Jan 29, 2019

My op-ed in the National Post on Truth Commissions as mechanisms for addressing historical injustices, bringing justice to victims of human rights abuses, and reconciling divided nations. 

National Post
The Conversation 

As long as unresolved historic injustices continue to fester in the world, there will be a demand for truth commissions.

Unfortunately, there is no end to the need.

The goal of a truth commission — in some forms also called a truth and reconciliation commission, as it is in Canada — is to hold public hearings to establish the scale and impact of a past injustice, typically involving wide-scale human rights abuses, and make it part of the permanent, unassailable public record. Truth commissions also officially recognize victims and perpetrators in an effort to move beyond the painful past.

Over the past three decades, more than 40 countries have, like Canada, established truth commissions, including Chile, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and South Korea. The hope has been that restorative justice would provide greater healing than the retributive justice modelled most memorably by the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War.

There has been a range in the effectiveness of commissions designed to resolve injustices in African and Latin American countries, typically held as those countries made transitions from civil war, colonialism or authoritarian rule.

Most recently, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission addressed historic injustices perpetrated against Canada’s Indigenous peoples through forced assimilation and other 

Its effectiveness is still being measured, with a list of 94 calls to action waiting to be fully implemented. But Canada’s experience appears to have been at least productive enough to inspire Australia and New Zealand  to come to terms with their own treatment of Indigenous peoples by exploring similar processes.

Although both countries have a long history to trying to reconcile with native peoples, recent discussions have leaned toward a Canadian-style TRC model.

South Africa set the standard

There had been other truth commissions in the 1980s and early 1990s, including Chilé’s post-Pinochet reckoning.

But the most recognizable standard became South Africa’s, when President Nelson Mandela mandated a painful and necessary Truth and Reconciliation Commission to resolve the scornful legacy of apartheid, the racist and repressive policy that had driven the African National Congress, including Mandela, to fight for reform. Their efforts resulted in widespread violence and Mandela’s own 27-year imprisonment.

Through South Africa’s publicly televised TRC proceedings, white perpetrators were required to come face-to-face with the Black families they had victimized physically, socially and economically.

There were critics, to be sure, on both sides. Some called it the “Kleenex Commission” for the emotional hearings they saw as going easy on some perpetrators who were granted amnesty after demonstrating public contrition.

Others felt it fell short of its promise — benefiting the new government by legitimizing Mandela’s ANC and letting perpetrators off the hook by allowing so many go without punishment, and failing victims who never saw adequate compensation or true justice.

Saving humanity from ‘hell’
Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary general of the United Nations through most of the 1950s who faced criticism about the limitations of the UN, once said the UN was “not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

Similarly, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not designed to take South Africa to some idyllic utopia. After a century of colonialism and apartheid, that would not have been realistic. It was designed to save South Africa, then a nuclear power, from an implosion — one that many feared would trigger a wider international war.

To the extent that the commission saved South Africa from hell, I think it was successful. Is it a low benchmark? Perhaps, but it did its work.

Since then, other truth commissions, whether they have included reconciliation or reparation mandates, have generated varying results.

Some have been used cynically as tools for governments to legitimize themselves by pretending they have dealt with painful history when they have only kicked the can down the road.

In Liberia, where I worked with a team of researchers last summer, the records of that country’s truth and reconciliation commission are not even readily available to the public. That secrecy robs Liberia of what should be the most essential benefit of confronting past injustices: permanent, public memorialization that inoculates the future against the mistakes of the past.

U.S. needs truth commission

On balance, the truth commission stands as an important tool that can and should be used around the world.

It’s painfully apparent that the United States needs a national truth commission of some kind to address hundreds of years of injustice suffered by Black Americans. There, centuries of enslavement, state-sponsored racism, denial of civil rights and ongoing economic and social disparity have yet to be addressed.

Like many, I don’t hold out hope that a U.S. commission will be established any time soon – especially not under the current administration. But I do think one is inevitable at some point, better sooner than later.

Wherever there is an ugly, unresolved injustice pulling at the fabric of a society, there is an opportunity to haul it out in public and deal with it through a truth commission.

Still, there is not yet any central body or facility that researchers, political leaders or other advocates can turn to for guidance, information and evidence. Such an entity would help them understand and compare how past commissions have worked — or failed to work — and create better outcomes for future commissions.

As the movement to expose, understand and resolve historical injustices grows, it would seem that Canada, a stable democracy with its own sorrowed history and its interest in global human rights, would make an excellent place to establish such a centre.

