Monday, January 30, 2017

The Danger of Trump's Holocaust Remembrance Message

It is now clear that the White House intentionally and deliberately did not identify the groups targeted by the Holocaust in last Friday's statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to the New York Times, Chief of Staff Reince Preibus said this: '“I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust including obviously, all of the Jewish people affected and the miserable genocide that occurred — it’s something that we consider to be extraordinarily sad. He added: "If we could wipe it off of the history books, we would. But we can't."'
"Everyone's suffering in the Holocaust." It may seem like that's a good sentiment, but it's actually a potentially dangerous one, and I want you to understand why I think that.
Not "everyone" suffered in the Holocaust. Not even everyone in Germany, or occupied Poland or France suffered in the Holocaust. There were consequences of war for everyone, but not everyone was targeted and not everyone suffered in the Holocaust. We should separate out the war from the Holocaust, because they are not fully synonymous. The war was the invasion; it was the attempt to take over control of Europe. And as a consequence of that control, you also had the Holocaust, which was "the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators."
The Holocaust was the Nazi's "final solution to the Jewish question." The camps -- sometimes called "concentration" camps, but more appropriately called "extermination camps" -- were used to burn people alive, or to gas them to death.
The extermination camps were used not just for Jews but also for Roma, Slavs, homosexuals, those considered to have mental deficiencies, and others. Generally, political opponents were not sent to the extermination camps. Commonly, they were sent to slave-labour camps and prison camps, often known as concentration camps, which were awful and inhumane but the purpose of the concentration camp was not to secure death. The individual opponents of the Nazis -- those who were sent to camps for their political views rather than their social identification -- were not send to be killed as a group.
The extermination camps -- the means and method of delivering the Holocaust; the gas chambers and cremetoria that were designed for the purpose of killing large groups of people at one time -- that was for the Jews and other targeted groups. Not for Jewish people, but for the Jews. This distinction is important because the reason someone was sent to the extermination camps was generally not about them, their actions, opinions, or beliefs. It was about the group to which they belonged.
In the Holocaust, only certain people were targeted, and they were targeted for greater suffering than the average person; a suffering that was intentionally and decidedly cruel because they were deemed subhuman, less than, and "other." But they were targeted specifically because of their identity. There was a systematic division of the society for the purpose of securing power and then exterminating these classes of people. Not just individuals but the whole of groups. The Holocaust was designed not to inflict suffering on individual Jewish people or "all of the Jewish people." It was designed to eliminate and annihilate the collective Jewish people and their identity. The consequences for the individuals were byproducts, not the intention of their death. That is why the Holocaust was not for Jewish people, but for the Jews.
I know I just said the same thing multiple different ways but that is because it's fundamentally important you understand that to follow what I'm going to say now.
One of the ways to change history is to ignore or downplay the purpose of a particular act. This becomes a particularly effective tool if what you want to change is the lsson to be learnt from that point of history -- if what you want to do, in Preibus' words, is to "wipe [a particular part of history] off of the history books."
We have seen this already with the American Civil War. Immediately following the Civil War, there was a consensus regarding what the Civil War was about: slavery. I know some of you are shaking your head already, but I'm not debating with you about what the Civil War was about; I'm telling you a historical fact that during and immediately following the Civil War, the consensus was that the cause of the Civil War was slavery (download that pamphlet before it disappears). You can see this also by referring to the declarations of secession that the Confederate States issued. Mississippi's said
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” 
As others have written about, during the antebellum era it was Northern states that attempted to protect "state's rights" over federal intervention. Northern states tried to resist having to enforce federal law that prioritized slave-owner's rights over the slaves' rights.
But, depending on where and when you grew up, you probably learned that the "real" cause of the Civil War was Southern states' commitment to "state's rights" (conveniently skimming over that the right was to hold another individual in slavery).
The change in how we understand the cause of the Civil War was a deliberate move by leaders from the South. By suggesting that "everyone" suffered during the War, they could eliminate discussion of the fact that some -- slaves -- suffered before and during the war in a fundamentally particular war. They then targeted the identity of who was a "true" American. Since those in the South no longer perpetrated a particularly egregious act (slavery), then the concept of who a "true" American is changed. President Andrew Jackson was one of the more prominent members of the Southern leadership to assert publicly that:
“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
With this sentiment, the victims of the past, targeted for their identities, are eliminated from the future solutions. The victims of the past that matter are no longer slaves, or even black people, but now suddenly white men.
