Global Mergers and Acquisition: Combining Companies Across Borders, Vol. I

Abdol S. Soofi and Yuqin Zhang.

This book primarily deals with corporate restructuring through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). It critically examines all functions that must be performed in completing an M&A transaction. Domestic and cross-border M&A’s are very similar in many respects even though differences between them also exist. The book includes discussions of international finance and multinational financial management, the topics that arise in cross-border M&A transactions.
Given the increasing importance of China as the second largest economy in the world and Chinese companies’ growing merger and acquisition (M&A) activities globally, we devote the last two chapters of the book to China’s outward foreign direct investment and cross-border M&A activities. Moreover, the second volume includes the case studies regarding Chinese foreign direct investment both in Greenfield and acquisition forms give additional insights into challenging tasks of due diligence and post-merger cultural integration that foreign investors face.
The M&A literature is a fragmented field of inquiry. The book brings together important, practical insights from this vast literature in a short, but cohesive form that has high managerial relevance.

Global Mergers and Acquisitions: Combining Companies Across Boarders, Vol. II

Abdol Soofi and Yuqin Zhang.

This book primarily deals with corporate restructuring through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). It critically examines all functions that must be performed in completing an M&A transaction. Domestic and cross-border M&A’s are very similar in many respects even though differences between them also exist. The book includes discussions of international finance and multinational financial management, the topics that arise in cross-border M&A transactions.
Given the increasing importance of China as the second largest economy in the world and Chinese companies’ growing merger and acquisition (M&A) activities globally, we devote the last two chapters of the book to China’s outward foreign direct investment and cross-border M&A activities. Moreover, the second volume includes the case studies regarding Chinese foreign direct investment both in Greenfield and acquisition forms give additional insights into challenging tasks of due diligence and post-merger cultural integration that foreign investors face.
The M&A literature is a fragmented field of inquiry. The book brings together important, practical insights from this vast literature in a short, but cohesive form that has high managerial relevance.


Polygamy as further subjugation of African women, and the toll on national economies

*photo credit: West Africa Brief.

John O. Ifediora.

In its definitional and operational sense, polygamy is a matrimonial indulgence by which any of the sexes takes on multiple wives or husbands; the latter, however, is rare and seldom the case. While such formal and informal family arrangements are not exclusive preserves of Africans, they are nonetheless enduring and pervasive in all African nation-states with no clear signs of abatement. Of immediate interest is the case where a man takes on two or more wives in exercise of his customary rights, and the desire to put in public view his ability to sustain such burden. That this is the case is of ancient origin in the continent, but so are the unimaginable consequences on the lives of women, who, by cultural prescriptions or by force of economic necessity, find themselves in the arduous task of polygamy. But from whence does the appeal for such family arrangement originate, and how does it benefit society? These questions need not detain us here, for of immediate concern is the welfare of the women involved, and the impact on national productivity.

The abysmal economic performance by African States in past decades is attributable to a host of known factors – mismanagement of resources, graft, and bureaucratic corruption; but of all the known culprits that have so far suppressed economic growth, none is more intransigent, and yet least addressed, than Africa’s patriarchal customary practices, and traditional observances. These pervasive practices are traceable, with relative facility, to controlling traits of antiquity that have remained resilient to the moderating effects of education, and experiments with ‘democratic’ forms of governance. The failure to incorporate cultural sensibilities, and to see things from the point of view of Africans continue to frustrate all otherwise reasonable attempts at development. Amongst experts in the development community, it is widely acknowledged that a major cause of economic underdevelopment in modern Africa is the relative absence of industrialization, and lack of demonstrable opportunities for effective employment of both capital and human resources. But while capital accumulation and industrialization are mutually self-sustaining and fundamental to development, how a society treats and deploys its human capital ultimately determine its development trajectory.

By testimony of evidence, it may now be forcefully declared that among the known culprits, the chief hindrance to social and economic development in the continent can be found in the cultural norms that regulate the relations between the sexes —– the quasi legal subordination of women to men that informs past and current understanding of polygamy. This state of affairs in which African societies have perennially subjected women, instructs African women of their roles in society; which are, in the main, directly opposite to those reserved for men. They are informed, in this regard, on how to perfect the art of subservience to their male counterparts, not to aspire to self-governance, or act in manners indicative of self- will. They are told that morality requires of them to faithfully execute the function nature has reserved for them, which is to reproduce; and by abnegation of self, to nourish both husband and children through affection and dedication. For centuries, this understanding has defined the collective lot of African women, and sadly, it remains a debilitating influence on development efforts in the continent. The fact that many modern African women have excelled in various professional endeavors is encouraging, but does not define the collective lot of many more.

A question of immediate urgency, however, is how to further explore the effects of culturally induced disparate treatment of African women on economic development, and how the ensuing inequality of opportunities between the sexes detracts from development efforts. The thesis here is that the denial of fair and equal treatment to women in African societies is a major contributing factor to perceived and actual economic underdevelopment, and that real and sustained socio-economic development is achievable only when such unjust practices are allowed to elapse into disuse. This work provides a brief guidance on the effects of subjection on development, and how such effects may be ameliorated by gender-sensitive public policies in education, and employment opportunities. The analytic approach adopted is necessarily informed by a liberal interpretation of justice that presumes a moral equality of the sexes, and admits of no preference or natural disability of one or the other.

In early human societies, especially in ages long past, the ‘law of superior strength’ defined inter-personal or inter-community relations; indeed it was the rule that governed human existence and had public approbation as a source of sustenance. The African experience in this regard is no different. That the physically weaker sex came to be subordinated to the stronger one was a natural outcome of this primeval system of social discourse and relations; a system of subjection and inequality derived, not from formal deliberation or forethought on what conduces to the social good, but from a prevailing social conditioning and the understanding that women have value to men, and through brute force placed women in a state of semi bondage. With time, this state of affairs became socialized and accepted as the norm of social relations between the sexes; and as is customary in all other human activities, laws and customs that now govern the relations between the sexes took hold by formalizing what they found already in existence in society. What began as a physical reality is turned into a legal one; women, once compelled into submission and obedience by superior physical strength are now bound to them by operation of customary laws, and tradition.

Historical social positioning of African Women and the effects on Development

In modern liberal democracies, the a priori presumption leans in favor of equality in treatment, and freedom; by insisting on the equal distribution of these basal ‘primary goods,’ a special sense of social justice is prescribed. It is hence presumed, as a matter of public policy, that constraints on basic liberties are morally unacceptable; but if any is necessary for the social good, it must be properly balanced against individual liberties. Furthermore, rules and laws that regulate public discuss and relations must be impartial unless justice dictates disparate treatment in favor of the disadvantaged. This Rawlsian interpretation of justice informs this work, and has also been a guiding influence on recent policy initiatives in modern Africa, where proponents of progressive liberalism have not only urged the protection of individual rights from state practices, but have shaped the debate on human rights with a strong sense of justice that insists on protection from oppressive social roles and practices that developed under conditions of inequality.

The chief distinguishing feature of social institutions in modern societies is the ability to generate and encourage divergent views on important social issues that progressively move societies farther away from the past and into more enlightenment. This separation from the past enables the dissolution of cultural bonds that chained people to the life they were born into, and frees them to apply their natural or refined intellect in any social endeavor they see fit. But history reminds us that this separation from the past is a slow and painful process, for no subordinated group ever began their quest from oppression by seeking complete freedom and equality immediately. The almost inevitable path is that those who are under any sort of oppression through power of ancient origin begin by complaining, not of the power itself, but of the excessive application of it. It is only after the exercise of such oppressive power is successfully challenged is the initial right to such power subjected to social scrutiny, and if found in discord with modern liberal sentiments, it is then pressed into disuse.

With time, and through the modernizing effects of human struggles for freedom and independence, it has become increasingly clear, even to the most disinterested observer, that individual liberty and freedom of choice are the best means to promote the economic welfare of societies. By enabling individuals to engage in activities best suited to their natural talents and acquired skills, society procures for itself the highest possible level of social productivity. It is thus counterintuitive, and self- defeating for the same society to arbitrarily impose limitations on what half of its constituent members can, and cannot do on the grounds of unproven assumptions of capabilities. And even if the assumption that the sexes are suited for different productive activities is shown to hold, there would be exceptions; and to forbid those who fall outside this socialized assumption the opportunity to participate fully to their abilities is not only unjust, but also operates in detriment to individual benefits, and to those of society. Will Kymlicka , in his book entitled, ‘Contemporary Philosophy,’ goes a step further:

“The ideology of equal opportunity seems fair to many because it ensures that people’s fate is determined by their choices, rather than their circumstances; success or failure is determined by performance, not by race or class or sex. If I fail it is not because I was born into the ‘wrong’ group, thus success is earned and merited through one’s own efforts. It would be unfair for individuals to be disadvantaged or privileged by arbitrary and undeserved differences in their social circumstances.” (Kymlicka, 2002).

What is being asked, within the context of a just society, is not that special privileges and benefits be conferred on women; it is rather that the special benefits and privileges conferred on men so far be withdrawn to enable fair and equal participation by women in matters of social and private consequence. It is still an observable fact in Africa that social institutions, with varying degrees of vitality and longevity, continue to impute right to might, and make it possible for those who originally acquired power through morally unjust avenues to retain it as a matter of course. And while other social institutions are gradually yielding to modern dictates by becoming less rigid, and accommodating of change, the ones more directly relevant to the relations between the sexes remain peculiarly intransigent, and less responsive to reformed sensibilities. That women, who make up more than half of Africa’s population, remain largely in the unnatural state of inequality, and subordinated to their male counterparts in both familial and public spheres are manifestations of, and a cause of significant social and economic dislocations in the continent.

Differences in Years of Schooling As a Contributing Factor

The socially ascribed roles as now exist between the sexes did not originate from legitimate differentials on natural talents or capacities, but arose instead on assumed limitations on the part of women, and privileges advanced to men. The assumptions and privileges are further advanced by the differential treatment of the sexes within the family unit. In Africa, it has always been the case, until lately, that boys receive disproportionate portions of a family’s resource in all manners of investment in human capital or in training necessary for independent pursuit of career choices. It is only after the educational or training requirements of the boys have been reasonably satisfied would those of the girls receive attention, assuming the family’s resources are not yet depleted or severely constrained. This disparity in treatment is based on the customary belief that investments in girls are unwise, for once of the age of maturity, they are expected to leave their homes of birth by way of marriage, taking with them any investment in human capital, and all prospects for future returns on such investment. A parallel view does not apply to boys, for tradition requires of them to sustain their family of birth, and to do so in perpetuity. It is this initial distortion in resource allocation between the sexes at the family level that further aggravates the already compromised social and economic status of women. Lacking in skills and educational credentials, they are compelled to employ their substantial natural talents in domestic activities, petty trading, or in subsistence farming. While honorable, in the sense that these activities make for a reasonable livelihood, and help support immediate and extended family networks, they are not undertaken by ‘free’ choice, and hardly conduce to high-income growth rates or self-fulfilling careers necessary for sustained economic self-sufficiency, and national economic growth.

There is now near universal consensus that both the level of education attained by citizens of a country, and the quality of education so received are major determining factors of domestic productivity. The comparative levels of educational attainment in different countries are not, however, determinative of differential economic growth rates, but are strongly correlative. In instances where the family of birth has sufficient resources to provide tertiary education for the girls, a major consideration that would discourage such commitment arises, not from the presumed absence of future returns on such expenditure, but from the pragmatic consideration of ‘marriageability.’ For, sadly, many African men are yet to be comfortable with the idea of marrying African women with advanced degrees; thus, to avoid educating herself out of marriage prospects, the family withholds needed support for education beyond a certain level. This cut-off line is in many instances a secondary school level certification. But this need to preserve marriage prospects for daughters by limiting the level of education they may acquire is not without cost; for it is this need to be eligible for marriage that deprives women of the skills they need to be economically self-sufficient, and once married become completely dependent on the husband for sustenance. In the many instances where the wife lacks marketable skills, the economic burden on the husband is low, thus he can afford to marry more and enjoy enhanced domestic services by doing less; herein lies the economistic incentive for polygamy. This dependence on husbands for economic well-being is a primary source of subjection of the African woman who fulfills both her wishes and those of society by becoming a wife; it is also from this source that some of the most vicious human rights abuses emanate, specifically the emotional and physical abuse visited upon many African women through privation and want of self-fulfillment. It is also through this vantage point that progressive public policy may be profitably implemented.


To Forgive or Not: A timely question in an age of terror

Simon Wiesenthal’s seminal narrative of his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp inmate is, at its core, an inquiry into the nature of human capacity to make decisions under conditions of extreme trauma. Conditioned by the daily assault on his physical and psychological well-being by his captors, he was unwittingly placed in a position that required him to make a decision with moral and ethical implications – grant or not grant the request for forgiveness by a dying Nazi SS soldier who had confessed to a most depraved act of inhumanity against innocent Jews. The inability to grant this request bothered Wiesenthal; and ultimately provided the principal impetus for the book he entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, which also contained instructive symposia on the question of forgiveness.

