More Terrible Terms

Yesterday, Steve Saideman posted about the bits of academic jargon he hates most. The post proved to be pretty popular. My guess is that with term papers pending, advice about what terms are best avoided was pretty welcome. Therefore, in the spirit of holiday giving, here is a similar list provided by Prof David Carment:

  • Tipping point
  • The perfect storm
  • Going forward
  • All things considered
  • Glocal

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Canada: A Teflon State?

Canada does not have a pristine human rights record. Many First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities are struggling through a housing crisis and are enduring limited access to food, potable water, health care, and education. Furthermore, the government has failed to atone for a long history of discriminatory policies against these groups.

Indigenous groups within Canada demand that these issues be remedied. Unfortunately, these demands, to date, have either been met with half measures or overlooked altogether.

An often-heard argument in the literature on human rights reform is that when domestic groups are unable to convince their government to better respect human rights they can appeal to more powerful transnational actors to help pressure the target state to change. Based on this argument, it would seem that the next step for Indigenous groups in Canada would be to reach out to key international actors in the field of human rights including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), and other states.

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Winning scholarship proposals: Advice from those who know best

Last week, NPSIA’s PhDs were given the opportunity to sit down with a few faculty members (Steve Saideman, Jean Daudelin, and Dane Rowlands, thank you for making time in your busy schedules for this!!) and have their questions about applying for scholarships answered. Below are some of the best bits of advice that were given:

Literature reviews were flagged as a potential stumbling blog in writing up applications. They are too often treated as a formality and are too rarely put to their intended purpose: highlighting the importance of the proposed research and research question(s). Pointing out the hole on the bookshelf that you intend to fill is the goal of the literature review. Tailor what you discuss in the proposal to meet this goal. And, as much as possible, try to make it engaging. This is not the same as making it entertaining. Instead, it’s a strong suggestion to limit your reliance on the “…and then he/she argued that…” sort of narrative.

Related to the literature reviews and the need to tailor them to highlight research interests was a discussion of the types of citations that are possible. Steve Saideman identified three types:

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Questionable Leadership: The Case of Occupy Gezi

Last week, I wrote a post arguing that the Occupy Gezi movement was leaderless and lacked focus. On June 2nd, it seemed unclear whether the protestors in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara wanted a change in Turkey’s leadership, greater respect for human rights, more trees in urban spaces, less religion in those same spaces, more democracy, or less government. There seemed to be no one political agenda and no one in particular to advance it even if one existed. That said, imagine my shock today when I read that Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has agreed to meet with the leaders of the protest movement on Wednesday.

Maybe I was wrong about how well or poorly organized the movement is. Having just completed the third year of my PhD, I’ve come to accept that being proven wrong is part of every working day for me (and sometimes weekends too): constructive criticism in the ivory tower is rather, um, blunt and not all that constructive outside of helping you build character. Furthermore, it is hard for me to keep my finger on the pulse of Istanbul when I’m sitting at a desk in Ottawa.

I don’t think I am wrong, however. Let me explain why.

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The Limits of Turkey’s Occupy Movement

Since Friday, the twitterverse has been saturated with news about a now large, loud, and defiant protest in Gezi Park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Soon after, there was talk of the Occupy Taksim/Occupy Gezi movement. Sitting at my desk in Ottawa, it is unclear to me whether this handle originated somewhere on the web as a very catchy hashtag or whether it was originally promoted by the protestors themselves. Origins aside, Hurriyet is reporting on their English website that presently the protestors are now identifying with the Occupy movement. This pains me since this is not a protest model that will likely lead to a valuable outcome.

A bit of history: What began as Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011, quickly transformed into an international protest movement with Occupy protests being set up in cities around the globe. There were few commonalities among these protests other than a general call for greater income equality, a commitment to non-violence, a strong aversion to hierarchical organization within the movement itself, and an uncanny ability to attract media attention. However, with a lack of leadership and a firm policy agenda to advance, the Occupy love-ins degenerated into shantytowns that marred often previously pristine public spaces and that unfortunately, as time wore on, attracted larger and larger proportions of hooligans and extremists. Today, the Occupy movement has largely faded from public consciousness. It has made little lasting impact other than introducing the catchphrase “We are the 99 percent.”

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The importance of a word: Taking the “culture” out of Canada’s “cultural genocide”

On April 26th, Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, announced that he believed that Canada committed cultural genocide. He was referring to the systematic abuse perpetrated against Canada’s Indigenous populations by the residential school system that was meant to civilize these groups.

I strongly disagree with this assessment. Canada did not commit “cultural genocide.” Based on the definition of the crime provided by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Canada committed genocide, not “cultural genocide.” The Genocide Convention is a widely accepted and respected international treaty. Its legitimacy has been acknowledged by 142 states via either accession, succession, or ratification. Furthermore, its terms have been used in practice to prosecute those suspected of the crime thus cementing the Convention’s status as a respect-worthy piece of international law.