The introduction of Jim Crow laws then solidified the transformation of the Southern understanding of the Civil War. Now, the victims were again victimized, in a different manner, and kept from accessing power. Those with power were able to isolate and oppress the victims.
And the lesson to be learned from the Civil War no longer had anything to do with slavery, or the rights of those who had been enslaved. The lesson to be learned was the ahistorical one about "states' rights." The lesson became: you can't force states to do what the federal government wants and demands -- i.e., adopt civil rights measures and eliminate discrimination -- without potentially causing a new, significant clash. The interests of the minority -- in this new retelling by the Southern states -- has a place in standing up against the majority -- in this case, the oppressive federal government.
All of this is the consequence, not accidentally either, of changing the narrative of what the cause of the Civil War was.
With Trump's elimination of Jews from the narrative of the Holocaust, with the intentional and deliberate use of 'everyone's suffering," the Trump administration is beginning the process of changing the US narrative about the Holocaust. It will not be the targeting of Jews as a group, but rather individuals, that was the sad consequence of the Holocaust.
And one group did not suffer as a result of the Holocaust; everyone, all "innocent people" as the original statement said, suffered.
And once you change the historical narrative, you can change the lesson of the Holocaust.
Now, we need not defend groups of people -- i.e., Muslims or Syrians -- we need only focus on the individuals.
Again, it sounds like a nice sentiment. But if a group is being targeted because it is a group, the individual members are not protected solely by their individual status. Jewish people were not able to escape the Holocaust by pleading with camp guards about the goodness of their intentions and lives.
More importantly, by telling people to focus on the individual rather than the group, there is a potential to get people to miss the forest for the trees. Let me tell you a brief story: a former boss of mine when I waited tables told me that if he wanted to fire anyone in the company, he could find a legitimate reason to do so, particularly in a company where our employment was generally "at will" so he didn't need a good reason to fire the person, he just needed the absence of a bad reason. I asked him why he would be able to fire me. "The way you tie your apron." I was aghast. I tied my apron the same way all the other waiters and waitresses tied their aprons: I wrapped the apron strings around my waist and tied a little bow in the front, right above the apron's pockets. If we tied the bow in the back, the apron strings became loose as we walked, and the apron would often fall down while I was carrying a large and heavy tray.
But, according to the company manual, the apron was to be tied in the back. It didn't matter that the apron was rather useless for its purpose -- and potentially dangerous -- if we tied it in the back. It mattered that the company liked the look of that apron being tied in the back. Now, by this point in my waitressing career (which would not last much longer) I had waited on every manager in the region. One of the three stores I served at for this company was the place where all the managers met for once a month meetings. Not just individual store managers, either -- the regional heads up all the way to lower company Vice Presidents came to our store on a regular basis. Because I was good at my job (and, let's be honest, because I was a 20 y/o, thin white female with a cute bum who smiled regularly at them and followed store regulations) I was often asked to serve that group.
Not once had anyone commented on how I tied the apron. Yet, if the manager wanted to fire me, he could've done so for a "uniform violation." On its own, that's not a particularly huge problem. It would suck for me, but it's not a social issue. But if he wanted to fire all the brunettes in the store, he could do that. Or if he wanted to fire all the black people who worked for the store, he could do.
Addressing those individuals as individuals -- convincing an attorney or judge to assess their firing based on the individual and not their group identity -- does away with the pattern. The individual can be faulted because they didn't follow the uniform's code. And individually, one by one, the hypothetical black people he just fired lose any chance at showing that their firing was unfair and unjust. There is no pattern of injustice, because there is no identity based on which to assess the pattern.
So how does this relate to Trump? If you want to target a group of people in the US -- say, Muslims or Latinos -- an important first step is to change the narrative of the Holocaust, and any other historical moment that points to the fact that people are sometimes targeted for their identity; targeted as a group not as an individual.
The potential of this very subtle change has not been lost on those paying attention to how this administration treats minority groups, perhaps because it came at the same time as the #MuslimBan. But, it's something the rest of the population needs to push back against as well. Not "everyone" suffered in the Holocaust. Jews, Roma, LGBTQ, and the disabled suffered in the Holocaust. They were targeted as groups for their suffering. Everyone suffered in the war, but not everyone suffered in the Holocaust. It is important that we remember that individuals were killed, but it was groups that were targeted and exterminated in the Holocaust. Do not forget that. Never forget that. Because the moment you do, the moment you accept the Trump statement as a "good" thing is the moment that our current vulnerable minority groups become even more vulnerable.

