Friday, November 23, 2012

Soviet ethnos theory, international law, and why Francine Hirsch is wrong

Before I had my big meeting I was reading up on Soviet ethnos theory. In particular I was reading the work of Sergei Sokolovski. But, Valery Tishkov and Peter Skalnik also arrive at the same conclusion. Soviet ethnic theory has always been primordialist. That means that in western terms natsionalnost in the USSR has always been identical to the concept of race.Virginia Tilley et at in describing the concept of racial discrimination in international law notes that what is important is not that it be based upon genetics as people like Hirsch wrongly insist, but that the discriminated against category be primordial. A requirement that would definitely include all discrimination in the USSR based upon natsionalnost.

The ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda] observed that, for all these identities, the protected group should be 'stable and permanent': membership is normally acquired by birth and is continuous, immutable, and not usually challengeable by its members. This seemingly 'primordial' quality  - that is, the identity is perceived to be passed down through generations and therefore to be mostly immutable in group members - is thus the common denominator of identities based on race, colour, descent, and national and ethnic origin: that is , the groups cited by ICERD [International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination] as being targets of racial discrimination (Tilley et. al, p. 156)..

 There is no doubt in my mind that Soviet ethnic theory and practice dating back to its origins under Shirokogorov (the same man frequently cited by Afrikaner volkekundiges to justify apartheid) is essentially a racial theory. It posits that ethnoses are primordial in the sense described by Tilley et al above and this does not differ in any substantial way from the way in which 'race' functioned in apartheid South Africa. The claim by Hirsch that racial discrimination only exists if the categories targeted are biologically based rather than ethnic based has been rejected by scholars of ethnicity and race not dealing with the USSR for decades.   As Tilley et al notes in clear contrast to Hirsch,

Third, no absolute, measurable, and consistent criteria exist for distinguishing one of these identities [the previous sentence identifies them as 'race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin'] from another, as the labels are frequently interchangeable and their use may be politicized." (Tilley et al, p. 157).

That is just because the Soviets call 'race' natsionalnost does not make it something other than race. There is no clear and hard line separating ethnicity and race the way Hirsch falsely claims. Primordial ethnicity is essentially one of the definitions of 'race' and discrimination on this basis is legally under International Law considered to be 'racial discrimination.'

Source: Virginia Tilley et al, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A re-assessment of Israel's practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law. (Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council, 2009).

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