According to the Convention, which was ratified by Canada in 1952, “genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

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A Humanitarian Bailout?

The NPSIA blog post “Legal Liability and Humanitarianism” discussed the shocking but real possibility that humanitarian organizations may be held legally liable for the assistance they provide. Remarkably, an ever more shocking reality that humanitarians must deal with has been highlighted over the past couple of weeks. And, like legal liability, this issue has gone unaddressed in the academic literature. The issue being: humanitarian organizations with large aid footprints have run out of funds.

This is an issue that is largely separate from the much-discussed problem of humanitarian agencies having too little funding. The problems that result from a humanitarian organization having limited funding and the problems that arise from an organization running out of funds differ considerably. Limited funding leads to problems with project implementation. In contrast, running out of funds leads to the immediate suspension of aid as occurred with the UNRWA cash assistance program in the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Not only does it seem likely that such an action will further marginalize those on the margins but, as the Gaza case demonstrates, such an action may also lead to social instability, revolt, and the repeal of further assistance.

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Humanitarian Aid to Syria: A Mismatch Between Principles and Expectations

According to multiple recent stories in the New York Times, Syrian rebels are complaining that the humanitarian aid being funneled into the country is not reaching those in need in rebel-held areas. Instead, the lion’s share is benefiting those in the territories held by President Assad and the rebels are interpreting this as de facto support of Western humanitarian donors for the incumbent regime. Needless to say, this interpretation has led to rising anger towards the West.

Is this sentiment reasonable?

I don’t think so and here’s why: the organizations providing the humanitarian aid do not aim to provide an equal and simultaneous distribution of aid to all those in need.

Most of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid aim to behave apolitically, which involves the impartial, neutral, and independent delivery of aid. In other words, humanitarian NGOs aim to allocate aid on the basis of need and without discrimination (impartiality); they aim to avoid deliberately favouring any side in a political dispute (neutrality); and the organizations aim to act autonomously from political, economic or other objectives (independence).

A commitment to remaining apolitical is crucial for humanitarian NGOs since it is the only behavior that will be tolerated by the states in which they are looking to distribute aid. Sovereignty is still considered an inviolable principle in international relations, therefore, in order for humanitarian NGOs to gain access to a population, they must be invited into the country by the regime in power. Gaining such an invitation requires that the NGOs stay out of domestic politics: in other words, that they remain apolitical.

Since humanitarian NGOs are “guests” of the state, they must confine their activities within whatever boundaries the state draws around them. To violate that boundary means risking expulsion from the state thereby being denied the opportunity to provide any aid whatsoever.  The fear of expulsion is a strong motivator for NGOs to toe the line drawn by the state. Fundamentally, however, respecting these limits presents an impediment to providing an equal distribution of aid to all the populations in need.

Furthermore, even if humanitarian NGOs weren’t constrained by the state, no state, let alone NGO, has the logistical capacity to deliver aid to everyone, everywhere in a given country at the same time.

Now, I am in no way saying that the delivery of aid cannot be improved. It can. And, that is a goal that all donors (states) and deliverers (NGOs) should work towards. What I am saying is that the criticisms and derision by the Syrian rebels are not wholly warranted.

The rebels make a powerful point in noting that by providing aid where the state wants the humanitarians to do so (to the Assad-held areas) is, in fact, a beneficial resource transfer to the regime. However, the point still stands, that to expect humanitarians to deliver aid equally and simultaneously undermines their commitments to delivering aid apolitically. Ultimately, the rebels are demanding a service that was never promised and is not feasible. For this reason, I believe that the scorn that the rebels are directing at the West in general is misplaced.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate

Legal Liability and Humanitarianism: A Game Changing Idea?

The ultimate goal of humanitarian assistance is to alleviate suffering in situations of disaster or conflict. Haiti has suffered through internal conflicts and natural disasters and has therefore been the recipient of much humanitarian aid. Following the 2010 earthquake, for instance, billions of dollars of aid was spent on disaster relief in Haiti (the New York Times reports that, by December 2012, $7.5 billion had been promised to Haiti for humanitarian aid and general reconstruction purposes).

The delivery of Haitian quake relief aid has been criticized on multiple levels. Most of the arguments center on the theme of inefficient delivery. One argument, however, stands apart: over a thousand Haitians are demanding compensation from the UN for harms that befell them due to problems with the delivery of UN assistance. More specifically, these claimants (convincingly) allege that UN peacekeepers from Nepal triggered a cholera epidemic in post-quake Haiti. The Nepalese troops introduced the disease to the water supply as the result of poor sewage management at their base.