In the first English edition of The Sunflower published in 1969, only ten respondents offered their opinions on the question posed by Wiesenthal; all Jewish and Holocaust survivors who responded were unanimous in their opposition to forgiveness. The Christians amongst the respondents echoed a principal doctrine in Christianity, which is to forgive all sins. The current edition of the book, published in 1982, had fifty-three respondents, and offered a remarkably more varied responses and reactions to the same question. A critical analysis of the reception of The Sunflower by respondents in the 1982 edition of the book is the primary object of this dissertation. In point of objectivity, however, the analysis distills into one of forgiveness – should Wiesenthal have forgiven Karl, or was he right in withholding forgiveness? The reactions of the respondents thus centered on received articulations of forgiveness – what it entails, when to render it, and when it may be prudentially withheld. Hence in order to profitably analyze the reception of the book by respondents, it is first necessary to understand what informed Wiesenthal’s moment of “indecision.”

A secularized interpretation of forgiveness
The question raised in The Sunflower, by force of the faiths of the victim and the wrongdoer (Simon and Karl respectively), implicates a need for exploration of the different apprehensions of the concept of forgiveness in Christianity and Judaism, and warrants, at once, its secular interpretation and understanding. I begin with a multidisciplinary discussion of the literature, and then turn my attention to the theology of forgiveness. Theorists, particularly Hannah Arendt (1958, 32) and Bishop Butler (1970, 72)), insist that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for forgiveness, and that these conditions are partly moral, metaphysical, and existential. One obvious condition requires that a culpable wrong be committed for forgiveness to be relevant, and that both victim and offender be moral agents (the concept of forgiveness would be senseless in a world comprised of stones, fish, and vegetables).

Thus once a harmful act has been committed, forgiveness acts as a mechanism that interrupts the damages inflicted, and mitigates the stimuli to react or seek revenge. But once a great harm has been done, the mere act of forgiveness may lack the capacity to make whole or redeem the victim from what Arendt described as “the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done”(Arendt 1958, 40). Arendt acknowledges this limiting power of forgiveness, but insists that forgiveness, in spite of its limitations, remains the solution for the “inevitable damages resulting from action, which, rather than undoing actions, interrupts their consequences;” without forgiveness we would remain the victim of our own behavior “confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.” (Arendt 1958, 241). In this sensibility of forgiveness, it terminates that which could go on pointlessly and endlessly without interference.

Arendt’s writing on forgiveness seemed to place strong emphasis on the distinction between minor wrongdoing and what Kant described as “radical evil,” or willed evil that transcends human capacity to understand or comprehend. Humans can forgive minor wrongdoing but willed or radical evil would require a more complex regime of forgiveness and punishment. Card (2002, 182) takes cognizance of Arendt’s later writing on the “banality of evil,” and defines evil “as a reasonably foreseeable harm (which need not be highly probable) that falls within a certain range of magnitude and importance and is brought about, seriously, sustained or tolerated by culpable wrongdoing.”(Card 2002, 185). Card’s range of evils includes “intolerable harm” and harm that tends “to ruin lives, or parts of lives.” If such definition of evil is applicable in a given circumstance, how can the response to incomprehensible atrocities such as genocide and mass murder be forgiven? How may victims be persuaded to forgo the natural human instinct for retributive justice or revenge, and instead carry-on and make do with the knowledge that whatever harm they suffered is “irreversible?” Joanna North (1998, 19) has an answer:

What we must remember is that a correct conception of forgiveness does not require that we forgo punishment altogether or that we should, in forgiving, attempt to annul the existence of the wrong done. Forgiveness does not remove the fact or event of wrongdoing but instead relies upon the recognition of wrong having been committed in order for the process of forgiveness to be made possible. What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one’s relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others. From the injured person’s point of view, forgiveness will have the effect of preventing the wrong from continuing to damage one’s self-esteem and one’s psyche, thus bringing to an end the distortion and corruption of one’s relations with others.

The point North is making here has a near universal appeal and utility amongst practitioners of psychiatry, and psychological counseling. A hypothetical case would be instructive. Suppose a male, jogging on a deserted road on a cold night, is brutally attacked and left for dead. But manages to survive the attack, and regains his physical abilities, but for the next several months he continuously relieves the horrible experience, and finds himself unable to leave the safe environment of his home after dusk, and ultimately becomes fearful and untrusting of anyone he encounters after dusk. Apart from the debilitating psychological effects of this attack, he remains consumed by anger and hatred of the assailant, but he is physically and legally unable to exact revenge. So he lives his daily life defined by fear, anger, and helplessness; one might say, he has allowed his assailant to perpetually dominate his existence by corrupting and destroying his ability to return to his accustomed existence before the assault. He is now a virtual prisoner in his new existence – unable to forgive, unable to free himself from the memory of the painful event, and clearly unable to lead a productive life. Again, Joanna North (1998, 17):

Through forgiveness the pain and hurt caused by the original wrong are released, or at least they are not allowed to mar the whole of one’s being for all time. …I am not suggesting that the moral value of forgiveness resides solely in its capacity to make the injured party feel better, as if forgiveness were simply a species of self-help therapy. Indeed, if this were a person’s sole motivation in forgiving another, then he should be in danger of losing sight of the notion of forgiveness altogether. …Forgiveness is not something we do for ourselves alone, but something we give or offer to another. The forgiving response is outward-looking and other-directed; it is supposed to make a difference to the wrongdoer as well as ourselves.

The debate over a precise secularized definition of forgiveness notwithstanding, there seems to be a consensus amongst theorists that it is a process that entails a revised emotion and attitude toward the wrongdoer (Finch 2006, 30; Govier 2002, 41). The process of forgiveness, once engaged, is believed to minimally suppress the instinctual desire for revenge, and release internalized harmful emotions such as fear and anger. Authors such as Herman (1997, 25), and Lamb (1998, 162) suggest that forgiveness need not be dependent on the attitude of the offender, and can be unilaterally rendered by the victim, thus giving the victim maximal control of the recovery process from the traumatic event. But other theorists such as Blech (1992, 60), and Finch (2006, 27) propound that forgiveness is a bilateral process that should be negotiated between the offender and the victim in order for both to reach beneficial closure on the harmful event.

So far the discussion has focused on the victim from whom forgiveness is urged on moral and existential grounds. But are wrongdoers always ‘culpable’, and thus candidates for forgiveness? Are there wrongs that are excusable because the act that led to the harmful event is outside the competence of the wrongdoer? Philosophers such as Kant (1996, 32) and Bentham (1948, 25) have argued the essence of determinism which postulates that events in the natural world have causes of indeterminate origin – that whatever happens in human existence or in the physical world is a result of a chain-reaction of events that far predates a particular act. This particularistic interpretation of acts by humans that lead to harm provides excuses, or at least explanations of why injuries were inflicted on a victim (I could not help it; it was an accident; it was out of my control; I was forced to do it). Kant, in espousing the concept of determinism, argued that because a cause is not readily made manifest does not mean it does not exist (Kant 1996, 49). Arguing in a similar vein, John Stuart Mill (1961, 32) insists that uncharacteristic and unpredictable human acts count no greater against the essence of causal explanation than unpredictable and uncharacteristic events in nature such as the weather and earthquakes count against the possibility of there being causes that remain elusive.

A belief in the concept of determinism would tend to make forgiveness “irrelevant” to both the offender and the victim, for if the harmful act committed by the offender was due to forces outside his physical competence or legal responsibility, then the beneficial properties of forgiveness would not be in play since there would be no culpable individual to forgive. This position, of course, presumes that forgiveness is only proper where a culpable harm is properly in place. But such understanding of responsibility for harm done is too simplistic. The fact that there may be good excuses or reasons for acts leading to harm do not lift culpability; it all depends on the nature of harm caused, what precipitated it, and what it is that needs forgiving. Thus, the old saying, “To understand all is to forgive all,” while instructive may not be useful in many instances of atrocious inhumanity for the simple reason that when all is known about a harmful event, more “salt may be added to injuries.” It may also be the case that a rationale may be adduced to excuse the act. Jerome Neu (2002, 29) takes this point further:

Once one knows all the factors that went into bringing about an action, it will often emerge that the crucial determining factors were outside of the person’s control. It is a deeply Kantian part of our understanding of ourselves and others that where a person is not free to act otherwise, “could not help it,” that person is not regarded as responsible or properly blamable for the action done due to the factors outside their control….But this brings us to some of the limits on the folk wisdom which are also limits on our Kantian intuitions. For if we are determinists about human action, and believe that causal chains can always be traced outside the person, it might appear that we never have ultimate control or responsibility, and so everything must always be forgiven. To refuse to forgive is simply to cling to present ignorance. But I think we should recognize that there is always a story to explain how things have come to be as they are and why a person did whatever it is they have done. But not all stories excuse…

Determinism, however, is not a matter of our immediate concern; people forgive not because they believe in a general principle of universal causal order or that every violent act that causes harm has certain but indeterminate antecedent origins, but because of the existence of relevant and necessary conditions that make such act understandable, if possible, or excusable. Some atrocities may never be understood, but may still be amenable to forgiveness on religious, moral, or existential grounds. One of the conditions that properly facilitate our understanding of forgiveness is a distinction between excusing and forgiving; an excuse that reveals a harmful act to be purely an accident or a by-product of intent to advance the welfare of the victim may facilitate forgiveness because such act lacks purposeful will to inflict harm.

While the victim may be angry for the harm done, the excuse generally militates against resentment and hatred. In this regard, it will help matters to follow Jeffrie Murphy (1988, 92) and Bishop Butler (1970, 75) in describing forgiveness as forswearing resentment of the offender, and insisting that forgiveness is proper only when resentment is already justifiably in place, otherwise there is really nothing there to forgive of the offender. Equally important in this understanding is that the degree of resentment, and the willingness to forgive are both a function of the magnitude and duration of the harm. This articulation of forgiveness and resentment necessarily restricts resentment to culpable harm devoid of acceptable excuse; but even here, in this seemingly straight-forward description of forgiveness, there are still complexities. Jerome Neu (2002, 24) explains:

Even where an excuse removes all responsibility and so make resentment inappropriate, there may be a sense to forgiveness. The therapeutic concern served by forgiveness may require the overcoming of anger as well as resentment. The kind of responsibility essential to resentment may not be essential to anger, and so an excuse that attenuates responsibility may not undermine the anger provoked by an injury. Anger at harm may persist in the absence of resentment at wrong. Our concern here is how understanding might lessen responsibility, and so provide an excuse, or otherwise lead to forgiveness. Excusing and forgiving are two different paths to disarming resentment, one by showing it misplaced, and the other by renouncing it despite its warrant.

The causes or circumstances that led to harm aside, there may be instances where forgiveness is simply not possible. This would be the case where it is very difficult to separate the harm from the offender as is the case in instances of horrific crimes where the sheer magnitude of the event defies comprehension. Specific examples of such crimes would include genocide, torture and mass murder of children or the purposeful extermination of people who identify with a race or religion (such as the atrocities Karl confessed to participating in); in these cases the crime perpetuated would almost always militate against any interpretation of forgiveness especially where the extent and degree of the crime essentially foreclose understanding. Under these circumstances, retention of anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge by victims and family members may be a moral prerogative that preserves self-respect and human dignity. Writing on the Holocaust, Richard Fitzgibbons (1986, 63) insists that “wrongs having this degree of culpability and enormity may put one permanently in debt to the victim such that the moral amends are unending and resentment is forever justified.”

Aristotle (1984, 62) spoke about the proper role of anger in society as a signifier of one’s self-worth, and decried the deficiency of those who fail to be angry enough when harmed:
The deficiency, whether it is a sort of irascibility or whatever it is, is blamed. For those who are not angry at things they should be are thought to be fools, and so are those who are not angry in the right way, at the right time, or with the right person; for such a man is thought not to feel things nor be pained by them, and, since he does not get angry he is thought unlikely to defend himself; and to endure being insulted, and to put up with insults to one’s friends is slavish.

The point Aristotle seems to be making is that feeling anger and resentment is a constituent part of self-respect, thus failure to express such emotions appropriately would be a sign of insufficiency of self-respect and lack of concern for one’s dignity, and rights. Following Aristotle, Bishop Butler (1970, 77) suggests that resentment has social value because “resentment against vice and wickedness is one of the common bonds by which society is held together…and is to be considered as a weapon put in our hands by nature against injustice and cruelty.” But it should not follow from these pronouncements on anger and resentment that one should never let go of both; they do, however, suggest that if one is to forgive, the proper roles of anger and resentment require adequate consideration.

If one is to fully understand the complex process of forgiveness, it is also important to recognize that the attitude of the offender or perpetrators of harm is an integral part of the injury sustained by victims. The absence of care, recognition of the rights of victims, remorse or repentance are attitudes that are just as damaging as the physical injuries sustained. Part of what is therefore resented is the offender’s attitude, and what alters when forgiveness is granted is the forgiver’s attitude toward the offender. Jeffrie Murphy (1988, 28) puts it differently:

One reason we so deeply resent moral injuries done to us is not simply that they hurt us in some tangible or sensible way; it is because such injuries are also messages, i.e., symbolic communications. They are ways a wrongdoer has of saying to us “I count and you do not.” I can use you for my purposes, or “I am up here and you are there down below.” Intentional wrongdoing degrades us –or at least represents an attempt to degrade us—and thus it involves a kind of injury that is not merely tangible and sensible. It is a moral injury.

