When one category of citizens is singled out for privileged treatment, are the rights of others infringed? Phil Eidsvik, a Canadian salmon-fisher, thinks the answer is yes. He hopes his country’s newly re-elected prime minister, Stephen Harper, recalls a pledge he made five years ago: to oppose “racially divided fisheries programmes”, in other words, giving special fishing rights to indigenous groups.
But given the storm that Mr Harper’s comment provoked—he was accused of stoking white nativism—he is likely to proceed cautiously. And legal moves are now afoot to broaden the rights of indigenous fishermen. At present Canada upholds the rights of aboriginal groups to engage in traditional, subsistence fishing; hence regulators often open a fishery to a particular indigenous group for a limited time before a commercial catch begins.
One tribe, the Lax Kw’alaams, is fighting a legal battle for special rights in the field of commercial fishing, too, challenging the government’s contention that commercial harvesting only began with the arrival of whites, and so is not a traditional activity of Canada’s first inhabitants. All this horrifies Mr Eidsvik, who argues that the rights of other fishermen (including indigenous ones) are violated when a stretch of water is allocated to a particular tribe. “The individual is completely lost in the conflict over group rights,” he says, speaking for the British Columbia Fisheries Survival Coalition, an NGO.
Among the world’s liberal democracies, Canada stands out for the entitlements it grants to one group of citizens and for its open acknowledgment that there are hard trade-offs between individual rights and group rights. From South Africa to India, many countries have “affirmative action” policies, with the aim of correcting past wrongs by allocating a disproportionate share of jobs or educational places to groups that apparently need a leg up. But critics of the Canadian system say it goes further; it creates two levels of citizen by excluding indigenous people from conservation rules, and by exempting tribes from the accountability rules that other groups must follow. It is one thing to offer benefits to citizens who are felt to need them, another to water down the principle of equal citizenship.
Canada may be egregious, but, in one form or another, most democracies have to weigh the demands of groups against the rights of individuals—and getting the correct balance has become harder in the age of identity politics, when arguments about culture and even religion have replaced older ones over economics and class. Ostensibly at least, France has remained at the far end of the spectrum from Canada. French officials like to contrast their own policy of equal citizenship with the sloppy communautarisme—rights for specific groups—that some countries, including multicultural Britain, tolerate.
Whatever lies behind that French rhetoric, the question of group entitlement has been thrown into sharp relief in all rich democracies by the recent arrival of migrants whose “cultural practices” are at odds with any liberal understanding of rights. Extreme examples include the stigmatising of children accused of witchcraft; the practice of female genital mutilation; domestic violence; and forced marriages with partners in distant lands. Whenever those practices are tolerated, the victims are deprived of basic human rights—and the perpetrators enjoy a peculiar leniency.
As countries wrestle with those problems, realities often differ less than theories do. At least in the recent past, the French authorities turned a blind eye to polygamy among north African migrants. And if there are British inner cities where the Queen’s writ (in respect of equality of the sexes, say) hardly runs, something similar applies to the ghettos of Marseilles...
If the Arab uprisings prevail, will the resulting elected governments impose the will of the majority group—Sunni Muslim in Syria or Tunisia, Shia in Bahrain? Or will they be genuine liberal democracies, with guarantees that members of minorities will be treated no better and no worse than anybody else? That question is impossible to answer in advance, though there are many vulnerable groups, from the Christians of Syria to the Tuareg nomads of the Maghreb, who have reason to fear they might fare worse under free, universal suffrage than they did under secular despots.
Compared with the chaos that could accompany any regime change in the Arab world, decision-makers in stable places like Canada or France have an easy time of it; they are free to experiment and negotiate. And in any lively democracy, groups—defined by language, religion or simply voluntary association around an idea or a pastime—will bargain vigorously over things like language teaching or zoning rights for mosques. But a dangerous line has been crossed, and a bad signal sent to other places, if, in the name of group rights, the principle of equality before the law is openly breached.
Excerpt from Group rights v individual rights: Me, myself and them, Economist, May 14, 2011, at 75