Friday, 14 April 2017

Human Rights or Global Capitalism by Manfred Nowak: Book Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Book Note

Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants, by Ayten Gündoğlu: Book Note

(Note: I wrote this book review for Human Rights Quarterly: I am posting it with the permission of the editor, Bert Lockwood; the publication information is New York: Oxford University Press, 2015)

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt famously called for the “right to have rights.” Reflecting on her own status as a stateless refugee from Germany, Arendt broadened her analysis to include the problem of statelessness as a whole. Ayten Gündoğdu engages with the entirety of Arendt’s opus, especially with The Human Condition and On Revolution as well as with The Origins, to unpack the various meanings and implications of this call.

Gündoğdu starts with what Arendt called the “perplexity” of the contradiction between state sovereignty and the universal enjoyment of human rights. Then and now, rights are protected--or not--by sovereign states that normally extend their protection only to their citizens, and perhaps non-citizens legally in their territory. The naked human being, unmoored from the state-people-territory framework, has no rights.

Gündoğdu extends Arendt’s argument to cover all migrants, not only stateless people, focusing on their powerlessness and dehumanization. She grounds her analysis empirically in the dehumanization experienced by residents of camps for refugees and displaced people. She also refers to the appalling detention camps now dotting the world’s island geography, where potential refugee claimants live in endless limbo.

Hannah Arendt
Gündoğdu discusses the ways in which human beings actually manufacture, claim, and win human rights. She notes that Arendt criticized the “urge to approach social issues with a moralistic framework centered on compassion,” positioning those who faced injustice as “victims…erasing their singularity and denying them equal standing.”(p. 57) Gündoğdu analyzes the limits of compassion in the treatment of camp-dwellers, people without political agency who are mere objects to be administered. She is correct that compassion is not the best basis for solidarity. Camp dwellers cannot rely on compassion if they are to be treated as equal human beings enjoying liberty. Compassion and charity leave the human being at the mercy of others, mostly those of higher status who cannot help but look down upon those who are their administrative objects.

Nevertheless, the real problem here is not that residents of refugee camps must rely on the compassion of those who administer them. Such administrators are probably well aware of the problems of subjecting residents to charity, but they are limited in what they can do by financial constraints and the state system. The UNHRC, other agencies of the UN system such as UNICEF, and non-governmental organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières are dependent upon voluntary financial contributions from states and compassionate private citizens. These voluntary contributions rarely, if ever, reach the amount needed merely to ensure that residents are not riddled by disease or suffering from malnutrition.

Gündoğdu defends Arendt against charges of élitism made by other philosophers with whose work she engages. Arendt is criticized for denigrating manual and other kinds of labor, but Gündoğdu argues that she views both labor and work as crucial to human dignity. According to Gündoğdu, Arendt defined labor as day-to-day bodily maintenance and maintenance of one’s home and surroundings. This labor grounds the individual in the material world and provides her with a sense of routine, permanence, and community with others. By work, Arendt apparently meant creativity, the ability to make or build something new and worthwhile. Both labor and work are denied to residents of camps. Dependent for their every need on the compassion of others, they endure lives of complete boredom without social roles or responsibilities. This is a degraded form of “life,” without meaning or substance.

Gündoğdu argues that Arendt did not rely on what philosophers call foundational principles of human rights. Rather, Arendt used an approach that Gündoğdu calls “founding.” Rights, she argues along with Arendt, are founded in political action, including “inaugural speech acts that bring forth new rights,” such as the French and American revolutionary documents (p. 209). To show how founding still applies, Gündoğdu describes the political movement of sans-papiers (people without papers) in France in the 1990s. Deliberately referencing the urban sans-culottes of the 1789 Revolution, this late twentieth-century movement demanded the same rights as citizens of France, claiming “rights that they [were] not yet authorized to claim” (p. 189).

Gündoğdu discusses the 18th century foundational principle for human rights, what Ētienne Balibar calls “equaliberty” (p. 23). This conjoining of the principles of equality and liberty is not enough, however, to ensure the rights of twenty-first century migrants. Indeed, it is not enough to ensure the rights of anyone, including citizens of rights-protective democratic states. Even if citizens enjoy formal legal and political equality and the liberty to pursue their own interests, they may not be able to enjoy all their other human rights, especially their economic and social rights. Enjoyment of these rights requires a sense of community among all citizens and a state that engages in distributive and redistributive measures that ensure everyone’s access to a basic minimum of material security, as well as access to educational and cultural resources that permit all citizens to be efficacious members of their own political community.       

How to extend this sense of community to strangers is a difficult question, however. Such extension requires recognition of “others” as human beings, whatever their differences.  But such recognition does not mean that these others will be welcomed as full citizens into states that are otherwise democratic and rights-protective. Probably all Gündoğdu’s readers will agree with her principal concerns, that migrants should have human rights, that they should not have to rely on charity or compassion, and that they should be permitted to engage in political action and organization, whether within the camps to which they are confined or in the countries in which they enjoy no or precarious residency rights. These principles, however, confront limited material resources and limited integrational capacities, even in states that welcome (carefully-controlled numbers of ) refugees and immigrants. And they confront everywhere racist and nativist reactions against perceived foreigners. Sadly, the right to belong to humanity does not yet mean the right to citizenship.