If one, therefore, takes forgiveness as the foreswearing of resentment, and the subsequent abatement of anger, the centrality of attitude in the complex scheme of forgiveness becomes obvious; for it enables one to see the connectedness of the reasons that may serve as the basis for forgiveness. Repentance and remorse, for instance, facilitate the distinction of attitudes displayed by the offender at the commission of the harmful act, and the moment forgiveness is sought, thus affording a better understanding of St. Augustine’s admonition to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” (St. Augustine 2009, 123). St. Augustine’s counsel is very much relevant in the secular world since victims of horrific crimes often have difficulties separating offenders from their act. As Murphy (1988, 56) explains, “when you repent, I forgive you for what you now are. When I forgive for oldtime sake, I forgive you for what you once were.” Attitudes matter, and quite complex; just as it is difficult to be certain of the motivations that underwrote the offender’s current behavior in seeking forgiveness, it is equally a challenge interpreting a victim’s presumed change of heart – a forgiving heart that does not reflect such change in attitude toward the offender can hardly be countenanced as genuine forgiveness. This point is not lost in Heinrich Heine’s (1982, 72) statement:

Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my windows, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.

For both offender and victim, the certainty of a genuine change of heart or lack of it matters; it enables one to either move on or continue to seek a clear indication of repentance or forgiveness. Karl would never know of the status of his request for forgiveness; the crimes he confessed to gave Wiesenthal a lot to ponder.

The trauma dimension
While the concept of forgiveness, in its various articulations, informs the thrust of this enquiry, emotional and physical trauma and the subconscious psychological defenses they engender are proper and relevant areas of consideration in maters that touch on behavioral manifestations from Holocaust survivors (Gobodo-Madikizela 2008, 170). Trauma, emotional numbing, and post-traumatic stress have long been recognized in the literature as powerful determinants in shaping victim’s responses to both internal and external stimuli, and to a large extent, helped underscore the fragility of the human mind (Herman, 1997, 152). Unrelenting and persistent traumatic episodes have been shown to distort perception, compromise faculties, induce physical and psychological infirmities, impair judgment, and ultimately dehumanize (Kaminer 2006, 182).

For Holocaust survivors, remembrance and memory are exceedingly burdensome and complicated; each invariably demands more of the victim the greater the degree of trauma endured. Wiesenthal’s reaction to Karl’s request for forgiveness, while nonverbal, is complicated, and so are his subsequent behavior soon after his encounter with Karl, and after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of hostilities. The extent to which he was traumatized by his experiences is an open question, but one that leaves no doubt that he was indeed traumatized by events in the camp. But how much of what he relates in The Sunflower are “actual recollections” of his experiences? How reliable is his memory and his ability to accurately recall events that took place while under a state of prolonged trauma? Was his inability to accommodate Karl’s request a manifestation of his state of mind that subconsciously shielded him from unpleasant external stimuli? Krondorfer (2008, 244) elaborates further:

Holocaust memory, like all memories of atrocity and genocide, are complicated by the fact of trauma. Not only are survivors of catastrophes unable to comprehend the totality of their memory, their condition is also characterized by “the inability to convey their experiences, to utter the unutterable” (Zertal, 2005, 55). Because of the traumatic content, survivors themselves experience a tension “between the desire to forget and the need to remember” (Wajnryb 2001, 78). The deeper the trauma, the more remarkable the sense of irretrievable loss, and pain.

Are perpetrators of unspeakable evil such as genocide also traumatized by their act, even when such act of inhumanity was either willingly engaged or compelled in furtherance of perceived collective welfare? Was Karl’s request for forgiveness equally a manifestation of his traumatized state of mind, and thus not fully volitional? What about Klaus Barbie, the infamous butcher of Lyon, who proclaimed in his trial, “I have forgotten. If they haven’t, it’s their concern. I, in any case, have forgotten” (Suleiman 206, 103). Are these perpetrators just as traumatized by the knowledge of their atrocities, albeit on a different degree, as the victims? Again, Krondorfer (2008, 251):
When it comes to forgetting and remembering perpetrators of homicidal violence must be treated differently from survivors of atrocity. Testimonies of Nazi perpetrators and their accomplices differ fundamentally from testimonies of Jewish survivors, because perpetrators have an interest in trivializing the harm inflicted on their victims and in reducing their own culpability. As a general rule, perpetrators have reasons to distort the truth. While victims resist the rawness of trauma spilling into their lives, the perpetrator resists the acknowledgment of individual blame in relation to his participation in collective evil.

But Karl admitted his crime, confessed it, and sought salvation through forgiveness in accordance to the dictates of his religious faith (Catholicism, as we are told in the book). The question, however, is whether his testimony is an “accurate” account of the extent of the genocidal atrocity he committed alongside his fellow soldiers. Did he subconsciously withhold other deadly acts of violence against innocent Jews as a defense mechanism in order to minimize the harm done, and to facilitate Wiesenthal’s rendering of his request? One can never be certain, but traumatic events that perpetrators are not particularly proud of or were compelled to execute may engender memory suppression and misrepresentation of facts (North 1998, 19). It is, perhaps, within this context that Karl’s rendition of events may be profitably considered, for traumatized persons have been shown in clinical studies to deploy unconscious mental processes or coping mechanisms that lessen anxiety associated with painful events or internal conflicts, and thus protect the individual from psychological discomfort (Enright, 1998, 55). Some of the more commonly employed defense mechanisms by perpetrators of horrific crimes are rationalization of action, denial, projection, and sublimation, all of which have been found in one form or another in the trials of former Nazis (Card 2004, 215). There is no evidence that any of these applied to Karl; all we know of him in this regard are the details of his confession to Wiesenthal, and from them one may reasonably make inferences to this state of mind as one who engaged in a collective act of atrocity. Lewis (2005, 19) elucidates:

When atrocities are performed in the name of a collective identity, individuals may in fact not see the inhumanity of their deeds in the very moment they enact them. They neither perceive their own actions as individually willed nor do they truly see their victims’ faces, that is, recognize people in their subjectivity. Hence, when perpetrators later testify, they do not so much misremember as they actually – with respect to their own selective memory – remember “correctly.” Their victims have always been absent from their view, at the moment of the mistreatment and murder as much as at the moment when perpetrators are asked to recall their wrongdoings. Effacement, then, is already built into the initial act of genocidal evil. As far as the perpetrators are concerned, they do not remember the victims in their trial testimonies because they never saw them in their humanity to begin with. What perpetrators did not acknowledge (to themselves when committing the atrocity, they cannot recall later.

But what about the account of life in Auschwitz by Primo Levi in his book, Surviving Auschwitz (1958)? An account so devastating that one can almost feel vicariously the actual psychological pain of the victims. Was he really capable of recalling the “actual” event as stated below or is the narrative an out growth of “refreshed” or long-suppressed memory that is at best compromised by trauma? In any event, the accuracy of recalled events by individuals may matter less in the scheme of things if what they refer to are events that actually took place, diminished capacity and compromised specificity notwithstanding. Of immediate relevance in this enquiry, however, is whether, in spite of the traumatic events experienced by victims, and, to a limited sense, by perpetrators, both can function effectively in their daily existence without the agency of forgiveness. If normalcy is eventually restored with the passage of time, and with sufficient spatial separation from the offensive environment, then of what use is forgiveness except in compliance with religious dictates? But if these two conditions are reasonably met and the victim’s psychological wellbeing remains wanting, then there might be a case to be made for the usefulness of forgiveness.

The Bible, without explicit intent, gives an excellent narrative of an event that some experts in the field of traumatic disorder and unconscious human responses to stress now recognize as one of the earliest known incidents in which a trauma survivor managed to achieve remarkable success in secular activities, while at the subconscious level the traumatic events in his past remain operational. What is being referenced here is the story of Joseph and his brothers as told in the Old Testament (KJV, Genesis, Chapters 37-45), and repeated by Mann (2001). What began as squabbles between siblings soon degenerated into hatred that was self-consuming enough to compel Joseph’s brothers to sell him to a group of Ishmeelites who in turn took him and resold him in Egypt. Joseph, before this event, was their father’s favorite, in the main because Jacob (their father) had him when he was an old man and Joseph was the son of his beloved wife Rachel, who, for a long time was infertile. Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah had given birth to Joseph’s other ten brothers. Rachel died after giving birth to Benjamin.

Joseph, as we are told, was not a particularly humble child at seventeen; in one of his boastful moments, he told his brothers of his dream in which they all bowed down to him as their ruler. His brother’s jealousy of their father’s favoritism, and their contempt for Joseph’s behavior drove them to plot to kill him, but relented and instead threw him into a pit and sold him. They informed their father Jacob (who was later renamed Israel) that Joseph had been killed; Joseph, however, was eventually imprisoned in Egypt on false accusations of making sexual advances to his master’s wife. But, in due course, Joseph was called into administrative service by Pharoah for his uncanny ability to interpret dreams – his accurate prediction that Egypt would undergo seven years of abundance and then followed by another seven years of famine was enough to convince Pharoah to appoint him viceroy over Egypt.

As the famine swept over the region, his brothers traveled from the land of Canaan to obtain grain, and in the process had to appear before Joseph. Joseph recognized his brothers but they, however, did not recognize him. While Joseph at the end forgave and reconciled with his brothers, he took his time in the interim to undergo a catharsis by way of exacting psychological trauma of his own on his brothers. He first got his just revenge – he began by prosecuting them as spies, had one of the brothers thrown in jail, and then turned his anger on Jacob by having his other brothers request of their father to send Benjamin to Egypt knowing that such demand would cause his father much anguish. It took Joseph a while to come to terms with his past, but eventually he did tearfully reveal himself to his brothers, and invited them and his father to live in Egypt. Ultimately their descendents were enslaved in Egypt until their deliverance by Moses. (KJV, Genesis, Chapters 37-45).

Biblical interpretations of Joseph’s story raised pertinent questions: why did he take so long to reveal himself to his family? Why torment his father who loved him dearly, and by all account whom he also loved deeply, by not sending word earlier that he was fine and alive, thus relieving his father’s long years of grief? Why have his father send his other beloved son, Benjamin, to Egypt knowing how painful that would be to Jacob? But more importantly, why inflict so much torture on his brothers and father? While these are difficult questions to unravel, modern analysis of individual and collective trauma and its effects offer explanations and insights. In the Biblical narrative, Joseph was not described as emotionally burdened or despondent by what his brothers did to him; in fact he was described as doing quite well in Egypt.

This lack of explicit display of emotions and the ability to function in spite of the horrible event is indicative of the operational engagement of unconscious defense mechanisms that numbs emotions while enabling functionality. But such defenses may not long endure, for years later when his brothers appeared before him, his suppressed emotions reawakened and emerged with full effect, triggering the anger and desire for revenge. The three days he kept his brothers in jail match the three days he spent in the bit before being sold. The negative impact of traumatic stress, long suppressed, is now being unleashed, albeit not upon self but on others responsible for the event. The brothers’ expression of remorse for what they did further unleashed suppressed emotional pain that once acknowledged enabled Joseph to begin the healing process.

Joseph’s experience illustrates the power of unconscious defenses, and conscious acknowledgement and accessing previously inaccessible pain and deep-seated anger; through them one can both function, and ultimately love again through forgiveness. Samuel Mann (2001, 337) repositions Joseph’s experience in modern psychology of trauma quite effectively:

Joseph’s story suggests that the use of unconscious defenses allowed him to move on seemingly unaffected after severe childhood trauma, and that repressing such emotions may help in maintaining psychological stability…. While teaching that psychological numbing is not antithetical to survival and success in life, the text also implies that repression, while desirable at the time of trauma, is not the ideal long-term solution, as it may stand in the way of emotional and spiritual healing. When emotions related to trauma are handled largely by repression, the experiencing of love and forgiveness may also be blocked. Joseph’s story suggests that healing and wholeness are possible after emotions kept from awareness have been consciously acknowledged.

The role of trauma in remembrance, memory and subconscious defense mechanism employed by victims and perpetrators alike remains complicated, but it affords a reasonable means to understanding the behavior of both Karl and Wiesenthal, and in a broader application, the dispositions of Holocaust survivors, and former Nazis.

On therapeutic aspect of forgiveness
The value of forgiveness, until the seminal work of Lewis Smedes in 1984, was almost exclusively considered within theological paradigms. Smedes’s Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984), dramatically raised awareness of the therapeutic value of forgiveness in secular psychology; by advocating self-forgiveness as the first step towards restoration of one’s dignity and health, it gained wide acceptance in the fields of psychotherapy and counseling. But the book’s popularity amongst the general audience derived from its insistence on the victim’s forgiveness of the offender because it helps the victim redefine his role, not as a powerless and abused entity but as a person who retains the strength to exercise grace by forgiving the offender. In spite of the interest generated in academic and professional circles, and to a limited extent, in the broader vested audience, questions on the therapeutic usefulness of forgiveness remain – when should one forgive? Does forgiveness actually help the victim in the long-run or does it simply ameliorate and mask short-term manifestations of psychological distress? Is the victim ultimately made whole again by forgiveness, and if not, how much relief should the victim expect when he forgives? Put more bluntly, does forgiveness have its reputed therapeutic efficacy? The questions are simple enough; but the answers, by the very nature of the matter under consideration, are complex, and become more so as the context within which forgiveness is sought displays its uniqueness and complexities. This is especially the case if the difficulties posed by oversimplification and unrealistic expectations are to be avoided.

