James Ron

James Ron McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 25, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 04
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James Ron

Human rights in times of strife

Sociology professor James Ron is committed to issues of human rights and refugees, not just as a researcher but also as a volunteer with humanitarian groups.


Ron, who arrived this semester from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, spent much of his childhood in Israel before moving to the U.S. "Living in the Middle East shaped the direction of my research, and my political and ethical commitment to humanitarian work. My research has the same kind of ethical commitment, so the two are not separate."

Ron has worked with aid groups like Human Rights Watch, preparing book-length reports on the plight of refugees in areas like Chechnya, Kosovo and Nigeria.

Through those experiences in some of the most war-torn areas of the world, Ron has gained sometimes surprising insights which feed into his research on ethnic and regional conflicts. As a result, he is not afraid to take controversial stands on issues such as the marketization of relief efforts and the simplistic politics which can trigger or aggravate regional conflicts.

"International institutions like the U.N., the International Monetary Fund and the European Union are well intentioned, but they are also very powerful; unfortunately, their actions can have some unanticipated and dramatic consequences. Take, for example, the issue of elections; often, international actors promote elections because they believe this will bring democracy. Ironically, elections often just exacerbate conflicts and don't lead to democracy; examples of that are Serbia, Rwanda and the Congo."

This unintended consequence is the result of the concentration of political power in the hands of one ethnic group over its rivals.

"In a highly ethnicized situation, in which elections are perceived as competitions over control of the state, elections just increase uncertainty and ethnic rivalry and can lead to terrible violence. When one ethnic group secures a large portion of the vote and ends up controlling the state, other groups may see it as a threat and fear that they will be subjugated and oppressed."

Ron feels that those kinds of fears must be allayed before a country is pushed toward democracy.

"Contests over political power only lead to democracy if there are agreed-upon rules of the game that don't allow the victorious side to transgress the rights of others -- but that's the actual definition of democracy. In effect, elections only work in democratic situations; they can't bring democracy. If this pre-condition is not in place, elections are just another power struggle.

"I think we can encourage and support countries to move toward democracy, but I think we have to be very wary about intervening too directly and trying to tinker with other people's countries. More often than not, we don't know what we are doing, and our interests are not pure. Usually we are manipulating the country for some kind of ulterior motive."

Ron is also critical of the recent commercialization and marketization of humanitarian activities, especially in emergency situations, for example when ethnic conflicts flare up and trigger waves of refugees.

"The idea, which originated in the 1980s, is that humanitarian groups should compete for contracts, just like competitive firms in the private sector. That has succeeded in eliminating waste and boosting efficiency, but there have been perverse consequences. For example, humanitarian groups now compete with each other instead of cooperating. Another problem is that they may be reluctant to complain when some of the aid is diverted to black marketeers. If they do complain, the donor may simply replace them, because talking about that problem can make it harder to raise funds."

Ron has just completed his first book, entitled Frontier and Ghetto, which he expects will be published within the next year by University of California Press.

"I argue [in the book] that Serbia and Israel are equivalent types of countries; they are both fiercely nationalistic and ethnocentric, and they both have a preoccupation with ethnic purity and ethnic cleansing. I ask why did the Israelis not ethnically cleanse the Palestinians, when the Intifada erupted in 1988, whereas Serbia did engage in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1992."

Ron's answer is that Palestinian territory is a part of Israel.

"Even though the potential for ethnic cleansing was very strong in Israel, it did not do that. I argue that territories that we now call Palestine were firmly internalized within Israel, and as a result, it was more difficult to ethnically cleanse them. But Israel might have engaged in ethnic cleansing if those areas were border lands, much like Serbia did. Bosnia comprised border lands vis-à-vis Serbia, and it was ethnically cleansed."

Ron's classes at McGill draw directly from his research work. He is currently teaching "Ethnic Conflict," a graduate course with case studies on Serbia, Peru and Israel. "We will also do a few weeks on Afghanistan, due to recent events."

Another course discusses the reasons behind violence perpetrated by states against their own populations.

Next semester, he will be teaching a class on human rights groups and humanitarian organizations, "which will discuss both the wonderful things they do and the problems they can create."

Ron holds McGill's new Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Human Rights.

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