skills and very little to their name, but contributed to the growth of London Ontario for decades. It highlights that the movement of migrants into Canada not only provide migrant families a place to rebuild, but a new community to which they contribute and of which they become a part of.

The second lesson learnt from my family’s turbulent arrival is the importance of property. The right to property is an essential human right. The arbitrary seizure of property by government authorities strips families of their ability to provide for themselves and their communities. It denies them access to the most basic means of wealth creation and sustenance. From this difficult experience, a new Canadian family emerged. This new Canadian family embraced their new home, were able to own property, and were able to make their own lives better, as well as the lives of those around them.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Eritrean Refugees: Victims of Human Trafficking


Eritrean Refugees: Victims of Human Trafficking
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In early December 2013 I read a report in the Globe and Mail by Geoffrey York (“A Desperate and deadly tide of migration,” p. A17, December 4, 2013) about the human trafficking of Eritreans in the Sinai Peninsula area of Egypt, next to Israel. York in turn was reporting on a document submitted to the European parliament by three researchers, an Eritrean human rights activist called Meron Estefanos, and Professor Mirjan van Risen and Dr. Connie Rijken from Tilburg University in the Netherlands.  The report is called “The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond” and can be found here http://www.eepa.be/wcm/dmdocuments/Small_HumanTrafficking-Sinai2-web-3.pdf.
These unfortunate Eritreans are captured or purchased by human traffickers, who torture them and threaten them with amputations or sale of their organs if they do not manage to raise ransoms from their families to free them. Sometimes the kidnappers telephone family members to listen as their loved ones are tortured. The Eritrean families have to raise thousands of dollars to ransom them: how they get the money I do not know, given how poor Eritrea is. This is part of a larger story of Eritrean refugees, several hundred of whom drowned in 2013 while trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa just north of Tunisia.
Eritrean victims of the Lampedusa Drowning- Wiki Commons

I was interested in this report because I had read a little bit about Eritrea as background to a chapter I wrote on state slavery in North Korea (the chapter is forthcoming in 2014 in a book called Contemporary Slavery and Human Rights, edited by Annie Bunting and Joel Quirk; for my blog of slavery in North Korea, see http://rhodahassmann.blogspot.ca/2012/09/north-korean-slave-labour-in-this.html . )
By state slavery, I mean states—governments in power—who enslave their own citizens. One kind of state slavery is the communist kind, which in the 20th century enslaved large numbers of people in prison camps now collectively known as the gulag, originally an acronym for slave-labor camps in the Soviet Union. Such enslavement was also widely used in China after 1949 and is still practiced, although apparently China’s rulers recently decided to abolish it. Slave labor was also practiced on an enormous scale during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (1975-79).
The second kind of state slavery is enslavement of citizens for the financial or material benefit of the government and the individual slavers who control it, and that is the kind you find in Eritrea. Eritrea is a small state on the east coast of Africa that obtained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long civil war. During the war, as I recall, there was a lot of propaganda about how the Eritrean nationalists were democrats who deserved to be freed from the tyrannical regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.
Yet the Eritrean rulers soon introduced a system of state slavery for the benefit of the government and those who controlled it. They instituted an 18-month period of obligatory military service for every adult, male or female. By 1998 they had extended this so-called military service to be indefinite forced labor of anyone unfortunate enough to be drafted into the army. Officially, this forced labor lasts until the age of fifty, but sometimes individuals are enslaved even longer. Members of government and the ruling party, and senior military officers, use these slaves to build their houses, act as their personal servants, and work on farms, building sites, and enterprises owned by the state or army.
The Egyptian/Israel Border- Wiki Commons