In Forgiveness and the Healing Process: A central Therapeutic Concern, Ransley and Spy (2004) drew attention to misconceptions of the attributes of forgiveness, and the motivations that inform a victim’s desire to render forgiveness. Their point being that forgiveness is neither easy, nor a straightforward process, and definitely not a panacea for all wrongs inflicted on victims. In this regard they urge their readers to view forgiveness as a lengthy process of redeeming the self from the grasps of pain, anger, frustration, and anxiety inflicted by the offender, and through the same process revisit one’s core values and beliefs to facilitate healing. Their interpretation of what it means to forgive is transparent enough: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring wrong things people do or condoning them; it is about seeing the humanity in ourselves and other people and giving ourselves and others the opportunity to change.”(Ransley and Spy 2004, 58).

Moltmann in his seminal work, God for a secular society: The public relevance of theology (1999), considers forgiveness as the creation of a new beginning. In this sense he suggests that forgiveness is less about the harm done, but more of the new life to which God awakens in the perpetrator and the wronged. In this regard, he asks, “How can we be free, not only of the evil we have committed, but of the evil we have suffered, and cannot forget because it has left traces in body and soul?” (Moltmann 1999, 75). His point being that freedom from debilitating effects of evil acts is what is obtained for those who forgive, for it frees them from hatred, anger and bitterness for what occurred in the past. And since the past cannot be revisited to foreclose the evil act, forgiveness frees the individual and enables the creation of a new existence. For perpetrators of evil acts, Moltmann (1999, 36) sees atonement and repentance as means to freedom but acknowledges that these would not be entirely sufficient to amend for harm committed. But nonetheless argues that “in the Bible repentance means conversion, and about-turn, and this turn is a turn to the future.” (Moltmann 1999, 24). Thus, to Moltmann repentance is forward-looking but mindful of harmful acts committed, while forgiveness frees the victim from the bondage of a painful past. This new beginning, made possible for both victims and perpetrators, emanates from the liberating and therapeutic effects of forgiveness.

Testimonies to the therapeutic efficacy of forgiveness, whether at the individual or national level abound. In the years following the Holocaust, there have been numerous acts of genocide, and high crimes against humanity targeted at minority groups or vulnerable ethnic groups in various parts of the world. Events in Rwanda, Bosnia, and South Africa come to the fore; others in smaller scope remain just as evil and inhumane. In what follows, it will be necessary to provide a full and unabridged reproduction of testimonies, not only for the sake of fidelity but also for effect. In the book entitled The Wisdom of Forgiveness, Victor Chan (2004) produced a powerful interview he conducted with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and the Dalia Lama. Victor Chan (2004, 67):

From 1995 to 1997, Archbishop Tutu was chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His job? To listen to 21,000 witnesses describe the human-rights anuses and atrocities committed during the apartheid era. At times, he wept openly after hearing the tales of torture, of people’s limbs being blasted off with blowtorches. His mandate? He had to forgive the perpetrators in order to foster healing.

In 2004, Tutu, in a forum with the Dalai Lama at the University of British Columbia, talked about his experiences with the Commission. Tutu:

Many times people were moved by examples, especially examples of people who, having suffered a great deal, instead of demanding a pound of flesh in retribution, have behaved extraordinarily. A young black woman came to us and told this story: “The police came and took me to the police station. They put me in a room, and undressed me. They took my breasts and shoved them into a drawer, and then slammed the drawer repeatedly on my nipples until the white stuff oozed out.” Now you imagine that someone who had experienced this atrocity would be bitter, would lust for revenge. But frequently people like her would say they were ready to forgive. We sat there and we were deeply, deeply humbled. Humbled by the privilege of listening to people who by right should be angry, resentful and vindictive. And instead, they were filled with desire to forgive. (Chan 2004, 69).

His second narrative was even more compelling, and troubling. Again, Tutu:

There was something called the Bisho massacre, thirty to forty people were killed and 200 injured. We held a public hearing in a huge hall, the room was packed to the rafters with angry people, many of whom were either injured at the incident or they had lost their loved ones. Four officers that had shot and killed people came in. You could feel the tension in the room, the anger. They came and they sat over there on the stage and we were in the middle. One of the officers, a white officer, the other three were black, got up and said, “yes, we gave the order for the soldiers to shoot.

The temperature shot up in the room, the tension you could cut with a knife. And then, he said, “Please forgive us, please forgive these three of my colleagues and receive them back into the community.” Now, you’d have thought this hall will erupt with anger. You know what the audience did? They applauded. Incredible. They applauded. And when the applause subsided, I said, “let’s keep a moment’s silence. Because we are in the presence of something holy, we were standing on holy ground. We ought to be taking off our shoes, like Moses did. (Chan 2004, 71).

Chan: Archbishop Tutu came by his deep-seated conviction of forgiveness through his exposure to an age-old piece of wisdom. As Tutu put it during his dialogue with the Dalai Lama in Vancouver:

In my country, we speak of something called ubuuntu. When I want to praise you, the highest praise I can you is to say, you have ubuuntu – this person has what it takes to be a human being. This is a person who recognizes that he exists only because others exist: a person is a person through other persons. When we say you have ubuuntu, we mean you are gentle, you are compassionate, you are hospitable, you want to share, and you care about the welfare of others. This is because my humanity is caught up in your humanity. So when I dehumanize others, whether I like it or not, inexorably, I dehumanize myself. For we can only be human, we can only be free, together. To forgive is actually the best form of self-interest. (Chan 2004, 69).

Chan then posed the following sequence of questions to the Dalai Lama, the High Monk of Tibet:

Chan: So to be able to forgive your enemies can make a difference to one’s spiritual progress? I asked the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama: Yes, yes, there is no doubt, it is crucial. It’s one of the most important thing. It can change one’s life. To reduce hatred and other destructive emotions, you must develop their opposites – compassion and kindness. If you have strong compassion, strong respect for others, then forgiveness is much easier. Mainly for this reason: I do not want to harm another. Forgiveness allows you to be in touch with these positive emotions. This will help with spiritual development.

Chan: Is there a special meditation technique that you use?

Dalai Lama: I use meditation technique called giving and taking. I make visualization: send my positive emotions like happiness, affection to others. Then another visualization. I visualize receiving their sufferings, their negative emotions. I do this every day. I pay special attention to the Chinese – especially those doing terrible things to the Tibetans. So, I meditate, I breathe in all their poisons – hatred, fear cruelty. Then I breathe out. And I let all the good things come out, things like compassion, forgiveness. Giving and taking. I take care not to blame; I don’t blame the Chinese, and I don’t blame myself. This meditation is very effective, useful to reduce hatred, useful to cultivate forgiveness. (Chan 2004, 74).

Clinical studies have shown that forgiveness is positively associated with better mental health in victims of evil acts (Walker 2006, 181; Govier 2002, 36). In these studies, forgiveness was found to be a lengthy process and ultimately linked to reduction in stress, depression, anxiety, and anger; but more importantly, it encouraged victims to abandon the desire for revenge, and resentment of offenders, which in turn brought about improved psychological wellbeing (Schott 2004, 209). Similar findings were reported in a study by Meyers (2009, 136), in which the focus was the impact of forgiveness on mental health of victims. In this clinical study, forgiveness was conceptualized as a unilateral act by the victim in order to investigate the efficacy of forgiveness that emanates from the victim independent of the perpetrator following victimhood and exposure to extreme violence, and the subsequent impact such unilateral forgiveness has on mild psychiatric morbidity. They found it to be very helpful, and facilitated the victim’s recovery process.

If these findings hold true for some victims (they certainly cannot be generalized to be helpful to all victims) then what does one make of the notion of the need to never forget past evil acts, for to forget is to doom one to forever fall victim of similar acts of evil. This sentiment is aptly captured by Elie Wiesel (1982, 32), “Never should I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. But how does one forgive and move on with life while clinging to the memory of a painful and damaging past that constantly invoke the image of the wrongdoer? Is the age-old admonition “Forgive and Forget” useful in the forgiveness paradigm? Put differently, is forgetting essential to forgiveness and psychological wellbeing? Friedrich Nietzsche (1969, 58) in a different context, certainly believed in the efficacy of forgetting for a healthy psychological state: “It will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness.” James Young provided the introduction for Oblivion by Marc Auge (2004), and cited the fable of a man who had perfect memory to illustrate the dangerous consequences of not forgetting things. In the fable, the man was incapable of living in the present because the past kept intruding, thus he was forever compelled to relive every minute of his past, which made living in the present impossible. It is in this regard that Auge (2004, 235) wrote:

Given the fundamental role that forgetting plays in the life of an individual and a community, it is surprising to realize that hardly anything positive has been said about forgetting in Holocaust discourse. Without much sustained thought or critical examination, forgetting has often been identified as the antithesis of remembrance, as an attempt at distorting and denying the reality of genocidal anti-Semitism perpetrated by Nazism. The discourse has assigned cathartic, religious, and sometimes quasi-magical powers to remembrance – in often repeated phrases such as “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it,” “not granting Hitler a posthumous victory,” “from destruction to remembrance,” “in remembrance lies the secret of deliverance.” Forgetting, on the other hand is denigrated as an activity in which only perpetrators and their descendents, anti-Semites, and revisionists would engage. Forgetting is viewed as a form of individual repression and cultural amnesia, as a mental operation that, if not done with outright malicious intent, can only be explained as a kind of psychic defense or psychological pathology. The case as presented is somewhat exaggerated, but it makes the point that a ubiquitous rhetoric of remembrance, especially in public commemorations and popular discourse, has pushed aside a more careful analysis of the role of forgetting.

These statements and questions aside, it is quite natural and very possible to forgive a wrongdoer without the necessity to forget the harm done; forgetting should not be a prerequisite of forgiveness. To forget all aspects of an event that caused so much misery and destruction is to go against the natural instinct of what it means to be human; and that would be asking too much of the victim or even the perpetrator whose interest it is to forget. It is the ability to use past experiences to shape one’s future that separates humans from the lower species. But this is not to suggest that one must perennially dwell on the past; it simply means that past events should be selectively used to guide future conduct. It is a matter of balance – knowing what to disregard and what to retain for self-preservation. In discussing the notion of forgetting within the context of a genocidal atrocity, such as the Holocaust, may seem callous, and perhaps bordering on immorality, for it appears to withhold empathy to, and recognition of, the incredible act of inhumanity visited on the victims. Thus, advocates of forgetting come perilously close to denying the historical event or suppression of it in collective memory, and in the process make it more difficult for victims still grappling with the process of being made “whole” again through forgiveness.

It is within this understanding of the beneficial aspects of forgiveness that one may contextualize some of the opinions adduced by respondents to Wiesenthal’s narrative, for it sees forgiveness not from a theological perspective but from the point of view of its therapeutic value.

Forgiveness as understood in Judaism and Christianity
Two of the Abrahamic faiths relevant to this enquiry, Judaism and Christianity, have at their very core a procedural and objective understanding of forgiveness. For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the embodiment of forgiveness and the absolver of all sins, for through him God forgave his subjects all their trespasses against Him, and harm done to humans. By sacrificing his “only begotten Son” to atone for the sins of His primary creation (humans), salvation for all believers must thus come through Jesus, first by believing in him, and second, by abiding by his teaching of love and forgiveness. In this particular Christian sensibility, forgiveness assumes a pervasive role in the functional existence of believers in the sense that forgiveness becomes a duty to be constantly discharged to remain in good standing with God; all Christians have a duty to forgive all sins regardless of scale and scope, and no sin may be deemed so great that it cannot be forgiven by God. This understanding, at the very least, informs an overarching Christianity’s doctrine on forgiveness; but as is true of many doctrines based on faith, Christians of various denominations hold varied opinions on this subject as do Christian theologians. (Bass 2012, 131).

In Christian theology, forgiveness is not dependent on repentance by the wrongdoer; repentance only facilitates the healing process and soothes the victim but it is not a requirement. The victim already bears the burden of forgiveness as a duty imposed on him by his faith. The New Testament, beginning with the book of Matthew, is replete with the theological imperative from Jesus to forgive all sins regardless of who the victim is or the magnitude of the sin. “This, then, is how you should pray,” said Jesus to his followers: “Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name……Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” (KJV, Matthew 6: 9-15). Jesus then admonishes his followers, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if do not forgive, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (KJV, Matthew 6:17-20). Ever so mindful of the persuasive power of dramatization and logic, Jesus utilizes parables to remarkable effect in his teachings of love for neighbor, and forgiveness of transgressions by fellow beings. The parable of the unmerciful servant is particularly instructive:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

“Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Therefore the Kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”

The servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master what had happened.”

