Friday, January 7, 2011

Mormon Polygamy on Trial : Day 15 Summary and Media links

Dr. Rebecca Cook, distinguished professor of international law from University of Toronto, was called by the AG of Canada to testify as an expert witness regarding Canada's international treaty obligations to uphold the anti-polygamy law. Dr. Cook pointed out that several international committees are focused on eliminating systematic and structural discrimination against women. Many of these committees have explicitly referred to the "structural asymmetry" of polygamous marriages because the vast majority of cultures allow men to have multiple wives but do not allow women to have multiple husbands. On at least two occasions, Professor Cook cited the inequality inherent in patriarchal marriage systems that allow husbands to have more than one wife. She also stressed that Canada, as a signatory country to at least 5 relevant international treaties, is obligated to take any and all measures possible to eliminate all structural systems of discrimination that stereotype women as being inferior to men. She also testified that there is a discernible and systematic trend in the recommendations made by the international committees to prohibit or restrict polygyny in countries where it is practiced.

On a side note, the media reports tend to ignore some interesting items that came out under cross examination. First, none of the international treaties or agreements specifically refer to polygamy or polygyny. All of these bodies specifically refer to the elimination of all structural systems that systematically discriminate against women - and since polygamy tends to do this, she automatically considers it is a subset under these restrictions. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that many more Canadian women are discriminated against and suffer a loss of dignity at the hands of monogamous patriarchal systems than those who suffer under polygamy. For example, the Catholic church, LDS Mormons, fundamentalist evangelical Christians, conservative Jews and most Muslims all practice religious systems that uphold men as the head of the household and restrict women from leadership roles in their religious communities. Members of some cultural groups within Canada are actively practicing arranged marriages, invoking dowry obligations and in extreme cases, enforcing these structural inequalities through "honor killings". Almost all of these patriarchal communities are not polygamous - yet they are certainly problematic for discriminating against women.

International law, in itself, seems to be a paradox. Professor Cook often compared Canada's laws against other countries like Australia, the UK, France, Belgium and the USA. She argued that none of these countries have legalized polygamy so it would be extremely unusual to do so. However, it turns out that the UK and Australia only have a law against bigamy and have never explicitly criminalized polygamy. The Amicus even presented information from the same authoritative texts that had been quoted by professor Cook that suggested that these countries may not even consider polygamy to be a criminal offense under the bigamy prohibitions. They are even questioning whether to drop the bigamy offense. In fact, Canada is the only country that has federal laws against bigamy and polygamy. If we dropped section 293, the anti-polygamy law, we would have exactly the same protections as the UK and Australia. It is also very difficult to understand how to compare legislation and international committee recommendations for countries as diverse as Canada, Uzbekistan and South Africa. The same committee general recommendations that criticize polygamy in Uzbekistan seem less concerned on the criminalization of homosexuals. Where would Canada stand on that?

Dr. Cook also conceded that there is no police to enforce international laws. The system is honor based - States, like people, should follow through on their commitments. If not, they should be "ashamed - and no country wants to be a pariah".

Finally, Dr. Cook conceded that the world community is not really paying much attention to women's issues on the international stage - lamenting that most of the diplomatic efforts are focused on issues like global warming. And I'm sure everyone will agree that international shame and embarrassment have been very effective in persuading Harper's government to honor Canada's Kyoto treaty agreements.

If the collective international action on global warming, genocide and war crimes are any indication of the effectiveness of international law, I confess that I really can't take international law very seriously.

Polygamy on the decline worldwide: Law professor

Polygamy hearing: Evidence so far shows polygamy inherently harmful

Polygamy subject to rights law: Prof

Decriminalizing polygamy would be a breach of Canadian obligations - Think Tank

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