Knowing what I did about Eritrea, I assumed the unfortunate victims of these traffickers in northern Africa were refugees who had fallen into the wrong hands.  But it turns out that sometimes they are kidnapped by their own Eritrean security officials, who sell them to Sudanese traffickers, including military officials and border guards, who then sell them on to traffickers in the Sinai. It isn’t enough for Eritrean officials to run a state of internal slavery, it seems; they also engage in the slave trade.
Another shocking aspect of this story is the way Eritreans are treated when they finally escape their captors. Some manage to reach the Israeli border, but the Israelis simply turn them back when they try to enter. Israel ratified the United Nations Convention on Refugees in 1954. One aspect of that convention is the provision of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement means you can’t return an individual to a country where she is likely to be tortured or politically persecuted. Yet the Israelis don’t offer to help these refugees: they simply return them to the very Egyptian soldiers who have often colluded in their capture in the first place. These soldiers often hold them to ransom again, before they can return to Eritrea.
Israel should be ashamed of itself, but apparently it has a hard time accepting that the black African people who live close to them have the same moral right to assistance as the Jews who were denied entrance to Canada, the United States, and other countries during Nazi rule in Europe.
If you are Eritrean, it seems, your choice—so-called--is between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know.  If you stay in Eritrea, you may well be a slave. If you leave, you risk drowning, kidnapping, torture and murder.  Meantime we are all horrified when hundreds drown within sight of Europe, but we manage to ignore what drove these hapless people out of their own country.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Reposting: What is the Global South?

Reposting: What is the Global South?
Today I am reposting a blog I first posted on August 15, 2012, when I was new to blogging and didn’t know how to publicize my work.  I still agree with what I said last year, except, apparently, the growth of the emerging economies is slowing down somewhat.  
What is the Global South?
The other day I was having lunch with an old friend who teaches the sociology of the family. She has noticed that lately her students have been using the term “global south” a lot, and she asked me what I thought of it. This gives me the chance to expound on one of my pet peeves. My students use the term “global South” to contrast the world’s rich with the world’s poor and to show their sympathies with the South.  But when I ask them where the global south is, they are stymied.
It’s not a geographical term. Some countries south of the equator are rich, such as Australia and New Zealand. Others are or are becoming middle-income countries, such as Chile. And in the North, there are many poor countries; one of the poorest, Haiti, is in both the North and the West. Another area that is very poor is the Arab Middle East, in the northern half of the world.
What can be considered the Global South- Wiki Commons
Nor is global south an economic term, meant to embrace all “underdeveloped” countries as “southern” regardless of their actual geographical location. Some formerly underdeveloped countries, both in the north and the south, are becoming much wealthier than they used to be when academic concern with underdevelopment first became widespread in the 1970s. About three million people live in a group of six growing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, some in the north and some in the south. China has been growing in leaps and bounds since it embraced authoritarian capitalism in 1979.  India has been growing since 1991, when it relinquished economic protectionism. China is now an exploiter of Africa, where it grabs up oil and minerals without a concern for internal development or democracy and human rights; it certainly doesn’t belong in the same “south” as the Africa it cheerfully pillages for resources.
Finally, the global south is not a good political term. China is now a major player on the world scene and in the United Nations Security Council, and many commentators think that this century will be the “Asian century” with China in the lead. The emerging economies also have more political clout, especially through the formation of regional political and economic blocs, such as the Organization of American States and the African Union.
When students use the term global south, they often mean to imply that the south is poor because the north is rich; that is, the north has been exploiting the south.  Yet we know that many causes of poverty are internal to the countries that experience it, not external. A few years ago the Arab Development Report, written by Arab scholars, mentioned the lack of democracy as one of the chief causes of underdevelopment in the Arab Middle East. In China there are still gross inequalities between rural and urban areas, and migrants to the cities are treated particularly badly: this is a result of domestic policy, not “northern” exploitation, past or present. In India, much poverty is a result not of relations with the north but of the caste system and severe gender discrimination. In Africa, a chief cause of underdevelopment is government corruption: witness Nigeria, whose hundreds of billions in oil revenues are ripped off by the governing elites and their cronies.
So what it comes down to, as far as I can see, is that the global south is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is in the geographical south, is very poor, and still has very little global political influence. It’s not a good idea, then, to use the term global south. The so-called south is divided by geography, economic prosperity, and political influence. The world is too complex to be divided into two categories, especially when such categories conflate the present with the past.

65 Years of International Human Rights: Progress, Gaps, Regressions

65 Years of International Human Rights: Progress, Gaps, Regression
This morning I was interviewed by a local radio reporter in advance of World Human Rights Day, which is tomorrow, December 10, 2013. This is the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948.
The reporter wanted to know if anything has improved since 1948. A lot has. Probably the single biggest improvement is that over half the world’s population—women—are now recognized as subjects of human rights and have their rights guaranteed in most international human rights instruments. And women in many parts of the world enjoy many rights in practice as well--political rights to vote, economic rights to work and to equal pay, and so on. Lots more women are engaged in fighting for rights too.
Another improvement is that with the end of apartheid, overt racial discrimination is no longer allowed. Again, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, in overt forms (such as discrimination against non-Jews in Israel) or covert forms (such as continued enslavement of “blacks” by “whites” in Mauritania). And the end of racial discrimination doesn’t mean the end of caste discrimination in India. 
DRC refugees fleeing conflict- Wiki Commons
Totalitarian governments, such as the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1971, and China from 1949 to 1979 (when it became an authoritarian capitalist state instead) have almost disappeared, although North Korea still hangs on to totalitarianism. Thirty years ago much of Latin and Central America was suffering under murderous military rule: most of those governments have gone.  Sub-Saharan Africa is making progress—though not as much as we would like—towards regimes that protect civil and political rights. And we’ve made a tiny dent in impunity for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes with the establishment of the International Criminal Court.
There are still gaps in the human rights regime. There is no declaration or covenant protecting the rights of LGTB individuals (lesbians, gays, trans-sexuals, bisexuals), although more and more protections are emerging through legal decisions. Little progress has been made in protecting aboriginal peoples’ rights as collectivities—most importantly to their traditional lands—as well as their rights as individuals. Some third generation “collective” rights such as to peace and a clean environment have a long way to go. It’s hard to believe the right to peace has any meaning when we know that over five million people have died from warfare, disease, starvation, and rape in the so-called “Democratic” Republic of the Congo since 1994. The world’s rulers still aren’t paying enough attention to the dangers of climate change, and it seems that corporations’ “rights” to make profits and countries’ “rights” to trade still take priority over the long-term life of the planet. 
There are regressions as well. Since 9/11 the world’s most established liberal democracies have imposed controls on civil rights of those suspected of being terrorists; most such suspects are Arabs and/or Muslims, and Islamophobia runs rampant in these societies. New technologies have increased the surveillance capacities of the state and of corporations, rendering us all vulnerable to the Big Brother controls envisaged by George Orwell in his 1984. The welfare state is under attack: governments are cutting back on all types of social security, cheered on by a corporate sector that pays its CEOs obscene amounts while vigorously fighting unionization and protesting against even the tiniest rise in the minimum wage. 
The reporter also asked me what I thought the worst human rights problems are in Canada. The worst by far is the treatment of First Nations people: not only because of their unresolved land claims, but because of gross violations of their individual rights. Indigenous peoples in Canada are disproportionately likely to be poor, to be incarcerated, and to commit suicide. The federal government that is supposed to finance education on reserves provides far less funding per pupil than the provincial governments where the reserves are located. Then there are the continuing multiple human rights violations of Canada’s poor, in housing, work, health, and education, just for a start. And we currently have a government with a terrible track record in environmental good management.
Finally, the reporter asked me what one person could do about human rights. Here I quote the Canadian political commentator Rick Mercer, whom I heard on a recent radio programme. He said everyone could use their own skill set, and mentioned his mother, a nurse, who use to spend her “vacations” donating free nursing at a summer camp for diabetic children. Lots of Canadians help other people to realize their human rights, from the volunteers at food banks to the doctors abroad in danger zones. Unfortunately though, to volunteer requires time, a regular schedule, and some money, even if it’s only enough to get to the place you want to volunteer at.  Poor people without money for bus fares, with irregular and arbitrary work schedules, and with multiple demands on their time, often can’t volunteer in a formal sense, even if they would like to, but many of them help each other with child care, personal care for the elderly and disabled, and so on.  If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to uphold human rights.