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all the debt of yours because you begged me to. Shoudn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (KJV, Matthew 18:21-35).

But there remains the vexing and unsettling matter that touches on the severity of the sin under consideration. Are there sins against God and humans that are, on account of their magnitude and depravity, outside the reaches of a theologically informed conception of forgiveness, and tend to activate the all-human impulse for retribution and resentment? Examples abound. During the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., in alliance with other groups combating Jim Crow laws in the Southern states of the country that effectively encouraged extreme brutality, lynching, and debilitating discrimination against African-Americans, preached love, non-violence and forgiveness of perpetrators and enablers of the laws. In addressing a crowed that had gathered soon after his home was bombed in Atlanta, he remained steadfast in his belief in the efficacy of the teachings of Christ on Love: “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.”(King, Jr. 1998, 80). Many in the African-American community doubted the wisdom of such strategy and agitated for a responsive approach that matched violence with violence, an eye-for-an-eye, and restorative justice (Eagles 2009, 72).

But regardless of the strategy adopted in this instance, the central question of whether the perpetrators of the horrific crime of lynching innocent beings deserve the benefits of forgiveness pits human nature against a theological imperative to forgive all sins. To staunch believers in the Christian doctrine on forgiveness, the answer to the question being asked is really quite simple, “turn the other check,” and pray for those who seek to harm you. The simplicity of this solution, while admirable, was not enough to persuade a vicar who lost a child in a 2005 London terrorist attack to render forgiveness, nor was it enough to keep her as a “woman of the cloth;” she resigned her position as a vicar on the grounds that she was unable to forgive (Morris 2006, 12). But in spite of the vicar’s inability to discharge her Christian duty, which, as a believer she had preached to her congregants all along, some of the victims of the attack, however, publicly professed their forgiveness of the attackers. The public, already conditioned by the implicit social contract that calls for punishment for inexcusable harm, expressed amazement and even went as far as to describe the few victims who professed forgiveness as saints (Morris 2006, 12). Other victims, still understandably consumed by resentment and anger, felt unjustly treated by implication. One of the victims who lost his wife in the attack could not be clearer of his resentment:

I could never forgive and I think that recently there has been too much pressure put on people to express forgiveness. It’s as if we are being asked to apologize for feeling hurt, that society is embarrassed by our anger and would feel better if we would express forgiveness and then disappear . . . . Forgiveness is being offered up as an alternative to justice and that is very dangerous. (Morris 2006, 13).

Such “willed evil” almost always defy comprehension; and has the capacity to compel even the most ardent believer in the Christian imperative to forgive all sins to question the rationale of such theologically imposed duty. But for believers still encumbered with the dilemma of whether to forgive incomprehensible acts of evil wrongdoing or withhold forgiveness, Jesus had already put in place a generalized and all-encompassing response – cast the first stone if you are without sin! The idea, of course, is that everyone is a sinner and deserving of forgiveness not judgment, the nature and depravity of the act notwithstanding. He illustrated this idea with yet another profound session of teaching, and admonition:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again at the temple Courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say? They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time……” (KJV, John 8:1-11).

This understanding of sin informs a fundamental Christian theology that defines forgiveness as a return to God, and that God invariably forgives, and forgives all sins (at least since the death of Christ, who died to atone for all sins; this would not be the case in the Old Testament). Since God, in all His infinite wisdom and love for His creations, is willing to forgive humans for all transgressions if asked, why should humans not do likewise in their relations with their fellow beings? Christians hence have a duty to forgive all sins, and such dispensing of forgiveness should not be conditioned on repentance by the sinner; but for the wrongdoer, some Christian denominations, such as Catholicism, insist on repentance, and penance that include sacrament, confession of the sin and contrition for the sin to be forgiven by God or face the prospect of purgatory, and possibly eternal damnation in hell.

Judaism, in contrast, is not based on creed but on deeds; it is not just a religion that teaches the laws handed down by God, it is a way of life that guides, prescribes and proscribes on matters that touch on both theological and secular existence of its adherents (religion, culture, and nationhood). For over 4000 years it has been a source of strength, inspiration and grief for Jews, and for ardent believers, it is what has kept the world Jewry from extinction given the history of hostility endured by practitioners of its belief system. It is in this regard that Mark Twain (1934, 23) pondered:
All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch light for a time but burned out; and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. What is the secret of his immortality?

To which Rabbi Benjamin Blech (1992, 21) replied, albeit not directly, “Judaism is the secret of our survival. It is not we who have kept our faith, but our faith that has kept us.”

Judaism teaches that there are two kinds of sin; the one against God, (neyn adam le-makom) which only God can forgive, and that committed against humans (beyn asam le-adam) for which the victim is the only one who can render forgiveness. Thus, it is the case that a victim, while within his right to forgive or not forgive a sin against him, it is not within his competence to forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of other victims (Steinlauf 1997, 52). The relationship of the one whose forgiveness is sought to the victims does not change this entitlement. In either type of sin, the rendering of forgiveness engages a complex formulaic process that begins with a recognition of the sin or harm done, followed by repentance and atonement. In this lengthy procedure, repentance or teshuvah (a return to God, and renouncing evil) requires the faithful to take specific steps that evince remorsefulness and the will to abstain from committing future harmful acts or sin. Prayer, fasting and charity are means by which one atones for sins against God; to these should be added reparations, if possible, for harm against a human being (Kegan, 1982).

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the holiest day of the year for practicing Jews. The centrality of repentance and atonement for wrongs done to others defines this particular Jewish understanding of the cleansing and restorative effects of forgiveness from God and humans. Yom Kippur, which takes place on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, and completes the annual activities of the High Holy Days that begins with Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the same month, is a period of fasting, prayers, and specifically seeking a return to the Torah (Heschel 2005, 59). It is thus a period of high significance for the faithful practitioner who seeks a return to God through repentance, atonement, and a solemn promise not to stray from the teachings of the Torah, for as the Talmud states, “Yom Kippur atones for those who repent and does not atone for those who do not repent.” (Heschel 2005, 66). But it is equally important for the faithful to take notice that Yom Kippur is not only a period of asking for forgiveness, but also one in which forgiveness is granted to those who have transgressed against others. Tzedakah is the final stage of this process for it is the point when one recognizes harm done or sins committed and takes responsibility to make as much amends commensurate with one’s capacity. This may be accomplished, directly or indirectly, through charitable contributions to causes that help address the kind of wrongs committed. Just as important in this discourse is Yom ha-Kippurim, a period of atonement for God and individual Jews, as observed in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism.

Only after these observances have been undertaken would the wrongdoer entertain a reasonable expectation of forgiveness from the victim or from God. But within this relevant understanding of forgiveness, God, His status as the supreme deity notwithstanding, cannot forgive a wrongdoer unless he has first secured forgiveness from the victim; this requirement necessarily places the wrongdoer in a position where he is forever beholden to the victim unless there is a change of heart; not quite. A wrongdoer who asks for forgiveness of a victim after undergoing the procedural and substantive aspects of repentance and atonement is deemed to have atoned if after several requests the victim remains unforgiving. Maimonides (2004, 152), while not uniformly viewed as authoritative, had this to say on this matter:
When you ask some one for forgiveness, he or she is allowed to turn you down. If this happens, you should return a second and a third time, with three witnesses, and try apologizing again. If the victim won’t forgive you after three tries, then you are considered to have atoned, even if you have not been granted forgiveness.

It is for this reason that murder can never be forgiven because the victim is gone, and cannot render forgiveness; and God cannot unilaterally forgive the murderer because the victim has not, and cannot forgive. This understanding further emphasizes the belief in Judaism that murder is one of the most horrible acts against God and humanity for it essentially makes light of God’s most important creation, and since it cannot be atoned for, it is unforgiveable. This particularly Judaic sensibility of murder and its implications provide relevant contexts for Wiesenthal’s dilemma, and the responses from Jewish respondents in the Sunflower.

While Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism, fundamental differences in the relevant issue of forgiveness remain remarkable. Judaism, anchored by the tenets, laws and instructions that issue from the Torah, mandates strict adherence to a processes that requires the wrongdoer to first repent and atone for harm done or sins committed, and then ask for forgiveness. But of equal import in this understanding is that certain crimes such as murder are unforgiveable. And herein lies the all-important difference between the two faiths in matters of forgiveness; in Christian theology Jesus died to save humanity from its sinful self, and whosoever believes in him would have his sins forgiven. The sinner or wrongdoer need not ask his victim for forgiveness to receive grace; it is the victim’s duty to forgive because the Christian faith demands it. But for sins against God, the sinner would have to appeal to God through Jesus for absolution; this would include repentance, penance, and sacrament followed by prayers and perhaps fasting, depending on the denomination of Christianity one ascribes to. It is on this ground that Denis Prager (2012, 63) adduced four reasons he believes separates Judaism and Christianity on the concept forgiveness:

  1. The Christian doctrine of forgiveness has blunted Christian anger at those who oppress them.
    2. The notion that one should pray for one’s enemies has been taken to mean “pray for them, do not fight them.”
    3. The belief that God loves everyone, no matter how evil, makes it impossible for a believing Christian to hate evil people and therefore difficult to fight them
    4. The Christian emphasis on saving souls for the after-life has led to some de-emphasis on saving bodies in their lifetime.

Prager, a radio-talk host and a practicing Jew, used his program to express extreme disgust at the Roman Catholic Cardinal of New York in the 1990s for visiting the molesters of a young lady who was mugged and raped (Hooks 1995, 51). The boys, in their teens, were told by the Cardinal during his short visit that “God Loves them.” In the subsequent informal poll taken by Prager on the radio, virtually all his Jewish listeners expressed similar outrage at the Cardinal’s behavior. On the same question, all Christian callers and Catholic clergymen agreed with the Cardinal, and stressed that he did the right thing. All the Rabbis who responded, whether reformed, conservative or orthodox were unanimous in their disagreement with the Cardinal’s behavior, and consoling statement; but if forced to visit the boys, they would express their contempt for the act, and would prescribe severe punishment, followed by a lifetime of repentance and atonement; and surely would not have told the boys that God loved them for it is not within their competence to speak on behalf of God.

The centrality of forgiveness in Christian theology – the understanding that all humans may be and should be forgiven, thus reconciling all to God, also sets Christianity apart from Islam, an arm of the three Abrahamic faiths. In her interview of asylum seekers quarantined in camps in Australia under sub-human conditions that included physical and psychological abuse (in the main to discourage unlawful immigration), Elaine Ledgerwood (2012, 222) described how the “inmates,” responded to the notion of forgiving their captors who administered the regime of pain and agony. Here interview of one of the asylum seekers named Mahmud was revealing of his understanding of what Islam teaches on the concept of forgiveness; to Mahmud there was no forgiveness in Islam, or at least not the Islam he believed in. His faith does not believe in forgiveness from God that enable one to put behind his past harmful acts; instead, one who transgresses must work harder towards earning God’s favor. This understanding was repeatedly expressed to Ledgerwwod by other Muslin detainees she interviewed in the camp, and from these she reached the conclusion that such faith-based understanding of forgiveness would inevitably lead to a reluctance to forgive people (Ledgerwod 2012; 225). But this is purely anecdotal evidence that lacks universal or generalizing properties; it’s usefulness is manifest only in understanding how individuals, steeped in a particular faith, are guided by the principles they believe define their religious sensibilities, and how to conduct themselves in observance of such belief system.

These differences in Christian theology and Judaic formulations of what forgiveness means inform the varying responses in the Sunflower, and may help explain Wiesenthal’s inability to grant the dying Nazi’s request for forgiveness, and why Karl, as a Christian, sought forgiveness in the first instance.

Analysis of the responses to Wiesenthal’s dilemma and the implications for Jewish-Christian relations
The discussion so far has touched on different articulations of forgiveness and its apprehension in secular and theological interpretations. By its very nature, forgiveness, as also discussed in the preceding pages, is only relevant when someone is harmed as a result of the actions of someone else, otherwise there would be nothing to forgive. But forgiveness is a process presumed (and shown in clinical studies) to help victims overcome, in time, the traumatic and psychological pain suffered at the hands of the wrongdoer, through foreclosure of anger and resentment, abatement of anxiety and depression, and suppression of the desire to revenge; essentially, it is a process of “letting go” of harmful psychological manifestations of past evil acts inflicted on victims. It is in this special sense that forgiveness is said to have beneficial therapeutic and healing properties if properly engaged in any of the following ways: one way is to “reframe” the harmful act of the offender, thus enabling the victim to see the offender and the harmful act in a different light; another is for the victim to regard forgiveness as a moral imperative that empowers the victim through the ability to render grace, and retake control of one’s life; and yet another is for the victim to follow the dictates of his or her religious faith.

This last approach is of particular relevance to the current enquiry – the influence of Christian theology on forgiveness on Karl, a perpetrator of Holocaust atrocities, and the role forgiveness plays in Judaism, and how it may have influenced Wiesenthal, a victim of Nazi atrocities. That this is the case is because the principal actors in the book on which this enquiry is based, Karl and Wiesenthal, are respectively members of both faiths, and their behavior towards one another is a defining event in The Sunflower, and the ensuing reactions by respondents in the symposia. It is in this regard that the prisms of religious and cultural influences and dictates may be beneficial (Judaism comprises more than religion). Of course other reasons for the principal actors’ behavior, and reactions to the question posed may have superior explanatory powers than religious or cultural sensibilities, but their respective faiths happen to be more expedient “explanators” in light of the overarching thrust of this study – Jewish-Christian relations.

The point to be emphasized strongly here is that one’s faith or the belief system that guides conduct matters, and quite often decisive in matters of conscience and morality. Beginning with Karl’s urgent need for forgiveness, he, like all Christian respondents, would like to know that his evil acts have been forgiven before he dies. This is important, because what Karl is requesting, forgiveness, lies at the heart of Christian theology and its doctrine of salvation that rests on the belief that Jesus died to atone for all sins, and whoever believes in him and his teachings shall be saved. To the Christian, religion is a creed informed by faith, hence what one believes is far more important than what one does; believe in Jesus and you shall be saved is the message in John 3:16. Since Jesus prescribed love for those who hate you, and forgiveness for those who harm you, the belief in Him as means to salvation and the kingdom of God undergirds the essence of Christianity.

The logical implication of such belief system (assuming there is logic in acts of faith) is that a person of evil deeds can receive salvation and enter the Kingdom of God if he believes in Jesus and his teachings and repents; he need not do more. But one who, by all accounts, has been righteous in his dealings with others and never harmed anyone would not be saved or enter the Kingdom of God if he does not profess his belief in Jesus as his Lord and savior. And herein lies an important difference between Christianity and Judaism; for one, belief is more important than deeds, for the other, what one does in life is what grants him favor from God.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech (1992, 21) insists that Judaism is a religion of 613 commandments; and unlike Christianity, it is not a religion of “this thou shalt believe” and “this thou shalt not believe,” but one in which its 613 commandments are divided into “this thou shalt do” and “this thou shalt not do.” (Blech 1992, 21). The point being that Judaism places strong emphasis on deeds, and not so much on belief. Again Benjamin Blech (1992, 22):

Does this mean that belief plays no role in Judaism? Of course that cannot be. The very first commandment is “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). A Jew must believe. As Ibn Ezra, a prime commentator on the Torah, explained: If there is no commander, there can be no command. However, the purpose of belief in one Deity is to ensure that the mitzvoth is kept. Belief in God is not the message but rather the medium. The goal is not God but a life of holiness, for which belief is simply a prerequisite.

Adherents of Judaism understand that forgiveness is a very complex process, and that there two kinds of sins for which forgiveness may be sought: sins against God for which only He can forgive; and those against people for which only the victim has a right to forgive. No one, however, regardless of the relationship to the victim, may forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the victim. Equally important is the notion in Judaism that there are certain sins that may never be forgiven, such as murder; in the main because the victim is no longer capable of rendering forgiveness, and God will not be disposed to forgiving the murderer because forgiveness must first originate from the victim.

These religious and institutional articulations of forgiveness are determinative in any effort to understand or analyze the reception of, and reactions to The Sunflower by respondents to the question posed by Wiesenthal. The positions held steadfastly by Christian respondents is one of forgiveness, for in Christian theology no sin may be considered too great or evil to disqualify the offender from salvation so long as he or she professes a belief in Jesus as the savior, repents, and seeks forgiveness. “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (KJV, John 14:14). This sentiment, and what it means in Christian theology is in full display in one of the responses offered by Christopher Hollis, a Christian (1998 edition, 181):

I am asked what, absolutely, he ought to have done under these circumstances. Let me first make it clear that that is quite a different question from the question “what would I have done?” To the second question I can make no answer…..But on the absolute challenge of what the author should have done I have no doubt that he should have said a word of compassion. The theology of the matter is quite clear and, as the Polish seminarist truly says in this book, there is no difference on it between Christians and Jews. Differences are here irrelevant. The law of God is the law of love. We are created in order to love one another, and, when the law of love is broken, God’s nature is frustrated. Such bonds when broken should be reforged as soon as possible. We are under obligation to forgive our neighbor even though he has offended us seventy times seven……We are indeed told to be reluctant to condemn others. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” It is our duty to reflect how small is our understanding and that, if we knew all of a story, we should often see how much more there was to be said for another’s action, how much more – it may be – of the blame really is ours than appeared at first……According to an old medieval legend, the Apostles assembled together in heaven to recelebrate the Last Supper. There was one place vacant, until through the door Judas came in and Christ rose and kissed him and said, “We have waited for thee.”

Eugene Fisher (1998, 150), a leading American catholic, was forcefully emphatic in his position that forgiveness of the dying Nazi was not an option, but also adds that Karl, by asking forgiveness of a Jewish concentration camp inmate commits yet another sin because the sheer enormity of the Holocaust makes it unethical to place additional burden of responsibility to forgive on Jews. Many respondents (philosophers, Buddhists, Christians) advocate forgiveness for peace of mind of affected Jews and for the greater good of humanity. Others, however, point out that the suffering received by Jews at the hands of the Nazis is so unimaginable and horrific to the extent that it is understandable why a Jew could never forgive or forget.

The strongest argument for this position is that some crimes against humanity are simply too great as to make any request for forgiveness more damaging, for it trivializes the enormity of the harm inflicted. Andre Stein, a Jewish respondent (1998 edition, 251), explains:
For me Simon’s story does raise important questions about Karl’s role in this matter. Did he have the right to ask for forgiveness? Can we believe in the authenticity of his repentance? Should anyone perpetrating crimes against humanity expect forgiveness? If we forgave war criminals how would such act of questionable generosity affect the survivors and victim’s memory?…..The call for forgiveness reminds me of the words Arthur, Simon’s comrade, uttered in the camp when Simon asked his opinion: “…..there will be people who would never forgive you for not forgiving him…But anyhow nobody who has not had our experience will be able to understand fully.” The quote points out two truths: First, that those who caste a stone at Simon show a greater affinity with the dying murderer than with his victims. And second, that by lobbying for forgiving the young SS, they view Nazism through spuriously humane glasses. Let’s remember that Karl at twenty-one was old enough to make informed choices. He could have drawn on the teachings of his faith and on the moral values of his family. Instead, he opted for endorsing a seductive myth that gave him powers nobody should have….I am not moved by his “moral pain” any more than were Simon’s comrades, or for that matter than Simon himself.

The position held and advocated by respondents who self-identify as Christians remains consistent throughout; the source of this unanimity of response is not difficult to trace – the theology of their faith prescribes it. Here is Cardinal Franz Konig, a Christian (1998 edition, 182):
Even though an individual cannot forgive what was done to others, because he is not competent to do that, there is still a question of whether one may forgive. For Christians, the binding answer is in the Gospels. The question of whether there is a limit to forgiveness has been emphatically answered by Christ in the negative. The distinction between whether we can forgive and whether we may forgive still leaves unresolved questions of whether we should forgive. You did the dying young man a great service by listening to him despite your internal reluctance, by showing him sympathy, by giving him an opportunity to confess his crimes and express regret, which means you acknowledged his inner conversion. We have reasons to assume that the dying man still believed in God, and that, through his personal confession to you, he did what he could under those circumstances, in the hope of finding God’s mercy. Even though you went away without formally uttering a word of forgiveness, the dying man somehow felt accepted by you; otherwise he would not have bequeathed you his personal belongings….Nevertheless, you had the opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of subhuman and bestial world of atrocities. The fact that you did not take advantage of this opportunity may be what still haunts you as a striving human being.

But faith and theology do not offer such simplicity of understanding when grappling with responses given by Jewish respondents. For practicing Jews, Judaism certainly offers a partial explanation, but other deterministic vectors remain operative for both practicing and non-practicing Jews. These would include the extent of personal exposure to the Holocaust, whether family members also perished in the camps, and the degree of psychological trauma endured. These powerful deterministic factors maybe outside the life-experiences of some of the Christian respondents who urged forgiveness; one wonders if they would react the same way if they personally experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust. One hopes they never do; but such life-altering experiences have a way of forcing victims to “reframe” and reconsider the essence of humanity. It is in this sense that Walker (2006, 153) wrote:

Any appreciation of forgetting is complicated by Christian appeals to forgiveness…. Religion, both as a reflective discourse and a communal practice, can play an important role in developing spaces where ritualized acts of active forgetfulness can transpire. The purpose would be to help erode traumatic memories that paralyze and to allow compassion to flourish between and among those deemed “others.”

It will, however, not do to designate Christianity as a religion of forgiveness and Judaism as one of remembrance, a contrast that is itself an outcome of post-Holocaust insensibilities. For, forgiveness is also a central aspect of Judaism, especially during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The reception of The Sunflower, as reflected in the statements by respondents, is as varied as their theological and life experiences. This outcome, for all its limitations in generalized applicability, re-enforces the underlying fact that forgiveness is a personal journey that only the victim may profitably engage; faith, morality, and culture notwithstanding. The fact that Jewish respondents found forgiveness inappropriate for perpetrators of the Holocaust may be a reflection, not so much on how Judaism teaches the essence of forgiveness, but on the horrific nature of the Holocaust and its indelible imprints on the collective memories of Jewish respondents. It is perhaps in this sense that Wiesenthal’s dilemma may acquire meaning and sensibility. It is much easier to articulate what one should do in “hypotheticals,” but quite a different matter altogether to adduce a theologically and morally infused response when one is an actual victim of unspeakable crimes. The referenced instance in which a vicar in Britain had to resign her position because she could not bring herself to forgive the terrorists who killed her child, despite a long history of preaching forgiveness to her congregants, is most instructive of such human dilemma.

But is there value to forgiveness? How useful is it to victims and offenders? Christians, therapists, and philosophers who responded to the question posed by Wiesenthal believe there is – on theological grounds, on the basis of morality, and its efficacy in facilitating the recovery process of both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Clinical studies cited in this work show that forgiveness significantly helped victims regain control of their humanity, and cope effectively with debilitating traumatic events (no similar research has shown a similar beneficial outcome for harboring hate, anger, and a desire to revenge). The need to forgive was argued quite forcefully by no lesser personalities of the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and The Dalai Lama; their position could not be better articulated than the remarks by Yandell (1998, 45):

The significance of forgiveness rests, perhaps, on two facts and a consequence. The facts are that people harm people (theologians place this fact under the rubric of sin) and that people are inherently social and cannot flourish in isolation. The consequence is that people either forgive one another or else wither as persons; they reconcile or perish. Reconciliation among sinners has forgiveness as an element – a necessary though not sufficient condition. So people learn to forgive, or they wither as persons, quite independently of the harm caused by the seeking of revenge.

Could Wiesenthal have benefited by forgiving Karl, and thus avoid the prolonged agony of not rendering the request made of him by the dying Nazi soldier? Perhaps, but we would never know, for forgiveness is a process that draws much from the individual’s constitution and life experiences. The inability to forgive, and the need to forget the past, resonated strongly amongst the respondents. Being able to forget, however, is made possible by the act of forgiveness; but forgetting is a necessary part of remembrance for it allows the recollection of essential aspects of the past, that is uncluttered by irrelevancy and endless reliving of what makes living in the present impossible. This, in no way implies that the past should be entirely forgotten, which is impossible, but rather to unburden memory of aspects of the past that do not add value to remembrance but instead retard the ability to remember important parts of past events that enable effective communication and the ability to forgive. This may be beneficial to victims, but as Finch (2006, 33) argues, forgetting is especially useful to perpetrators:

As much as one may wish a genocidal perpetrator to admit culpability, it might be unrealistic to expect from him a demonstration of his ability for human compassion by asking him not to forget. Suspending the role of forgetting – that which assists in his efforts of self-preservation- would be to take away his identity, his life. Having to face one’s shame, without protective mental operations, has the power to wipe out a person’s existential grounding. From a victim’s perspective, this may be a risk worth taking, since one can legally and morally insist that genocidal perpetrators have forfeited their rights to be part of humanity. From a perpetrator’s perspective, the means to circumvent a memory that would lead to recognizing the face of the victim and to acknowledge their own shameful agency is to resist such memory or to perceive it as an external force imposed on them.

Jewish-Christian relations have been, as far back as the parting of the ways, a complex and complicated one. The persecution by Christians, massacres instigated by Christians, deadly anti-Semitic charges such as the blood libel that led to loss of innocent lives, and forced conversions are some of the atrocities that may be rightfully blamed on Christianity’s intolerance of the Jewish faith. While the tension between both groups has remarkably eased by virtue of progressive civilization of human society, more work needs to be done at reconciliation and tolerance. The lesson from this work indicates that forgiveness by Jews (once again), and a recognition by Christians of past harmful deeds (by way of apology and good-will gestures) may well facilitate a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust and respect for the right to practice one’s faith.


Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.

Auge, Marc. Oblivion. Trans. Marjolijn de Jager, with a forward by James E. Young. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. xi-xii.

Augustine, St. On Christian Doctrine. Trans. J.F. Shaw. New York: Dover Publications, 2009.

Bentham, Jeremy. A fragment on government and an introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1948.

Bass, Butler Diana. Christianity After Religion. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Blech, Benjamin. Understanding Judaism: The Basics of Deed and Creed. London: Aronson Press, 1992.

Butler, Bishop. Butler’s Fifteen Sermons. Ed. Tom Roberts. London: S.P.C.K, 1970.

Card, Claudia. “The Atrocity Paradigm Revisited.” Hypatia Vol. 19, No. 4, (2004): 212-222.

Card, Claudia. The atrocity paradigm: A theory of evil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Eagles, Charles. The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of ole Miss. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Finch, Raymond. “Trauma and Forgiveness: A Spiritual Inquiry.” Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health Vol. 9, No. 2, (2006): 27-42.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its discontents. London: Hogarth Press, 1930.

Fitzgibbons, Richard. “The cognitive and emotional uses of forgiveness in the treatment of anger.” Psychotherapy 23 (1986): 629-633.

Gobodo-Madikizela, Pumla. “Trauma, forgiveness and the witnessing dance: making public spaces intimate.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 53, (2008): 169-188.

Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Heine, Heinrich. The Complete Poems of Heinrich Heine: A Modern English Version. ed. Hal Draper. Boston: Insel Publishers, 1982.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. London: Pandora, 1997.

Heschel, Abraham. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Hooks, Bell. Killing Rage. New York: Holt Publishers, 1995.

Kaminer, Debra. “Forgiveness attitudes of truth commission deponents: Relation to commission response during testimony.” Journal of Peace Psychology 12, No. 2, (2006): 182-196.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals. Practical Philosophy. Trans. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kegan, Richard. The evolving self: Problems and processes in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

King James Version. Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondevan Press, 2009.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Papers, 1954-1968. Boston: Boston University Press, 1998.

Krondorfer, Bjorn. “Is Forgetting Reprehensible? Holocaust remembrance and the Task of Oblivion.” Journal of Religious Ethics Vol. 36, No. 2, (2008): 237-267.

Lama, Dalai, and Victor Chan. The Wisdom of Forgiveness: Intimate Conversations and Journeys. New York: Riverhead books, 2004.

Lamb, Sharon. “Women, Abuse, and Forgiveness: A Special Case,” in Robert D. Enright and Joanna North (eds)., Exploring Forgiveness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998: 155-71.

Ledgerwood, Elaine. “The Hope of Forgiveness.” Australian Journal of Theology 19, No. 3, (2012): 220-228.

Lara, Maria Pfa. Rethinking Evil: Contemporary perspectives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Lewis, Janet. “Forgiveness and Psychotherapy: The prepersonal, the personal, and the transpersonal.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 37, No.2, (2005). 23-38.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide For the Perplexed. Trans. Michael Friedlander. New York: Barnes & Nobel edition, 2004.

Mann, Samuel. “Joseph and His Brothers: A biblical Paragigm for the Optimal Handling of Traumatic Stress,” Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 40, No. 3, (2001): 335-348.

Mill, John Stuart. The philosophy of John Stuart Mill: Ethical, political, and religious. ed. Marshall Cohen. New York: Modern Library, 1961.

Murphy, Jeffrie. Forgiveness and mercy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Minow, Martha. Between Vengeance and forgiveness. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.

Moltmann, Jurgen. In the end, the Beginning: The life of Hope. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Morris, Allison. “How could you ever forgive the evil killers?; As grieving vicar quits, we ask other victims’ relatives,” Daily Mirror, March 13, 2006, 12-13.

Myers, Elissa. “Impact of Conflict on Mental Health in Northern Ireland: The Mediating Role of Intergroup Forgiveness and Collective Guilt.” Political Psychology Vol. 30, No. 2, (2009): 132-149.

Neu, Jerome. “To Understand All is to Forgive All – Or is it?” in Sharon Lamb and Jeffries G. Murphy (eds.) Before Forgiving. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002: 17-32.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Norlock, Kathryn and Jean Rumsey. “The Limits of Forgiveness.” Hypatia Vol. 24, No. 1, (2009): 100-121.

Prager, Dennis. Still the best hope: Why the world needs America to Triumph. New York: Harper Collins, 2012.

Roe, Michael. “Intergroup forgiveness in settings of political violence: Complexities, ambiguities, and potentialities. Peace and Conflict.” Journal of Peace Psychology 13, (2007): 3-9.

Schott, Robin. “The Atrocity Paradigm and the concept of forgiveness.” Hypatia 19, No. 4, (2004): 201-211.

Smedes, Lewis. Forgive and Forget: Healing the hurts we don’t deserve. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Stanley, Charles, and Thomas Spy. Forgiveness and the Healing process: A Central Therapeutic Concern. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Steinlauf, Michael. Bondage to the Dead: Poland and the memory of the Holocaust. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Twain, Mark. Concerning the Jews. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1934.

Walker, Margaret. Moral repair: Reconstructing moral relations after wrongdoing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. With a symposium edited by Harry Cargas and Bonny Fetterman. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.

Yandell, Keith. “The Metaphysics and Morality of Forgiveness,” in Robert D. Enright and Joanna North (eds.) Exploring Forgiveness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998: 34-45.



To what extent does economic dependence inform the anachronistic practice of female genital circumcision in Africa?


Female genital circumcision is a procedure that requires the excision of some tissues that form the female genitalia. It is an old tradition that exists predominantly in Africa, and has, of late, become a very contentious and controversial issue in the international community. There are various grounds for this controversy, one of which is the contention by rights advocates that female circumcision is gratuitous violence against women in the form genital mutilation, and should be abolished. Cultural relativists counter that female circumcision is a traditional ritual that defines cultural identity, and hence outside the competence of international bodies with Western liberal sensibilities. This work examines female genital circumcision as practiced in Africa, and its legitimacy within the context of modern human rights regime. My method of inquiry consists of a thematic analysis of this practice as it touches on United Nations’ conventions, and an ethnographic approach that seeks meaning through interpretation of cultural observances.

My thesis adopts the position that female genital circumcision is a dangerous practice that violates accepted precepts of international human rights. But since no single factor can fully explain its practice and prevalence, a successful challenge would necessarily be multifaceted, and at the same time mindful that any effort to enforce internationally recognized rights may come in conflict with other equally important rights, such as those of religion and cultural minorities. Thus, national governments have a duty to carefully balance other sets of important rights against the need to protect fundamental human rights of girls and women.


Ms. Kasinga hails from a northern village of Togo comprised of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu tribe. Young women of this tribe are, as part of the tribe’s traditional observances, circumcised by the time they are fifteen to prepare them for marriage. Kasinga’s father, an influential man in the village, protected her from this practice until his death in 1992. His sister (Ms. Kasinga’s aunt), by tradition, assumed full responsibility for the welfare of his children upon his death, and subsequently forced Ms. Kasinga’s mother out of the family home. The aunt then arranged a polygamous marriage to a man, and together they brought pressure on Ms. Kasinga, then 19 years old, to get circumcised. Ms. Kasinga fled to the US, and promptly petitioned the US government for asylum under the United States refugee Act of 1980.

For Kasinga’s petition to be successful, she must be able to prove two things: (1) that female genital circumcision is indeed a form of physical mutilation that falls under the category of “persecution” which the Refugee Act defined as “the infliction of pain or suffering by a government, or person a government is unwilling or unable to control, to overcome a characteristic of the victim,2” and (2) that the persecution she feared was directed towards an identifiable group to which she belonged. By narrowly tailoring the elements of the Refugee’s Act to the particulars of her case, Kasinga was able to convince the Board of Immigration Appeals in 1996 that she belonged to a social group of young women of the Tchemba-Kunsuntu Tribe who have not had genital circumcision, and who are opposed to the practice3. The Board, relying on the ‘test for a social group’ established in an earlier case (the Acosta case) held that gender and tribal affiliation are immutable characteristics, and that an intact genitalia is a characteristic so fundamental to the individual identity of a woman that she must not be obligated to alter it4. This ruling was a powerful precedent, and continues to guide immigration judges in cases based on Female Genital Mutilation.

The Kasinga decision ignited a heated debate in academia, amongst human rights activists, and international agencies such as The World health organization (WHO)5. Human rights advocates argued that fundamental human rights are universal, and thus transcend all local cultures in conflict with basic rights6. Cultural relativists weighed-in, and argued that defining female circumcision as persecution amounts to a challenge to the cultural autonomy of groups in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that engage in such practices7. The World Health organization called the practice a ritualized violence that violates universally recognized human rights standards8.


The chief concern of my thesis is female genital circumcision as practiced in Africa, and its legitimacy within the context of modern human rights regime. The approach I adopt in this inquiry would include a thematic analysis of this practice as it touches on United Nations’ Conventions; and an ethnographic inquiry that approximates what Clifford Geertz9 has labeled as ‘thick’ description, a method of study that seeks meaning through interpretation of cultural observances. This would necessarily include a narrative of my experiences as a young man growing up in Nigeria where the practice of female circumcision is prevalent, and the field work of Janice Boddy in Sudan.

At the heart of this inquiry is the tension between human rights advocates on the one hand, who strongly adhere to the view that human rights are universal and may not be attenuated to accommodate cultural peculiarities, and on the other, cultural relativists with their argument that the imposition of a universal standard of rights marginalizes the cultures of indigenous groups. Embedded in this tension is a group of issues, one of which is female genital excision or what is now commonly referred to by abolitionists as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). My thesis posits that female circumcision is an unnecessary and dangerous mutilation of the body that violates accepted precepts of international human rights.

The next sections of this work would discuss its practice and prevalence, the dangers associated with its practice, and those most likely to engage it. These would be followed by an analysis of how female circumcision violates the norms of modern human rights regime; and a brief discussion of universal human rights and cultural relativism. The last section concludes with recommendations on how to curb its practice.

Practice And Prevalence

The practice of female circumcision is an old tradition in at least 28 countries in Africa and Asia; and generally performed, presumably, to prepare young girls for womanhood and marriage. Lately, however, this practice has surfaced in immigrant communities in North America and Europe11. Before the advent of Western medicine, all circumcisions were performed without the benefit of effective anesthetic, and under septic conditions; in countries where it is still prevalent, this is still the case, and often performed by lay practitioners without any medical background. The rationale for the practice is all too familiar – it conduces to good hygiene, promotes fertility, and discourages promiscuity. Generally, girls are subjected to this experience between the ages of five months to ten years. However, as more of the general population gained access to formal education, the practice in the mid 1960s became almost nonexistent amongst the middle class.

By the 1970s, female genital circumcision was confined exclusively to villagers and peasants. While practices vary widely, there are three basic forms of genital circumcision. One is essentially a clitoridectomy, where part or all of the clitoris is amputated, the second is an excision that involves the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; the third is the most severe, and is what is commonly referred to as infibulation. This requires the excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, the labia majora is cut and then stitched by the edges, the legs are then tied together until the wounds heal. When the wounds heal, scar tissues join the labia and cover most of the virginal opening, barely enough to allow the flow of urine and menstrual blood. In this regard, Janice Boddy gives an account of her experience in the Suadanese village of ‘Hofriyat’:

Though conventionally termed “circumcision,” the procedure is not physically equivalent to the like-named operation performed on boys. In Hofriyat, male circumcision entails removal of the penile prepuce, as generally done throughout the Middle East and, indeed, the West. Pharoanic circumcision, however, is more extreme, involving excision of most external genitalia followed by infibulation: intentional occlusion of the vulva and obliteration of the vaginal meatus. It results in the formation of thick, resistant scar tissue, a formidable obstruction to penetration. A less severe operation, structurally similar to that performed on boys, is currently gaining ground in Khartoum…. This is referred to as masari or sunna circumcision and consists in removing only the prepuce or hood of the clitoris…. While realizing that it is less harzadous to health than pharaonic circumcision, they continue to oppose it on aesthetic and hygienic grounds and in this lies a clue to its deeper significance. Several women I questioned in 1984 made their feelings graphically clear: each depicted sunna circumcision by opening her mouth, and pharaonic, by clamping her lips together. “which is better,” they asked, “an ugly opening or a dignified closure?” Women avoid being photographed laughing or smiling for precisely this reason: orifices of the human body, and particularly those of women, are considered most appropriate when closed or, failing that, minimized.12

For those who survive the ordeal, the pain from damaged nerve endings never goes away, and remain susceptible to urinary tract infections13. For those who continue to reinfibulate after each birth, the opening gets smaller, thus raising the likelihood of menstrual blockage and obstruction of the urethra which in turn may lead to reproductive tract infections and compromised fertility14. Janice Boddy again gives an account of what circumcised Sudanese women in ‘Hofriyat’ must endure:

A young girl both dreads and eagerly anticipates her wedding day: she welcomes the elevation in status while fearing what it implies, having to endure sexual relations with her husband. Informants told me that for women circumcised in the radical manner, it may take as long as two years of continuous effort before penetration can occur….. Because they find it so painful, many of the women I spoke to said they avoid sex whenever possible, encouraging their husbands only when they wish to become pregnant ….. Sexual relations do not necessarily become easier for the couple over time. When a woman gives birth the midwife must be present not only to cut through the scar tissue and release the child, but also to reinfibulate her once the child is born.15

But in spite of the inherent risks, practitioners look at the practice as an integral part of their culture and ethnicity. But what is culture, and how does one begin to understand symbolic representations and behavior of a people? Geertz asserts that “culture is context16,” and propounds that in order to understand it, one must see things from the point of view of the natives – “our formulations of people’s symbol system must be actor-oriented17,” but acknowledges that our interpretations are of themselves interpretations of the native’s.