Do truth and reconciliation commissions heal divided nations?

Jan 20, 2019


Apr 24, 2018

Like their US counterparts, Canadian universities are coming to terms with unsettling parts of their histories. In recent weeks two of the country’s oldest universities - Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College - both in Nova Scotia, have announced scholarly inquiries into their institutional links with slavery. 

Slavery existed in the East Coast province until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including Canada, then British North America.

Dalhousie University’s panel will research the controversial views and actions of its founder, George Ramsay, the 9th Earl of Dalhousie, on race, racism and slavery. Lord Dalhousie reportedly described black refugees who fled the United States during and following the War of 1812 as “slaves by habitat and education.” He also made efforts to have them removed from Nova Scotia. 

The president of the University of King’s College states that the task of his university’s panel is to examine the institution’s past in an open and honest way in order to make the school as welcoming as it can to people of diverse communities, including those from the local African-Nova Scotian community.

These inquiries follow similar developments in U.S. universities such as Columbia, Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the University of Virginia that have acknowledged and addressed their institutional links with slavery. In his book, Ebony and Ivy, historian Craig Wilder shows how slavery benefited universities financially and through the labor of those enslaved. 

Slavery also influenced the intellectual development of universities, shaping pedagogy and curriculum over a century. The American campus, Wilder argues, “stood as a silent monument to slavery.”

Until recently, these hard questions have not been asked of Canadian universities. As an African-Canadian historian who teaches slavery in a Canadian university, I have found this silence unsettling from both personal and professional standpoints. However, as someone with ties to both Dalhousie University and King’s University, I’m pleased that these institutions have taken the first step in what I hope will be a trend among other Canadian universities historically linked with slavery.

In the era of truth and reconciliation, Canadian universities must strive to create spaces for conversations about their historical connections with institutional racism and the institution of slavery. The quest for diverse, inclusive, and welcoming campuses should begin with open discussions about the historical role of universities in profiting from, and sustaining systems of oppression of indigenous people, African-Canadians and other minorities.

Although, universities have been silent on these issues, histories of exclusion resonate deeply within minority communities. As a graduate student at Dalhousie University in the late 1990s, I took many of my classes in the Henry Hicks Building, an imposing masterpiece of Victorian stone architecture with an iconic clock tower. 

As I walked through its grand halls, I often wondered what Lord Dalhousie who invested his treasure to establish the University would have thought of my place at the institution. I also often wondered how much of the treasure that went into building the university came from unacknowledged slave labor.

I have fond memories of my tenure as Residence Don of Cochran Bay at the University of King’s College. It was not a very diverse community, but I found it warm and friendly. I enjoyed living among and superintending over a cohort of boisterous teenagers. As was the university’s Oxbridge tradition, we had formal meals at the common dining room in academic gowns where grace was said in Latin. 

But even then, as a newcomer to Canada, I wondered why African-Nova Scotians, whose ancestry in the community date back to 1605, were not more represented in that beautiful campus. I also wondered why indigenous and African-Nova Scotian faces were not at all represented in the many portraits of former university chancellors, presidents, and distinguished professors that lined the hallowed halls of the university.

The initiatives by both Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College might help begin the conversation that provides answers to these questions. A first step would be acknowledging that some institutions of learning in Canada and the institution of slavery share an interconnected history. 

These will be difficult conversations sometimes, leading to equally difficult decisions. Some feathers may be ruffled in the process. In the U.S., the debate has led to calls to take down statues of slave-owning and slave-trading university founders, erect memorials to enslaved persons, rename building, and redesign university insignia. But it is a conversation that we must have in our universities and beyond, if the goal of building inclusive campuses that are welcoming to all is to be achieved.

"A Silent Monument to Slavery": The Ivory Tower confronts its Past

Dec 23, 2017

There has been resurgent interest in the seventeenth century Ethiopian philosopher and thinker, Zera Yacob (also identified as Zara Yacob).

Africanists historians and philosophers have long seen Yacob as the pioneer humanist thinker that he was, a precursor to Enlightenment liberal thought. Beyond Africanist scholars however, Yacob’s legacy has largely been obscured, even ignored, partly because of the relative neglect of African epistemic traditions in the Western academy.

But all that now seem to the changing as more non-Africanists re-discover Yacob. In a recent article in Aeon (A digital magazine dedicated to "provocative thinking"), the Norwegian historian Dag Herbjørnsru introduced Yacob to a new audience, placing Yacob firmly in the pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers.