Fundamentally, these Haitians and their lawyers are demanding that the UN be held liable for the humanitarian services it provided. This demand breaks with a long-standing tradition that holds humanitarians above reproach and beyond the reach of the law.

Humanitarianism and humanitarian assistance have existed in one incarnation or anther for at least a century. For most of that period, humanitarian activities were shrouded from criticism by the undeniable nobility of its fundamental goal. Over the last 20 years, however, policy-makers and academics have recognized that humanitarian actions can lead to undesirable and unintended consequences. This has led to calls for accountability: demands for humanitarians to evaluate the actual and potential outcomes, good or bad, of their actions.

To date, however, humanitarian accountability has largely been an academic discussion limited to the pages of journal articles and books. These sources recognize that accountability in the humanitarian sphere is necessary. The most oft-repeated point is that humanitarians must “do no harm” but that is where the advice ends.

In summary, the literature is calling for greater assessment and evaluation in the humanitarian sphere. In contrast, the Haitian litigants are calling for humanitarians to be held legally liable for their actions.

What would being held legally liable mean for humanitarians and humanitarianism? While a strong case can be made that accountability in the humanitarian sphere can improve the delivery of assistance I don’t think the same can be said for liability. Providing humanitarian assistance is expensive and dangerous under even the best circumstances. If humanitarians and humanitarian organizations are liable for their actions their costs and risk increase dramatically. That said, I think it’s fair to question whether liability and humanitarianism can coexist. Will increased cost and risk force humanitarian actors out of the market? As someone with a great deal of respect for humanitarianism and the principle that no individual or organization should be above the law, I’m troubled by this thought.

Fortunately, at this point, unpacking the effect of liability on humanitarianism is only an academic exercise. Ban Ki-moon announced last Thursday that the UN will not compensate the victims of the cholera epidemic since UN lawyers have deemed the claim “non receivable” due to diplomatic immunity. Yet, despite the lack of a real-world scenario forcing the exploration of the interaction of liability and humanitarianism, I argue that it is still an issue worth examining since the Haitian claim highlights that this interaction will likely not remain a moot point for long.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate

The Uncertain Future of Idle No More

Proclamations that the Idle No More movement is a fast growing and widely supported cause seems reasonable given the solidarity protests being held across Canada and outside its borders. There are reasons, however, to doubt this claim.

Idle No More is a social movement protesting the unjust treatment of First Nations, Metis, and Inuits by Canada’s federal government. The movement gained attention in November 2012 when Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a hunger strike protesting a housing crisis in her community and the enactment of Bill C-45, a piece of federal legislation that, according to activists, undermine Canada’s environmental protection laws.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, Idle No More quickly attracted support in pockets across Canada, the US, Australia, and Sweden. The movement and the peaceful protests held in its name made headlines in the Canadian press and were hot topics across social media platforms. In combination, press and social media exposure gave the movement considerable presence in the minds of many Canadians and led to claims that Idle No More enjoyed rapidly growing support.

Those celebrating the growth of the movement, however, failed to note that Idle No More never gained the attention (let alone the support) of major news sources outside of Canada or the major human right international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Only one US newspaper reported on the movement (the Tampa Bay Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post, in contrast, remained silent on the issue. Looking at newspapers outside of North America, only two UK sources and one New Zealand newspaper reported on Idle No More. Perhaps more telling of the inability to movement to gain traction outside of Canada, however, is the lack of reporting on the issue by human rights INGOs. Human Rights Watch makes no mention of it. Amnesty International, in contrast, reported on the movement once but only once.

Given that Idle No More has yet to penetrate the reporting of some of the most respect news source and human rights INGOs I feel it is only fair to ask: how truly successful has the movement been in gaining international support? I believe the answer to that question is: less successful than existing supporters would like to think.

This unflattering assessment, however, leads to another question: is the modest success of Idle No More typical of how transnational social movements start? In theory, international social movements do have modest beginnings: budding domestic movements attract the attention of larger, more powerful actors outside state borders. In combination, the smaller domestic actors and larger international actors pressure the target government to reform. It is unclear, however, if the theories that advance this causal argument (there are many) is relevant to Idle No More. The above argument is the result of research on states transitioning out of conflict or transitioning out of autocracy/anocracy towards democracy. Canada is doing neither.

In sum, at this point, growing interest in Idle No More seems questionable, particularly outside of Canada’s borders. The lack of international attention, however, does not mean that the goals of the movement are not worth pursuing nor does it mean that these goals cannot be reached through domestic activism alone. But if Idle No More wants to gain considerable support outside of Canada, it must find away to gain the attention of the key media outlets and human rights INGOs. Additionally, the movement must be realistic about the progress it has made thus far.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate