Tag Archives: refugee

“Humanitarian Exceptionalism” and the Failure of Imagination in the Progress of Human Rights in Canada

by Hero Aiken

In their book, Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada, Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu describe the concept of Canadian “humanitarian exceptionalism” in some detail. They describe it as “a belief that what sets Canada apart from the US and other nation-states is its distinct benevolence and commitment to human rights” (Nguyen and Phu, 3). As a result of this belief, Canadians may think themselves morally superior to inhabitants of other nations, especially the United States. In fact, a 2016 survey from the Angus Reid institute found that only 15% of Canadians considered the United States to be a “caring society” (Canada Guide). In other words, it seems clear that Canadian society both prides itself on its perceived humanitarian excellence, while also defining itself through its ethical superiority in comparison to other nations. This means that Canadian society, as well as individual Canadians, may feel less pressure or duty to investigate the human rights conditions in our own country and brought about by our government’s policies. “As long as we aren’t as ‘bad’ as the United States”, we reason, “can we really be all that ‘bad’”?

I would argue that this is not only lazy but an irresponsible and dangerous view to take on the protection of human rights in Canada. Why, if we view the United States to be so thoroughly disrespectful of human rights, can we not imagine an instance in which we might surpass their moral standards, but still fail to demonstrate humanitarian efforts of which we can be proud? Surely, if Canadians can so unanimously condemn the human rights violations which we have recently witnessed in the United States, we can muster a more rigorous and objective scale with which to measure our own actions. Unfortunately, the abdication of moral appraisal in favour of an assumed humanitarian supremacy over a handful of conveniently placed international rivals cannot be seen as anything other than a failure in the advancement of universal human rights.

Last year, while writing for Amnesty International U of T’s Candlelight blog, I submitted a piece highlighting the discrepancies between Canada’s benevolent image on the international scene and the difficult realities faced by its unhoused population. This year, I’d like to elaborate on this same theme while turning my attention towards the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Canada. This in the context of the trap set by the idea of “humanitarian exceptionalism”.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s infamous policies regarding the treatment of refugees or migrants seeking entrance into the United States, it perhaps became easier in recent years for Canadians to ignore the mistreatment of refugees by our own government. In a joint report released on World Refugee Day in 2021, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch declared that “Canada incarcerates thousands of people, including those with disabilities, on immigration-related ground every year in often abusive conditions” (Human Rights Watch). However, when
compared to the more conspicuous abuses carried out by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agents during President Trump’s tenure, Canada’s mistreatment of immigrants and refugees has tended to fade into the background of our national consciousness. In 2017, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering the separation of Mexican children from their mothers upon “illegally” crossing the border into the United States (Reuters). The following year, the United States Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) publicly admitted for the first time to having separated 2 000 children from their parents as they
crossed the border into the United States from Mexico (CNN). Faced with this abhorrent example of human rights abuse, it became easy for Canadians to cease the examination of our own systemic mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. I would argue that much of the energy which would have previously been spent on the promotion of the amelioration of Canada’s humanitarian measures in these areas instead became focused on the derision of the United States’ methods. This is clearly detrimental to the progress of human rights in Canada, and is also only one example among many. As long as Canada continues to measure the morality of our humanitarian efforts in relation to the often gross human rights abuses levied by American institutions, we will be wasting energy and resources which could be better spent on the questioning and bettering of our own systems.

Finally, I would indicate that this is not an outright condemnation of Canada’s efforts in the realm of human rights. According to the Fraser Institute’s 2022 Human Rights Index, Canada ranks 13th highest among the nations of the world (Fraser Institute). This is above the United States, and other wealthy nations such as the United Kingdom and France. Instead, this article is meant to denounce the idea that human rights efforts can be reduced to the ways in which they compare to each other. Human rights efforts, whether they concern the treatment of vulnerable populations such as the unhoused and those seeking asylum as refugees, or whether they concern the status of marginalized populations such as racial or sexual
minorities, are inherently indicative of the ways in which we value the lives of our fellow humans. Is this pursuit not worthy of being measured in ways which transcend the petty temptation to comparison? If Canada wants to build a nation truly worthy of being deemed “exceptional” for its humanitarian pursuits, we ought to create an independent standard by which to measure our human rights efforts. If we seek “humanitarian exceptionalism” in the truest sense of the word, why do we lower ourselves to the standards of those nations we so readily condemn? The myth of “humanitarian exceptionalism” in Canada not only spells disaster for the progress of human rights in Canada, it also demonstrates a lack of imagination and belief in the true humanitarian potential of our nation.

Works Cited

Ainsley, Julia Edwards. “Exclusive: Trump Administration Considering
Separating Women, Children at Mexico Border.” Reuters, Thomson
Reuters, 3 Mar. 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-children-idUSKBN16A2ES.

“Anti-Americanism.” The Canada Guide, 17 Nov. 2020, https://thecanadaguide.com/culture/anti-americanism/.

“Canada: Abuse, Discrimination in Immigration Detention.” Human Rights
, 20 July 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/17/canada-abuse-

“Family Separation – a Timeline.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 23 Mar. 2022, https://www.splcenter.org/news/2022/03/23/family-separation-timeline#2017.

“Human Freedom Index 2022.” Fraser Institute, 26 Jan. 2023,

Kopan, Tal. “DHS: 2,000 Children Separated from Parents at Border | CNN
Politics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 June 2018,

Nguyen, Vinh and Thy Phu. Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in
. University of Toronto Press, 2021.

Crisis in Myanmar

By: Penelope Giesen

Myanmar Continues its fight against oppression

On February 1, 2021, there was a military coup in Myanmar, which a country in southeastern Asia, bordering India, China, Thailand, and Laos. This coup halted the nation’s first quasi-democracy that had previously held power since 2015, led by Aung Sung Suki. Aung Sung Suki is widely considered to be a controversial figurehead who successfully transformed Myanmar into a democracy after a long history of military dictatorship, yet whose leadership has been marred by ethnic violence and potential unethical alliances with the military now in power.

Since the coup, there has been widespread civil disobedience against the oppressive policies put in place by the military government in power, the Tatmadaw. These immediate policies included seizing control of infrastructure, suspending international and national flights, stopping internet access in most major cities, and closing the stock market and major banks. All of these measures were justified under claims of a “constitutional” state of emergency declared by the military. Though these protests started peacefully, they quickly turned violent and sparked ruthless retaliation by the government. On February 20, 2021, two unarmed protesters were killed, including a 16-year-old boy, prompting millions to go on strike two days later. The retaliations have escalated with the military, killing 600 and maiming, injuring, and torturing thousands more on March 27, 2021. This incredible violence inspired an armed resistance by the Burmese people, who call themselves the People’s National Defense, and they engage in jungle gorilla warfare against the Tatmadaw. Despite facing rampant food insecurity and constant threat from the Tatmadaw, the People’s National Defense is determined to fight for liberties and the freedom that had once existed. Yet this army is underfunded, and many have been pushed up into the remote hills where they must combat hunger, poisonous snakes, and dengue along with their families when the Tatmadaw systematically burns villages that are home to these resistance fighters. Despite these challenges, the horrific conditions don’t diminish the determination of the resistance, which has been further galvanized by their shadow government calling for a revolution by armed insurrection on September 7, 2021. Many of the Burmese people have a complicated relationship with the armed resistance in support of their former democratic government given the atrocities inflicted upon ethnic groups in the nation such as the Rohingya Muslims. In a state of disorder and terror, it is hard to distinguish what is being fought for, but some believe that this fight for liberty is a turning point for the Burmese people as it is uniting all Burmese people in a fight for liberation. Thet Swe Win, a Burmese human rights activist, notes the Tatwondow’s terrorization of Burmese people in villages and urban areas has “opened people’s eyes to the rights abuses other ethnic groups have long been facing”. As a result, people have started to broaden their horizons for the liberty they are fighting for.

Humanitarian crisis:
This armed coup and ensuing resistance had caused the death of at least 1180 armed resistors and civilians, the destruction of innumerable villages and homes, and displacement of at least 176,000 people internally with an additional 22,000 to other countries. The Tatmadaw has been documented using tactics against Myanmar’s civilian population such as burning villages, looting properties, torture, and mass arrests. This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees such as the Rohingya Muslims that have fled ethnic terror for decades. Many of these refugees flee with their families to India, which is an arduous journey that involves spending days in the woods without food or water and having to cross the Tiau River that separates the nations. And there are growing concerns that neighboring countries such as Thailand will begin to turn away refugees at the border.

What can be done to help?
The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is multifaceted and severe. Civilians, members of the rebel army, and refugees all are in dire need of support. There are many approaches that could be taken to support these groups, including: donations to various humanitarian aid organizations, advocacy to local representatives and the federal government of increased sanctions, and blockades, and establishing a “no-fly zone” over Myanmar. Some reliable organizations that could be donated to include: The International Rescue Committee (which has been supporting Myanmar since 2008), Save the Children (which supports children in dangerous situations around the world and specifically provides support to children and families in Myanmar that have been affected by the deadly violence occurring). In addition, donations to the Civil Disobedience Movement will provide support to Burmese people participating in protests against their authoritarian government. In addition, support to the Burmese people could include contacting your country’s relevant diplomatic and government representatives to ask for increased sanctions on Myanmar in solidarity with the protestors trying to weaken and destabilize the military in control. Another method of support could involve exerting pressure on our government to support the Secretary General’s special envoy on Myanmar, per Christine Schraner Burgener’s request in her speech to the UN press conference on October 21, 2021. Her request noted that international leadership not accept the Tatmadaw as a legitimate established government as they are responsible for the majority of the instability and violence in the nation.

1) Goldman, Russell. “Myanmar’s Coup and Violence, Explained.” The New York Times, The New
York Times, 1 Feb. 2021,
2) Wee, Sui-lee. “Thousands Flee Myanmar for India amid Fears of a Growing Refugee Crisis.”
The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2021,
3) Martin, Michael F. “Myanmar’s Opposition Wants U.S. Intervention. Here Are Some Options.”
Foreign Policy, 24 May 2021,
4) Win, Thet Swe. “The Coup United the People of Myanmar against Oppression.” Opinions | Al
Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 1 Oct. 2021,
5) UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific (RBAP). “Myanmar Emergency – UNHCR
Regional Update – 1 September 2021.” UNHCR Operational Data Portal (ODP), UNHCR , 1
Sept. 2021,
6) Snodgrass, Erin. “5 Ways to Help Anti-Coup Protesters on the Ground in Myanmar Right
Now.” Insider, Insider, 11 Apr. 2021,
7)Desk, News. “Myanmar Situation Deteriorating – United Nations Press Conference (21
October 2021).” The Global Herald, The Global Herald , 21 Oct. 2021,
Image Source: New York Times October 26, 2021