Herbjørnsru argues that liberal Enlightenment ideas may not, as we have been schooled to believe, begin with René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637) or the works of John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant. What if, Herbjørnsru asks, the Enlightenment can be found in places and thinkers that we often overlook such as in the treatises of Zera Yacob?

He states: “Many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarized by Yacob long before they emerged in Enlightenment Europe. Yacob shows a much more agnostic, secular and enquiring method" than many later Enlightenment thinkers. By comparing Yacob’s treatises with those of Descartes and Kant, Herbjørnsru concludes that Yacob's ideas more enlightened than his Enlightenment peers on questions of religion, slavery and the status of women.

Herbjørnsru’s article has triggered a vibrant debate over whether Yacob rightly belongs to the Enlightenment pantheon. The main critique is that while Yacob’s thoughts might have been exceptionally liberal for his time, they did not coalesce into a social and political movement as they did with the Enlightenment. Others however, question the wisdom of trying to fit this African thinker into the mold of European philosophers. Yacob, they insist, should be treated on his own terms. If anything, he fits more with a longstanding tradition of African oral and textual humanistic thought. 

While these questions are unlikely to find definitive answers, I am pleased to see the debate happening at all. Given his ground-breaking liberal ideas, Yacob has been in the shadows for too long. Sure, there have been some important studies of this work, but these have never really engaged non-specialist audiences. The current debate promises to put Yacob’s work in the intellectual spotlight where it rightly belongs.

As a historian of human rights, I have long been puzzled by the complete absence of Yacob’s thought in the many "global" histories of human rights that have been written. Discussions of the philosophical antecedents of modem human rights often begin and end with European Enlightenment liberalism. This is why in my book Human Rights in Africa, I place Yacob's Hatata alongside Thomas Pain's "Rights of Man," Rousseau’s "Social Contract and Descartes’ Discourses in my discussion of the ideas that have shaped the modern human rights movement.

My excerpts on Zera Yacob:

“Ethiopian philosopher and theologian Zera Yacob, who is most renowned for his critique of divine law and theory on natural law. In Hatata (Discourse), his polemical treatise on rationalism and Christian theology, he asserted that human action should be judged essentially on whether it advances or degrades overall societal harmony. Yacob’s ethics placed emphasis on human dignity, tolerance, non-violence and mutual responsibility. Two central themes in his work are the sanctity of life and individual freedom. 

The first assertion in the Hatata is that man is created a free being and “endowed with the power of reason and the light of intelligence.” In the Hatata, freedom is defined in relation to individual choice and initiative. Human freedom, like human intelligence, is a gift from God to “man” so that, through good choices, he may fulfill his destiny.

Yacob’s ethics in the Hatata also includes an affirmation of the communitarian duty of each person toward those individuals within the societies in which they live. Although he drew on an eclectic mix of Christian, Muslim and indigenous thought, Yacob’s ethics rejected many established Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions of his time as oppressive and discriminatory. 

His point of departure was rationalism. Man is a creature of God, but he was created to be free and intelligent. On this ground, one Zera Yacob scholar has argued that Yacob’s critique of discrimination against women marked, in the context of seventeenth century Ethiopia, a radical defense of “human rights, equality and freedom.”

Yacob also proffered a moral condemnation of the slave trade because, according to him, it was against God’s will. He wrote: “It is stated in the text that buying and selling human beings like an animal is right . . . this law does not come from the Creator of human beings, who created us equal as brothers, so that we call our creator our Father.”36 For proponents of African human rights values, the humanist ideas in these theological and philosophical writings provide the normative foundations for a conception of human rights founded in African history and culture."

The rediscovery of Zera Yacob is long overdue.

Zera Yacob's Hatata. African Precursor to Enlightenment Liberalism

Dec 9, 2017

Discussions of human rights in Africa are often reduced to simplistic narratives of ruthless violators and benevolent activists. In my new book, Human Rights in Africa (Cambridge University Press) I attempt to go beyond this staid trope.  

This is an account of indigenous African rights traditions embodied in the wisdom of elders and sages; of humanitarians and abolitionists who marshaled arguments about natural rights and human dignity in the cause of antislavery; of the conflictual encounters between natives and colonists in the age of Empire and the “civilizing mission”; of nationalists and anti-colonialists who deployed an emergent lexicon of universal human rights to legitimize long-standing struggles for self-determination; and of dictators and dissidents locked in struggles over power in the era of independence and constitutional rights.