While Gündoğdu’s reading of Arendt and other philosophers is profound and her arguments persuasive, her book ignores some legal and political realities. From the point of view of actual law and politics, her conflation of different types of people who no longer live in their homeland is confusing.

Of the 232 million people that the United Nations tells us are people living outside the countries of their birth, some are legal migrants in or naturalized citizens of their new countries: for example, about twenty per cent of Canada’s 36 million residents are foreign-born, among whom most are legal residents and a substantial number are citizens. Figures differentiating naturalized citizens, legal migrants, migrants without legal status, refugees, refugee claimants, and stateless people would have served Gündoğdu’s analysis well. There are only about 12 million stateless people, the paradigmatic group with which her analysis is concerned. While this is 12 million people too many, it is also a far cry from 232 million people. While many migrants are de facto stateless, as Gündoğlu observes (p.4), many others continue to enjoy the legal protections of their natal states as well as of the states to which they move. Not all migrants are seen as “undeserving intruders” (p. 123): this is particularly so in the current round of globalization in which many high-status, highly-educated and wealthy people move easily across borders. Moreover, the book’s title suggests that Gündoğdu confines herself to migrants, but her analysis of the camps applies as much to those containing technically non-migrant, internally displaced people as to camps where migrants or refugees live.

Arendt may have used the philosophical term, “perplexity” to describe the plight of the naked human being without the protection of a state, but to a political scientist there is nothing perplexing about the contradiction between state sovereignty and human rights. The states that drafted the International Bill of Human Rights were anxious to maintain their sovereignty: just as anxious, if not more so, are the new states formed from ex-colonies since the end of the Second World War. Thus, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims everyone’s right to seek asylum, no one has a right to asylum itself, as Gündoğdu notes: indeed, while everyone has the right to re-enter her own country, no one has the right to enter any other country. What commentators such as Gündoğdu call a crisis of statelessness (p. 35) is not a crisis for actual states, whose governors take for granted that they have no legal obligations to non-citizens who are not resident in their territories.

Nor will political scientists find Gündoğdu’s argument for basing human rights in human action—the “founding” of human rights—rather than in foundational philosophical principles particularly enlightening. That human rights are what human beings claim ought to be their rights is well known. Human rights are bound up in struggle, as Gündoğdu acknowledges.  Rights claims change, as do the rights that (some) states grant, as new social groups enter the rights discourse and new aspects of human dignity such as respect for sexual orientation and gender identity are made.

Despite these criticisms, this is a very interesting book well worth reading. While it will be of principal interest to political philosophers, especially those engaged with Arendt’s work, others will also benefit from Gündoğdu’s discussion of the entirety of Arendt’s thought and how it applies to migrants and camp-dwellers of all kinds. Gündoğdu is a brilliant analyst, whose thinking is informed throughout by great empathy and by the very compassion that she herself criticizes. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Stop Appeasing Trump Now!

Stop Appeasing Trump Now!

All democrats everywhere, political leaders and ordinary citizens, must stop appeasing Donald Trump now.  They must condemn his racist policies as strongly as they can. They must stop pretending that he is a normal, democratically elected leader. They must stop being diplomatic.

When we think of appeasement, we think of Neville Chamberlain going to Munich in 1938 to sign an agreement with Adolf Hitler and returning to Britain, saying, “peace in our time.”

But the appeasement of Hitler started in 1933. Politicians and diplomats in the democratic Western world treated him like a normal political leader. They ignored his persecution of communists, socialists, trade unionists, liberals and Jews. Many people in Britain, the United States, and Canada even thought he had a point about communists and Jews.

It’s not sensible to make public policy decisions purely by analogy to past events. There’s also the old joke that the first person to invoke the name of Hitler in a political argument loses. But we can’t help thinking about Hitler now.

Since January 20 Trump has been decreeing arbitrary measures as if he has dictatorial powers.  At best, he is behaving like a mad king; at worst, he is what he seems to be, a racist and an Islamophobe.

People thought Hitler was mad too but that he could be controlled, and they were wrong. We can’t assume that Democrats will resume control of the Congress or Senate in 2018; we can’t assume Trump will be defeated in 2020; we can’t assume his successor in 2024 will be any more liberal than he is. We must join American democrats now to defeat Trump.

Premier Philippe Couillard of Quebec
Meantime here in Canada we see the effects of Islamophobic talk, as Premier Couillard of Quebec has pointed out. Words have meanings, words can hurt, and words can result in vicious actions such as the mass murder in a mosque on January 29 in Quebec City.

 The debate on “Quebec values” that the Parti Québecois unleashed in Quebec in 2013 legitimized prejudices against Muslims. In the guise of women’s rights and protection of a secular Quebec, the PQ suggested that Muslim citizens were less valuable than other citizens.  Even though the PQ was defeated in the election a year later, the damage was done. (see my article on the Quebec Values Debate posted on December 8, 2016).