Picture from the UK's National Holocaust Centre and Museum 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Remembering Nigel Rodley

This post is being published both here and at my business and human rights blog,

I am still processing the news of this loss, but it appears Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, KBE, has passed away. There will be many more tributes to Nigel in the days to come, but I hope he will be remembered not just as an eminent scholar but as a good teacher.

I did my LLM dissertation under Nigel's supervision. We developed the topic in December after he gave a lecture on torture and the US legal approach at Guantanamo Bay, and for most of the thesis, it was an unremarkable working relationship with someone I deeply admired and enjoyed talking to, even if I remained intimidated by him long after it was warranted.

(*Lest my American friends think I got the terminology wrong, I'm using UK terminology here.)

There are two stories from that time, however, that stand out. I'm only prepared to share one publicly now (the other, which is more embarrassing for me I tell to my own students & mentees when they freak out about their work):

I disagree with Nigel on the importance of severity in the definition of torture. By September 2009 – when I was to hand in the dissertation – I had known this for a few months but had not yet spoken to him about it. This disagreement was weighing on me, in part because I wanted a good mark and – like many students do – I feared that disagreeing with someone of his stature could be taken as either insolence or inaccuracy and affect my result.

About a week before the paper was due, I ended up seated across from Nigel at an end-of-year dinner my class put on. I felt this was a good opportunity to sound him out, so I gathered my courage and said:

“Nigel, I have a bit of an issue I want to discuss. I kind of disagree with Manfred Nowak on part of the definition of torture.”

I said I gathered my courage. I didn’t say I had a lot of courage at that moment.

He leaned forward. “Really, my dear. I tend to agree with Manfred. What do you disagree with him about?”

“Well, I disagree with him on the issue of severity.”

He looked at me for a second and said, “Oh, well, yes, I do agree with Manfred on that.”

I blushed. “I know. I just didn't think it was polite to tell you to your face that I disagree with you.”

He leaned back and shook his head just slightly. “No, my dear. You are now at a point in your career where you should feel free to disagree with anyone in this field, so long as you do so with logic and have good references to back you up. So, tell me your thoughts.”

I laid out my case, to which he said, “Well, yes, you have a lot of support in that. As long you provide adequate references, you should feel free to embrace that position.”

We talked a little longer about that issue specifically, my dissertation generally, and about my career trajectory. I don't remember all of what was said, but that part of the conversation – the idea that I had a right to disagree with someone of Nigel’s stature so long as I laid out my case with logic and adequate references – has stuck with me.

Obviously, not every human rights academic embraces Nigel's humility and I have, on rare occasions, found myself disappointed upon meeting a name I have cited and admired only to realize they aren’t the quite as gracious as I’d come to expect after working with the likes of Nigel and Kevin Boyle and Francoise Hampson and Sheldon Leader.

Nigel’s words continue to inform how I conduct myself. One of the (weirder) compliments I often get is that people are glad I am present for meetings and workshops because I tend to ask good questions and provide good feedback. That is the result, I think, of knowing that I belong in the room. I don’t ask questions or give comments for the sake of getting my name known in part because Nigel (and separately and in different ways, Kevin, Francoise, Sheldon, Clara, Sabine, Lorna, Andrew, Geoff, etc…) imparted in me a belief that my opinion mattered regardless of my title or lack thereof. At the same time, that opinion comes with a responsibility to be careful and ensure it is well-informed and given only when relevant and when it adds something to the conversation.

It is a lesson I hope I impart on my own students. 

I have so many other memories with Nigel from my PhD and after -- I visited him to discuss my ideas, and in the final year, he would step on as my committee chair, bringing one more informed and opinionated voice into the very robust discussions my supervisors and I routinely "enjoyed." 

But, it is that LLM dissertation story that I always come back to with Nigel. And it's one that I think he appreciated as well. 

About 18 months ago, he asked me to co-edit a book on human rights institutions and enforcement (that process is ongoing). One of the byproducts was that I could easily persuade Nigel to come to Aarhus last September for a conference we hosted on the 50th anniversary of the ICCPR and ICESCR. I chaired his panel (which also featured the wonderful Janelle Diller). When I introduced him, I shared this story. I sort of sprang it on him actually, knowing that if I told him in advance what I was to say he would insist on a slightly less generous introduction. And sure enough, Nigel, being Nigel, ended up a bit flustered at the start of his talk. He regained composure, but it struck me how often I had seen him blush at compliments I assume were rather routine for him. Confidence balanced with humility. That's a pretty rare quality. 