In writing this book, my aim was to tell a story of human rights in Africa that engages key scholarly debates while also appealing to a general audience. This is because the subject of human rights is too important to be left to experts and specialists. Human rights discourses, laws, policies and practices affect the everyday lives of millions of ordinary people in Africa and around the world. I believe it is important to engage the broadest audience possible in conversations about human rights.

In these uncertain times, my hope is that this volume moves forward the conversation on how we can reaffirm human dignity in our societies and actualize human rights ideals in Africa and our world.

Bonny Ibhawoh, Human Rights in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

Bonny Ibhawoh, Human Rights in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2018) [Amazon.com]

Early Reviews

“In Human Rights in Africa, Professor Ibhawoh weaves, in his usual incisive and sharp-witted way, an aptly and appropriately complex and sophisticated story about the long career of human rights thought and action on the African continent. Shorn of the de-historicization, linear progressivism, facile accounting, and de-politicization that has all too often marred human rights scholarship and action in regard to the continent, Human Rights in Africa succeeds vastly in its stated goal of broadly analyzing the development of human rights as idea, discourse and struggle in Africa. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining a thorough understanding of the deep complexity of Africa’s relationship to human rights ideas and practices.”
– Obiora Chinedu Okafor, Professor & York Research Chair in
International and Transnational Legal Studies, York University

“Highly readable, versatile, subtle, nuanced and authoritative, this book gives the subject of human rights an outstanding treatment, superseding most of the current literature on the subject. Its coverage is both balanced and sweeping, moving at a fast pace from the past to the present without losing focus and proportionality. Students will find it a stunning achievement, and scholars will see merit in moving forward so many arguments that the fresh insights open up.”
– Toyin Falola, University Distinguished Teaching Professor and the Frances and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities,
The University of Texas at Austin

“How can human rights be universal if they originate in one place or are applied to only one sector of humanity? This and related questions have occupied scholars of rights in and outside of Africa for generations. Bonny Ibhawoh’s exciting new work sweeps past this redundancy by delving deeply into rights-based rhetoric, argument, and mobilization by Africans transnationally and transregionally. Ibhawoh connects rights visionaries of the African and diasporic past to the political challenges of the present in provocative and innovative ways and has written a highly readable and teachable book.”
– Benjamin N. Lawrance, Director of INGS, Hon. Barber B. Conable, Jr. Endowed Chair of International Studies, Professor of History and Anthropology, Rochester Institute of Technology

Rethinking Human Rights in Africa

Sep 17, 2017

Democracy can be a messy business. Liberal democratic reforms often bring new freedoms and allow for the opening up of civil societies. But the freedoms that come with the transition from dictatorship to democracy not only empower the oppressed and marginalized, they also allow for new forms of repressions in the forms of resurgent nationalisms, xenophobia and hate speech masquerading as free speech. For transitioning states, liberal democracy comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. The real challenge is how to manage the contradictory freedoms that democracy unleashes.

The government of Myanmar under the leadership (even if nominal) of Nobel Peace laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been involved in the systematic ethnic cleansing of the minority Muslim Rohingya population. Under the excuse of cracking down on insurgents in the western Rakhine state, Myanmar’s military and security forces have engaged in rapes, killings and house burnings that have driven thousands of Rohingya from their homes into neighbouring Bangladesh. Human rights organisations have reported mass atrocities that match the violations which the country witnessed under decades of repressive military dictatorships.

So, here is the question: Wasn’t the transition to democracy and the ascension to power of the peace and democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, supposed to usher in an era of freedom and civil liberties in Myanmar? Evidently it hasn’t. What we see in Myanmar is the classic paradox of democratic transition.

One the perverse consequences of democracy in Myanmar is that it has unleashed old antagonisms against the Rohingya Muslims, many of whom migrated to Myanmar (then Burma) when the country was ruled by the British colonists as part of greater India. Although some Rohingya were resident in the country long before colonial rule, they have largely been seen as foreigners. Separatist insurgency in the region reinforced suspicion of the Rohingya.

The interesting point here is that the military dictatorship that ruled Myanmar for much of its history keep things in check. Democratic reforms, beginning with a Constitutional referendum in 2008, unleashed long repressed grievances and animosities. Part of the result is the human tragedy that we see in the country today.