When I think about Muslims today I think of my own family. My German grandparents escaped to Norway in 1938, from where they tried to enter the US. The American official in Oslo told them that my grandmother could enter as she was a Christian, but my grandfather could not as he was a Jew. Meantime one of my father’s Jewish cousins and her five-year-old daughter were denied entry into Canada: they died in the Holocaust.

I mention these personal stories because every Muslim and non-Muslim individual denied entrance to the US in the last few days has a personal story. So does every Muslim killed and wounded on January 29 in Quebec City. They all have names; they all have families; and many have suffered in ways that those of us who live in Canada will never experience. Instead of escaping from persecution, they now face more.

We must not appease those who would deny these Muslims their humanity. We must join with the Americans demonstrating in the streets and at airports. The US is a nation in danger of being taken over by fascists, if democrats world-wide appease the Trump dictatorship.

American pro-Muslim airport demonstration

Note:(January 30, 2017) this post has been accepted as an op-ed piece in the Hamilton (Canada) Spectator and should be appearing in the next few days.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien: Book Note

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien: Book Note
Edna O’Brien has written many novels about Irish girls and young women, most of which I’ve read over the years. This novel is very different, being very political. The reference in the title is to the 11,541 red chairs--including 643 chairs for children--set up in Sarajevo in 2012 to commemorate the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces during the ex-Yugoslavia wars.  2012 was the 20th anniversary of the siege.

 In Part I, a foreigner called Vladimir Dragan arrives in an improbably innocent Irish village, setting himself up as a “healer” and mesmerizing people with his charm, knowledge and exoticism. Fidelma, a beautiful 40-year-old who has endured two miscarriages, falls in love with him and begs him to impregnate her, which he does. Vlad is later exposed as a Serbian war criminal by the younger brother of one of his victims, who happens to be working in a nearby hotel. Vlad is arrested, while Fidelma is kidnapped and raped with a crowbar by his erstwhile enemies, killing her “Serbian” child.

In Part II, Fidelma goes to London, where she lives a poverty-stricken life that puts her in touch with refugees, rape victims, illegal immigrants, and various other people living an underground life. Along the way there are several set pieces in which individuals tell each other their stories of war, migration, poverty, homelessness, and misogyny. At one point Fidelma lives with an African woman who migrated to London after her husband took a second wife, and whose neighbor is a lonely little girl who is not in school because she and her father are illegal immigrants. Another woman Fidelma meets has come to London to protect her daughter from female genital mutilation.

Eventually Fidelma travels to The Hague, where Vlad is now on trial. After realizing he will never apologize to her or acknowledge his crimes, she returns to Ireland.

The character of Vlad is based on Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist who from 1992 to 1996 was President of Republika Skrypska, a Serbian enclave in Bosnia. After 1996 he hid in plain sight for many years within Yugoslavia, posing as an “alternative healer.” It’s thought that Serbian authorities knew where he was but protected him. He was eventually arrested and sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. He was convicted on March 24, 2016 of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Vlad shows how psychologically complex mass murderers can be; he loves flowers and poetry and plays the gusle (a musical instrument that looks like a one-stringed violin). We know that many Nazis, including Nazi doctors, had similarly complex psyches, enjoying classical concerts played by Jewish prisoners after long days of mass murder. Edna O’Brien said in an interview that she found Karadzic’s “duality” as a mass murderer and a healer interesting: I just thought he was preying on vulnerable people with fake cures.

In discussion with fellow members of my book clubs, the question came up what the theme of The Little Red Chairs might have been. Perhaps it was evil. Vlad is evil’s embodiment, and Fidelma wonders if she was complicit in evil. She feels remorseful for having slept with Vlad, even though she did not know his true identity at the time. She does not tell ex-Yugoslavian refugees whom she meets in London about the rape and torture she herself endured, when they criticize her for her relationship with Vlad. When she visits him in The Hague, she expects Vlad to feel express remorse but instead he mocks her quest for “truth, justice, atonement.”

Another theme was women’s suffering, especially the suffering of the various women characters who endure miscarriage, still-born births, and various “natural” tragedies not connected to politics. In her autobiography, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien recounts her own suffering as a woman, which I describe in my blog of April 7, 2015: This raises the questions of whether all women might be “sisters,” because all are vulnerable to such natural tragedies, but is this false sisterhood. Miscarriages and stillbirths, however sad, do not compare to rapes, torture, and warfare.

 I didn’t find this to be as fulfilling a novel as many other readers did. There were too many set pieces, seemingly inserted so that O’Brien could incorporate as many political themes as possible, so that the book seemed rather didactic. Too many characters are introduced but then don’t reappear. It seems as if O’Brien invented the character of Fidelma in order to tie together disparate political events and misogynist practices. In the end, O’Brien brings all her characters together for a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I looked up the plot summary of this play by William Shakespeare and found it very confusing, and I could not see any analogies to characters in this novel. 

Nevertheless, professors who read this blog might want to assign The Little Red Chairs to their students.  It is a good way to introduce students to scholarship on genocide, transitional justice, and women’s rights (or lack thereof).  I discussed these topics when I presented the book recently to one of my book clubs. In the past I’ve often used memoirs or novels to introduce students to various political events, and found that to be a successful teaching method.