Separately at that conference, I reminded him of the other, more embarrassing story as well. It was clear from his reaction that he also preferred the one I've shared here. I think that humility and generosity is how he hoped to be remembered, and it is what so many of us are thinking about today.

My friend (and mentor) ClaraSandoval, Director of the Essex Human Rights Centre, called Nigel a “brilliant and unpretentious colleague, an inspiring and generous human being and a wonderful mentor and friend.”

There will be many tributes coming out for Nigel in the next few days, but I think Clara’s will remain the most apt.

RIP Nigel, and thank you.

I borrowed this picture of an Essex Human Rights Center end-of-year party from my former flatmate and friend, Rukamanee Maharjan. Nigel's in the first row, seated far left. I am in the second or third row (depending on how you count), about 5 people from the right. I believe this was the year that Nigel and I tried - unsuccessfully - to work out how Todd Landman's magic tricks work.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Sami question – dealing with Sweden’s colonial past

(Author’s note: this post does not attempt to in any way deal with all the violations of human rights of the Sami in Sweden.)

“Who here has ever studied about the Sami?” – that was the question a classmate asked in a history class during my 2nd year in high school. In a class of 32, from many different secondary schools around the Gothenburg area, not one of us raised our hand. I remember thinking that maybe it was a bit odd, but I didn’t give it any more thought at the time. But in the last few years this memory has bothered me more and more.

During my LLM I took a class on the Inter-American system of human rights. It was the first time I had studied anything about Latin America and the first time I learned about indigenous rights and the many different indigenous people of the Americas – how their rights have been violated and how the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held states accountable. I remember coming to the realization that if Sweden were in the Americas, we would’ve had our wrists slapped hard for our treatment of the Sami. I also remember talking to one of my best friends once about how much I liked the class and she asked me, “well what are the Sami like?”. She assumed I had something to offer since they are the indigenous people my home country Sweden. “I don’t know”, I answered, feeling slightly stupid and uncomfortable. “Well what’s their culture and faith and stuff?” she asked. Once again I had to reply with “I don’t know.”

Of course I knew that the Sami come from the north of Sweden and that some are reindeer herders and I also knew sort of what their traditional costumes look like and that there had been some past abuses on the part of the Swedish State. This I had learned from a children’s news program when I was a child. But that was the extent of my education about the Sami growing up in Sweden – and none of it came from my 12 years in school. It was then that I started to ask around: had my friends, family members, younger brother, or nieces ever studied the Sami in school? I have continued to ask this question of colleagues and other Swedish people when the topic comes up and the answer has always been “no”. This made me start wondering about the silence on this topic in Swedish society. There has been much more about the Sami in the news and media lately but growing up I was never confronted about my country’s history regarding the colonization of Sami lands and oppression of our indigenous people. I personally feel robbed by my government of this very important knowledge and feel incensed that my government not only won’t guarantee the Sami their rights, but won’t even apologize for what happened in the past. I am also appalled at the non-existence of political discussion and debate about the Sami question. 

Sweden’s colonization of Sami lands and historic violations of Sami rights
The Sami are the indigenous people of the North of Europe. I often compare Sápmi, the land inhabited by the Sami, to a Swedish Kurdistan. Sápmi covers about half of Sweden and Norway, as well as parts of Finland and Russia. It is claimed that the Sami came to inhabit the land at least 2,000 years ago, and the first written document believed to speak about the Sami dates from 98 AD.

It is unclear how many Sami people still inhabit the area, but one estimate claims that there are 80,000-100,000 Sami in Sápmi (about 20,000-40,000 in Sweden, 50,000-60,000 in Norway, 8,000 in Finland, and 2,000 in Russia). However, it is worth noting that the Swedish census no longer notes ethnicity so the estimate of some 20,000 Sami in Sweden dates back to 1975. Therefore we don’t even know how many Sami actually live in Sweden!

Sweden’s colonization of Sápmi started during the 14th century when Swedish kings began claiming rights to territory in the north. During the 16th century the Sami were forced to pay taxes to the Swedish State and in 1542 King Gustav Vasa proclaimed that uninhabited land, or land without settlements belonged to “God, the Swedish crown, and no one else”. The king also tried to make Swedes move to the vast lands in the north, but without much success. Thus, colonization of Sápmi began in earnest in the 17th century when silver was discovered (in 1634). Ever since the Sami have been subjected to various forms of oppression at the hands of the State.