This paradox of democratic transition is evident elsewhere - in Iraq and in the Arab Spring revolutions, from Egypt to Libya. Democracy brings freedoms and opens up civil socisteies. But it also frees up repressed grievances and ignites new conflicts. Without the strong hand of dictatorships to rein these in, they can quickly engulf transitioning states which typically have weak institutions and democratic cultures. The lesson of Myanmar is not the failure of liberal democratic transition. It is a lack of recognition of, and preparedness for the powerful reactionary and exclusionary forces that are also unleased by democratic reforms.

The Paradox of Democracy in Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar

Apr 2, 2017

As the war in Syria enters its seventh year with no immediate prospects of ending, the words of the British war poet, Wilfred Owen rings no truer. "My subject is War, and the pity of War," Owen wrote. "The Poetry is in the pity."

The pity of war in Syria is laid bare in our 24-hour media circle: 400,000 dead; 6 million people, including 2.8 million children displaced inside the war-torn country; 5 million Syrians scattered all across the Middle East and in Europe as refugees; a generation of Syrian children and youth lost to war.

Although Wilfred Owen wrote in the tumult of the First World War, his insights into the horrors and pity of war are as relevant today as they were a century ago.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for those who die like cattle?
     Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
     Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
     And bugles calling them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
     Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
     The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
     And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Seven Years into the Syrian Conflict: Pondering the Pity of War

Feb 20, 2017

Mahatma Gandhi Lecture on Non-Violence: Why Are we Here? Reflections on Canada and Refugees at 150

With all the talk about alternative facts and fake news, it is perhaps time to ponder whether the global rise of reactionary populism – from Brexit to Trump – signals the dawn of the end of human rights. The indications are that we are not simply heading towards a “post-truth” era, we might also be headings towards a post-human right world.

When British Tory politicians introduced a bill in 2014 to allow British Judges ignore rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, the British tabloids hailed the move as “The End of Human Rights Farce" and the “end of the Human Rights madness.” Although born out of anxieties over national sovereignty and the European Court's perceived judicial overreach, these headlines speak to a growing cynicism about the value of human rights doctrine in our world today.

The alarm bells have already been raised by those who should know. The BBC reports that in Geneva, home to the UN Human Rights Office, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guardian of the Geneva Conventions on international humanitarian law, there is talk of a 'post human rights' world.

In my forthcoming book on Human Rights in Africa (Cambridge University Press), I argue that the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 ushered in a tentative global human rights revolution. The post-World War II international human rights order held three distinct, yet related revolutionary promises. It held the promise of a revolution of self-determination, a revolution of democracy and a revolution of equality.

If the granting of independence to formerly colonized nations of Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 60s, marked the triumph of the revolution of self-determination, the post-colonial and post-Cold War global order has failed to materialize the revolutions of democracy and equality.

Across the world, the tentative gains of the human rights revolution are being gradually eroded. With an increasing number of states seemingly reluctant to honor international human rights treaties or fulfil domestic rights obligations, we may indeed be heading towards a post-human rights world characterized by repudiations of established human rights norms and the roll back of international humanitarian law.

The clearest indication of this trend is the global rise of reactionary populism, xenophobia and the growing tolerance of torture. Countries in both the West and the Global South are increasingly reluctant to uphold their commitments to refugee protection and the humanitarian conduct of war under international human rights treaties. Another example is the growing list of countries that have opted to withdraw support for international human rights institutions, such as the International Criminal Court.

The human rights genie, it seems, is being put back in the bottle. These existential challenges to human rights signal the specter of a post-human rights world, and invite serious reflections on old questions about the relevance and legitimacy of universal human rights.

The Dawn of a Post-Human Rights World?

Jan 30, 2017

Across the world, we are witnessing the gradual erosion of the gains of the post-World War II human rights movement. The clearest indication of this trend is the global rise of reactionary populism, xenophobia and the growing tolerance of torture.

The US immigration restrictions on travel from Muslim countries and the shooting in a Quebec mosque in Canada may be unrelated, but they point to a disturbing trend. With an increasing number of countries reluctant to honor international human rights treaties or fulfill domestic rights obligations, we may be heading towards a post-human rights world -  a world characterized by repudiations of established human rights norms and the roll back of international humanitarian law.

In a world driven to extremes by hate and fear, Prime Minster Trudeau’s declaration that refugees will continue to be welcomed in Canada is a reassuring affirmation of our common humanity.

Xenophobia, Immigration Restrictions and the Dawn of a Post-Human Rights World

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