From an early stage, the Church was instrumental in the oppression and discrimination of the Sami. The Sami were forced to convert to Christianity and to attend Church, where their language wasn’t allowed to be spoken and the traditional joik was forbidden. The Church also used a number of punishments to force Sami to convert, including fines, imprisonment, and the death penalty. Holy Sami sites were defaced and drums used in traditional ceremonies were destroyed.

In 1913 a new system of nomad schools was introduced, which was in place until 1962. The school system was developed by the Church, as ordered by the State, and was heavily influenced by thoughts of eugenics. There was also a Swedish policy notion that the “lapp shall be a lapp”. The word ‘lapp’ stems from the word Lappland, a province in Sweden which contains Sápmi, and is what the Sami used to be called (the term is now considered derogatory). The policy established that the reindeer herding Sami should live according to what was considered their native way of living, whereas the settled Sami were supposed to be assimilated into the majority Swedish population. Therefore, the children of reindeer herding Sami didn’t get an education that was on par with other State schools. They were sent to special boarding schools, so-called nomad schools, where Swedish was the only language of instruction despite the fact that they didn’t speak the language. These schools also taught fewer subjects than State schools. The system of segregated schools has been said to have created divisions among the Sami.

Because of the State’s policies in the 19th and 20th century many Sami have lost both their traditional religion and their language and today less than half of the Swedish Sami are believed to speak their native language.

The State and the Church of Sweden were also involved in other racist policies towards the Sami. As was all the rage in the first half of the 20th century, Sweden was interested in eugenics. In 1922 a man called Herman Lundborg became the director of the State Institute for Eugenics. He argued that the idea of equal worth among people was an illusion and that humans were made up of different races, whose worth was determined by heritage; lowest were the racially mixed and best were the racially pure (as can be guessed here, Lundborg became an important inspiration for a group of German eugenics researchers whose work was the foundation for the Nazis’ ideas about race).

Herman Lundborg’s research into the people of Sápmi led to widespread violations of human rights against the Sami. Lundborg traveled north, measuring skulls and faces of Sami and collecting information about the color of their hair and eyes. He photographed each person, and the pictures were catalogued in an archive that is still kept by the government. Government representatives made judgments about whether the Sami in question was intelligent, lazy or insane, making conclusions about the person’s worth from her physical appearance. Priests of the Church of Sweden were instrumental in giving Lundborg and his researchers access to Sami families.

A catalogue of pictures of Sami people is still being kept by the library at University of Uppsala. They include 12,000 headshots, full body pictures and even nudes of Sami men, women and children.  

Other institutions, such as national historical museums, also keep Sami remains and objects. In 2007, the Sami Parliament, Sametinget, requested a complete identification of all Sami skeletal remains held in all national collections and the repatriation of the human remains to where they belong. The Sami Parliament also wanted to know how museums and institutions acquired the remains, i.e. if done by way of opening burial grounds or other. However it appears not much has happened since then.

Towards public apologies and reconciliation?
Despite the historical struggles of the Swedish State to recognize and apologize for its treatment of the Sami and for the violation of their human rights, there have been some positive recent developments that may constitute the beginning of a slow change.

While the Church is no longer part of the State, it has taken a lead in redressing the past, recently making overtures towards the Sami. It finally seems ready to accept responsibility for its part in the historic violations the human rights of the Sami
In March 2001 there was a reconciliation service at the church in Undersåker, which is in southern Sápmi. This was part of a reconciliation process initiated by the Church. The south Sami language and the joik were used during the service. The bishop of Härnösand recognized the Church’s responsibility for what happened in the past and asked the Sami for forgiveness.
The Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, has repeatedly made public comments about the Church’s involvement in the violations of human rights against the Sami. The Church is working on a White Paper, which includes examples of the Church’s participation in violations against the Sami: forced Christianization, destruction and desecration of Sami cultural sites and objects, active participation in the looting of graves in the pursuit of Sami remains, deprivation and oppression of Sami identity and culture, etc. According to the Archbishop the Church “delivered theological models of thinking that could justify the colonial system.”
The Church’s recent recognition of responsibility and its work on reconciliation is a good start. The Archbishop has also called on the State to create a truth commission, which has been suggested by the Sami parliament Sametinget (which is confusingly also a State agency), and the Ombudsman for discrimination. Unfortunately the State doesn’t seem to be getting on the reconciliation bandwagon anytime soon. In 1998 the then minister for Sami affairs, Annika Åhnberg, apologized for the State’s treatment of the Sami in the past. However, an official apology from a Prime Minister hasn’t happened yet, nor do I believe is it likely to happen anytime soon since the ‘Sami issue’ is rarely debated in public and Swedish governments have always been hesitant to admit wrongdoing against minorities in Sweden (such as Jews, Roma, etc. but those are for another post, another time). The current government appears no different than those of the past when it comes to the Sami; no official apology has been issued by the State for the treatment of the Sami people – and none appears in sight.

Current violations of Sami rights
The lack of respect for Sami rights has long been one of the human rights issues for which Sweden has been criticized. For example, the Swedish Minerals Act has been criticized by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples because the law does not respect Sami special interests and rights.

Human rights experts argue that the Swedish law and its application run contrary to UN human rights conventions and the ILO Convention no 169 in regard to Sami self-determination and the Sami’s right to own and possess the land they traditionally occupy (Sweden has consistently refused to ratify the Convention). The rights of indigenous peoples to approve or veto the use of natural resources within their traditional territories is one of the key principles of international indigenous rights. Furthermore, the realization of Sami cultural and linguistic rights, strongly connected with their land rights, is a central obligation of states under core human rights conventions. However, these internationally accepted principles are not reflected in Swedish law or practice.

First of all, the right of Sami to self-determination and decision-making is limited in Swedish law to reindeer husbandry. However around 90% of the Sami primarily make their living from other activities than reindeer husbandry. Thus, Sweden violates international indigenous law, which applies to the all the member of the indigenous people and which gives all who are affected by a decision the right of influence.

In February this year the Sami scored a huge victory against the State in a 30 year long battle for land rights when the district court of Gällivare granted the small Sami village of Girjas exclusive rights to control hunting and fishing in the area. However, the arguments in the case show how the Swedish State still has serious trouble recognizing the rights of the Sami. Lawyers for the State claimed that the indigenous status of the Sami was irrelevant to the case and that “Sweden has in this matter no international obligations to recognize special rights of the Sami people, whether they are indigenous or not.”
Secondly, the Sami don’t have any independent protection of their traditional land or any real possibility to influence decisions on, for example, mining and excavation. In Sweden, the relationship between the Sami and the land is ignored, as well as the importance of use of the land for the survival of the Sami and their culture. For example, reindeer husbandry is weighed and considered like any other economic interest and more often than not comes second to other interests.

The Swedish State has during the last few years worked to increase the mineral exploitation in Sápmi. According to Sweden’s new mineral strategy, the number of mines in Sweden is set to double by 2020 and triple by 2030 as the government embarks on making Sweden “the world’s leading mining nation.” In this process, Sami representatives claim that they are routinely silenced and marginalized.

For example, the Swedish government has wanted to give British mining company Beowulf Mining (whose CEO Clive Sinclair-Poulton famously replied “what local people?” to the question of what the locals thought of the mining project) access to develop an iron ore mine in Kallak, close to the northern town Jokkmokk above the Arctic Circle, which is definitely part of Sápmi. In 2014 the project sparked protests from local Sami and environmental activists. The government argues that the mine would produce much-needed jobs for the area and prevent de-population. However, the Sami argue that the mining operations would destroy their livelihood since it would destroy the land and thus the possibility for reindeer herding. The issue is yet to be resolved but similar conflicts between government interest in extraction industries and local Sami populations exist all over Sápmi and the sense is often that the government cares about short term income revenue rather than the respect for Sami rights, and the destruction of land and subsequent loss of Sami culture.

Thus, while things may have improved for the Sami since the 20th century, the rights of the Sami are still not completely respected in Sweden and many conflicts between the Sami and the State, and the Sami and Swedish society, still exist.

Sweden is a country considered, by the international community and by itself, to be a great champion of human rights. Swedish governments have a history of standing with oppressed peoples in the world and have often been critical of how other countries have treated their minorities and indigenous people. At the same, Sweden has a long history of oppressing it’s own indigenous people. While the Sami now have the right to speak their own language and have their own parliament, the Sami are still subject to discrimination and racism and the Sami question remains infected. Schools often fail to teach anything about the Sami and many Swedish people only have a vague idea that they even exist.

If Sweden wants to be taken seriously as a champion of human rights, we need to look inward and actually deal with our own past and current treatment of our indigenous people instead of always pointing the finger at other countries. We need to educate our population about the Sami and to be honest about the oppression and human rights violations they have faced at the hands of the State and its institutions and the continuing denial of their rights as indigenous people.

Sweden should offer an official apology for the human rights violations committed by the State against the Sami and should create a truth and reconciliation commission, as well as undertake other transitional justice measures, in order to bring forward the full truth about the past and in order to educate the country about what has happened. Only once the truth has been publicly recognized can a public apology be appropriate and only then can reconciliation begin.

The government should also immediately ratify ILO Convention 169, which would put the Swedish state under clear obligation to guarantee certain rights to the Sami, including the right to land (article 14), to natural resources pertaining to the land (article 15), to require the State to obtain informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their land, territories and other resources (article 30), and to be consulted in matters that would directly affect them (article 6). The Convention would therefore serve as an important tool for the protection of Sami rights to their land and from the exploitation of natural resources on their land without their consultation or consent.

In the meantime I can only offer my own apology to the Sami population of my country: I am sorry that it took me so long to learn about what my State did to your people; I am sorry that I never questioned why I never studied about your people in school; and I am sorry that it has taken me this long to speak up.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Police Shootings, Property Damage, and the Responsibility of Bystanders

Imagine you get lost walking in the woods. You are starving, unable to find food, and you realize a winter storm is starting. You happen across a cabin in the woods. While clearly it is someone’s cabin, when you knock no one answers the door. There are no lights, no shadows. Everything indicates they are not home. You wait an hour and they do not return home. You call out asking for help. No one answers. You fear for your safety. You suspect – based on the few things you can see through the windows – that there might be food or supplies inside. To save yourself, you’ll have to break a window and take someone else’s supplies. Do you do it?

The question was raised my first day of law school. It’s been over a decade, but every now and then I come back to it – and the responses of my classmates. Every single one of us said we would break the window and take the supplies.

Would we feel guilty about it? No.

Do we think we should be prosecuted for property damage? Of course not.

Why? Because sometimes the need to survive trumps other rights and interests.

It’s why no one watches Les Miserables and actually thinks Jean Valjean should go to prison.

I’ve had cause to again reflect on this issue this week as I listened to friends lament the property damage occurring during protests in Charlotte, North Carolina. The protests are in response to another police killing of a potentially unarmed black man. Whether Keith Lamont Scott had a weapon or not, and whether he pointed it at police or not, is currently disputed. The police chief has refused to release the videotape, which he admits “does not give . . . absolute, definitive visual evidence” to support police claims that Mr. Scott was pointing a gun.

It’s important to note that North Carolina is both an “open carry” state, meaning there is an individualized right to openly have a gun, and a “concealed carry” state, meaning that there is an individualized right to carry the gun on your person without having to actively show the gun in public. Collectively, these laws suggests that the police have even less reason to shoot someone for carrying a weapon; openly doing so should not be regarded as a suspicious behavior if there is a recognized legal right to do so. Unless he was actively, absolutely, and definitively pointing the weapon, there is no reason he should be considered suspect or dangerous for having a gun (and that’s assuming he did, in fact, have a gun, which is a disputed fact).

But Mr. Scott’s death is not surprising. Statistical evidence suggests black men are 2.5 to 3 times more likely than white to be killed by police. According to data collected by the Washington Post, about 13% of all black men killed by police since January 2015 were unarmed; only 7% of white men were. And based on available data, “[t]he only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police  was unarmed was whether or not they were black. … Crime variables did not matter in terms of predicting whether the person killed was unarmed.”

Mr. Scott was killed the same week as Terrance Crutcher, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, man shot in the back while his hands were in the air and he was walking away from police. The video released by the police also incudes an officer in a helicopter claiming Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.” And clearly from a helicopter, he could tell tons of relevant things about Crutcher. Like his race and his height and his weight and his … well, that’s about it. 

The officer in that case has been charged with manslaughter, which is a rarity in US police shootings. Had the video not been released, I’m not certain this would have happened. Particularly since the female officer who shot him claims she was “never so scared in my life as in that moment right then.” She was referring to when Crutcher “reached” into his car, which videotapes and blood splatter suggests was a hell of a magic trick since the window appears to have been closed throughout the incident – as was the car door. Without clear video, her word would likely be enough to exonerate her.

Without any videotape of Mr. Scott’s shooting, people in Charlotte are left to imagine their own ending, and when you’ve experienced a series of injustices – from the killings of Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, neither of which were prosecuted, to the exoneration of the officers involved in the death of Eric Gardner and Jonathan Ferrell – the ending seems clear-cut.

For those who are unable to keep up, Tamir Rice was the 12 year old with a toy gun supposedly tucked into his waistband who was killed outside a park gazebo in Cleveland, Ohio, and John Crawford was the father killed for walking around an Ohio Wal-Mart with an air rifle he was intending to purchase from the store. Like North Carolina, Ohio is both an open-carry and a concealed-carry state, so unless an individual is posing an active threat, there is even less reason for the police to suspect they are dangerous. Eric Gardner was the man choked to death by police for selling cigarettes in New York City, and Jonathan Ferrell was a former college football player who was shot in 2013 when he went to a house to ask for help after crashing his car and injuring himself. Technically, the officer in Ferrell’s killing was not exonerated; instead, a mistrial was declared and prosecutors chose not to re-file charges. The officer in that case remained employed by the Charlotte police department until October 2015, approximately six weeks after the court declared a mistrial.

Now, there is a lot to write about in regards to these cases and more generally the use of force by police and racial inequality in the U.S. But today, I want to talk about the response and responsibility of white Americans as bystanders to this violence. This is not a legal analysis piece, but one discussing moral and philosophical responsibilities when it comes to witnessing human rights violations.

When black people get a little too loud and demanding in their calls for justice – whenever protests get disruptive to white lives – I watch as white American friends post Facebook statuses calling for quiet and rest, pointing out that there are ways to protest but this just isn’t it.

Of course, those friends also criticized American football player Colin Kaepernick for choosing to sit or kneel during the playing of the national anthem. That was deemed disrespectful to the U.S. and to American military vets. (The shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice apparently was not as disrespectful to American values…)

Kaepernick responded to the criticisms:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place. But your statements, I am sorry to say, fail to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Charlotte and around the country, but it is even more unfortunate that the country’s power structure left the black community with no alternative.”

Actually, that wasn’t Kaepernick. Sorry, I got my inappropriate protests confused. That’s an edited version of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

To me, it’s not surprising that protests over police killings sometimes result in property damage. The peaceful ones rarely make the news and black people – desperate for survival in a country that has a long history of failing to protect them – have knocked on the door, they’ve checked the windows, they’ve cried for help, they waited in silence, and now they are desperate to be let in.

What surprises me is the silent complicity of white Americans – and it is silent complicity. When bystanders – those with no particular interest in an outcome – watch oppression with silence, they become complicit.

“In a situation of oppression, silence does not support the oppressed, it reinforces the position of the oppressor.” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said it, but history proves its truth.

It proves its truth in the silence of Thomas Jefferson on the issue of slavery. A slave-owner himself, he had reservations about the institution and its premise of racial superiority (reservations one can only hope increased when his own enslaved children were born). But he did not speak these reservations publicly, and his failure to do so has forever tarnished his legacy.

History proves the complicity of silence in those who failed to speak out against anti-Semitism in the 1930s, allowing it to become an accepted social standard. In the silent majority of white South Africans. In the Hutus listening to radio messages calling the Tutsis “cockroaches” without challenging the dogma.

In such situations, it is not a responsibility on those who are protesting -- standing up for their lives and their survival -- to make those watching feel better about the protest or their silent complicity. Or as the activist (and actor) Jesse Williams put it earlier this year: "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright – stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression." 

If you want to complain about property damage in Charlotte, you better have taken a stand against the racism that led to those protests. Otherwise, you are doing nothing to make the situation better.

So when I think back to that first day of law school, I think the question stopped too soon. The relevant questions of responsibility do not start and end with the prioritization of human suffering over property, but about the prioritization of human comfort over lives. The question must be this:

Imagine the cabin is not empty, but rather people are inside. You knock on the door and they look out at you, from the comfort of their dining room where they feast on a roast clearly too big for only themselves. You beg for assistance and they turn away. You call and pound on the door and on the window, you tell them you have been lost for a week and will surely die if they do not let you in. Could they at least call the police or a rescue agency? They simply respond, “You are not our problem.”

If you die, are they at fault? 

I think, regardless of legal liability, the answer is clearly yes.