Rationale for female Circumcision And Unresolved Tensions

Anthropological and ethnographic studies of female circumcision have all pointed to an array of reasons commonly adduced by practitioners in twenty-eight African countries18, they include: compliance with religious precepts, protection and preservation of ethnic and group identity, promotion of good health through cleanliness, protection of family honor by preventing sexual promiscuity, and preparation for womanhood and marriage. In communities where religious grounds are the main motivation for female circumcision, Islam is the predominant religion, even though there is no direct mandate for it in the Koran19. While the Koran recommends chastity for women as a worthy moral value, it does not explicitly instruct believers that circumcision is the means to achieve this objective20. Some researchers have made note of the fact that in Saudi Arabia, presumably the center of Islam, female circumcision is not prescribed; indeed some have traced the earliest known evidence of female circumcision to Egypt in a period that predates Islam, thus supporting the notion that the practice has Pharaonic rather than Islamic beginnings21.

For many practitioners in Nigeria and Togo, the need to protect ethnic identity, and the foreclosure of sexual promiscuity resonate in the majority of communities where the practice is prevalent. For, in these communities social status, privileges, and respectability are often established by rituals such as circumcision, and with heightened social standing females become more attractive and eligible for marriage. But there is also the issue of abiding by, and sustaining local custom and tradition; as one Somali woman puts it ‘if you stop a tradition, it’s similar to making God mad22.’ Thus, in many instances strict observance of customary practices are held above all other human endeavors, and come to define daily existence.

One of the more contentious and enduring aspect of female circumcision is the claim that Westerners approach the issue from an ethnocentric, and colonial interpretation23. Thus, communities where the practice is prevalent take offense from the implication that change can only come from Western intervention. Feminists engaged in this struggle also face a very serious dilemma, and that is how to forcefully argue against a practice that is principally conducted by women, and known injuries are inflicted by women on other women. Given the cultural dimension of female circumcision, any argument against its practice tends to invoke the overtone of cultural elitism, and disregard for others’ culture. Ellen Gruenbaum addresses these issues in her study of female circumcision in Sudan by using what she termed a ‘contested culture approach’ that highlights a culture’s internal contradictions by encouraging debates amongst different classes, gender, and social divisions24.

Gruenbaum disputes the commonly held view that female circumcision is practiced to control a woman’s sexuality, and contends that the sexuality of Sudanese women that have undergone circumcision is ‘neither destroyed nor unaffected’ and that circumcision does not totally eliminate sexual satisfaction of circumcised women25. As to the possibility of enduring psychological scarring, she found that adult women in Sudan “could recall their circumcision vividly, but most did not dwell on the pain or fear except to laugh about it.”26 While several factors may help explain the prevalence of female circumcision in Africa, Gruenbaum found that in some instances it serves as an ethnic or social mark, and the more severe the procedure is the higher the social status of the recipient27. She also asserts that the most often cited reason for circumcision is marriageability28; for marriage remains a significant means of achieving desired social standing in the absence of other more modern symbols of achievement such as education and employment.

Another significant aspect of this debate is the right of parents to raise their children in accordance to received customs and traditions. A parent who subscribes to the practice of female circumcision, perhaps in deference to local custom, may strongly believe that the welfare of the child would be abridged if left uncircumcised, and thus harbor a sense of guilt for not exercising her parental responsibility. For she sees the practice as a social and cultural right that inures to the child; the idea that the practice may be seen by outsiders as child abuse is far removed from the calculus since the procedure is presumed to be in the best interest of the child. Children, however, are generally adjudged incapable of making informed decisions in matters that touch their welfare; given this presumption of ‘diminished capacity’ a child cannot be said to have exercised her free will when she undergoes the surgical operation of circumcision. It is on this basis that rights advocates see circumcision as violence against children, and an abuse of guaranteed human rights. And herein lies the conflict between the right of parents to raise their children in conformance to customary observances, and the right of the child to be free from potentially harmful practices.

With regard to adult female circumcision, it is not altogether clear that consent was given ‘freely.’ Social conditioning, peer pressure, and the prospect of life without a husband are strong influences on the adult female in regard to the issue of circumcision. As in the case with the child, the adult female has no real choice in the matter; thus with full knowledge of the health risks and pain that accompany the procedure, and equally cognizant of the social and economic consequences of not being circumcised, she is faced with no better alternatives. Since no single factor can fully explain the practice and prevalence of female circumcision, successful challenges to its practice would necessarily be multifaceted, and mindful that any effort to enforce internationally recognized human rights may come in conflict with other equally important rights, such as those of religion and cultural minorities.

Human Rights Implications of Female Genital Circumcision

The rationale given by practitioners in Nigeria, Sudan and elsewhere for female circumcision are almost identical. As earlier suggested, the idea that circumcision conduces to purity, fertility, or chastity is a common ground invariably adduced by the natives. If the procedure did not come with unimaginable pain that boarders on inhumane treatment, the practice may have remained unnoticed by human rights advocates both in Africa, and in other parts of the world. If the associated health risks, when compared to assumed benefits, were marginal the practice may also remain under the radar of international women’s organizations. But this is not the case; from my personal inquiries of my relatives and my wife, there is strong indication that the presumed benefits, with the exception of chastity, are imaginary; the practice cannot be shown to have increased the fertility of women because uncircumcised women are found to be just as fertile. The best that can be said about purity and fertility is that they mask the real reason for the practice: in patrimonial societies where men have perennially subjugated the rights of women, this was just another means by which control is exerted. Men simply want their women to remain ‘pure’ by making leisure sexual activities very painful for women; this is especially true for the most severe form of circumcision – infibulation. And to guarantee chastity long after marriage, the women are reinfibulated after each birth. Here again is Boddy’s interpretation of her informants’ rationale for the practice in Sudan:

There exists a broad range of explanations for infibulation which together form a complex rationale that operates to sustain and justify the practice. Among them, however, those which refer to the preservation of chastity and curbing of women’s sexual desire seem more persuasive, given that in Sudan, as in elsewhere in the Muslim world, the dignity and honor of a family are vested in the conduct of its womenfolk…. Hence the need for circumcision to curb and socialize their sexual desires, lest a woman should, even unwittingly, bring irreparable shame to her family through misbehavior.29

When subjected to the principal doctrines of modern human rights regimes, female genital circumcision looks suspiciously brutish, hence the new designation by human rights advocates— Female Genital Mutilation or FGM for short30. Beginning with the 1948 articulation of rights declared in the United Nations’ Universal declaration of Human Rights31, feminists and rights advocates have relentlessly sought the elimination of female circumcision32. As early as the 1950s, African medical practitioners and activists have brought to the attention of international bodies such WHO and the UN the health risks of female circumcision33. It was not, however, until 1979 that a formal policy statement on this issue was made in an international seminar held in Khartoum34. The seminar focused exclusively on traditional practices that affect the health of women and children, and at its conclusion issued recommendations to governments that require the elimination of female circumcision.

In 1984, the African Women’s organization met in Dakar, Senegal, to discuss female circumcision35. The outcome was the formation of the Inter African Committee Against Harmful Practices (IAC); the goal was to forcefully bring to the attention of African Governments the harmful effects of female circumcision36. These initiatives led to the adoption by the UN of such treaties as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child37. Article No. 19 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child provides that all state parties:

….shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child against every form of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.38

Article No. 24(3) of the same convention issues this directive: “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.39” To many human rights advocates, the reference to ‘traditional practices’ in Article 24(3) is interpreted to refer principally to FGM40. Finally, the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child adopted strong language that addressed the practice of female genital circumcision41. In Article 21(1) of its Charter it states:

State Parties to the present charter shall take all appropriate measures to abolish customs and practices harmful to the welfare, normal growth and development of the child and in particular; a) those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child, and B) those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex and other status.42

But it was not until 1994, in the International Conference on Population and development held in Cairo that a formal body explicitly used the term ‘female circumcision’ in its policy pronouncements; and declared it a “violation of basic rights,” and requested of all governments to ‘prohibit and urgently stop the practice wherever it exists43.’ In 1995, The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing declared the practice a violation of women’s rights, and a serious threat to their reproductive health44.

A Brief Discussion of Universal Human Rights And Cultural Relativism

Modern human rights activism, while remarkably successful in many areas of relevance, is needlessly burdened by the presumed absence of a coherent and sustainable theoretical foundation on which to erect the principles of rights that would have both universal appeal and acceptance45. In substance, detractors and well-meaning proponents propound that the notion of universal human rights is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) it is based on Western democratic ideals of individual rights and freedom, and thus inappropriately hegemonic, and disrespectful of other cultures; (2) the primary ground on which rights advocates have based their demands – human dignity, is not justifiable except on religious basis46. The former, forcefully advanced by cultural relativists, is more serious and remains attractive to significant audiences in both developed and third-world nations.

The thesis here espoused is that female genital circumcision as practiced in many African countries is a violation of rights when examined within the context of modern human rights regime. This thesis is anchored on the notion that certain human rights are primary and fundamental, and may not be derogated from regardless of the kind of society or culture in which they first gained prominence. Furthermore, once such rights have attained near universal acceptance, either in law or practice, no ontological justification is needed for their being. However, some human rights as currently formulated, and because of their ‘secondary’ nature must be allowed considerable time to become malleable to domestic practices, and even then, may never enjoy universal acceptance in a specific form.

Human Rights and Cultural Relativism

Striped to its bare essentials, the primary objective of human rights is to confer on individuals a certain degree of dignity that enables free exercise of will, to engage in meaningful and sustaining relationships, to be free from harm, and to enjoy the freedom to pursue objectives that will enhance personal welfare without subjection to the indignity of physical and spiritual domination. This ‘certain degree of dignity’ properly stems from a sense of morality47. Put succinctly, human rights are ‘the equal and inalienable rights, in the strong sense of entitlements that ground particularly powerful claims against the state, that each person has simply as a human being.48’But these ideals are decidedly liberal and Western in origin, and owe significant intellectual debt to the seminal and revolutionary ideas contained in such documents as the American Declaration of independence of 1776, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Collectively, these documents formed ‘the cornerstone of the political thinking of the nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism and progressivism.49’ Indeed, modern human rights regime may be rightfully categorized as an attempt to universalize the political and socio-economic liberal versions of rights. A glimpse of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides ample evidence for this claim. In parts of its preambles, it state:

Whereas the people of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom….. proclaims [T]his Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations50.

Undoubtedly, some human rights require relevant legal and social institutions to be meaningful and effective. Thus, countries previously within the sphere of influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union may find the argument for human rights vacuous since they lacked the requisite background and instrumentalities necessary for modern human rights regimes. But this is not to say that because these countries are wanting in the essential social institutions, they are therefore undeserving of the benefits of human rights. To the contrary, it is in these countries, more than anywhere else (except for the totalitarian regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) that human rights law can produce significant immediate benefits, and create long-term conditions for social and economic growth. Fernando Teson makes this point quite eloquently when he propounds that “it is perfectly legitimate for a Westerner to advocate universal human rights and to discuss the possibilities for their protection worldwide. Human rights are about protection of people’s lives, safety, and individual freedom. They are a supreme universal value in the sense that most people, deprived of these protections, want to have them regardless of the culture in which they live.51” The point to be emphasized is that certain human rights are primary and fundamental, thus regardless of where their articulation hails from, their value remains universal and independent of cultural observances. The source of these rights, says Donnelly, “is man’s moral nature … Human rights are needed not for life but for a life of dignity, that is, for a life worthy of a human being. Human rights arise from the inherent dignity of the human person.52

This justification for human rights seems sensible, at least to one with liberal sensibilities; but rights advocates around the world continue to face daunting challenges that question the theoretical justification for universal human rights. These challenges come in the form of group rights, national sovereignty, cultural, and religious autonomy. This variety of claims underscores the philosophical doctrine of cultural relativism53; a doctrine that informs the strongly held conviction amongst its apologists that foreign actors should never interfere with purely domestic matters. This, of course, is based on the well- established norm of state sovereignty, and the philosophical supposition that only the ‘natives’ can solve problems pertinent to a culture. Thus, cultural relativism, in its complete sense, is often used to support the position that a particular articulation of human rights, even those of the most basic of rights, may be incompatible with cultural observances of other societies, and hence unacceptable54.

Cultural relativists are quick to point out that the notion of rights are universal; however, its articulation and practice vary and rightfully so amongst different cultures55. Every society, they assert, has a different idea of what constitutes ideal human rights, and that such ideal does not have to be consistent with those held in western democracies, and espoused by the United Nations. This position is succinctly and forcefully stated in a recent critique of human rights in Africa: “For countries that have not known peace, stability, or progress since their contact with the forces of Western imperialism, civil and political rights have no meaning.56. And herein lies the essence of the current debate; on the one hand rights advocates assert that human rights should be universal, and that all cultures are ultimately malleable to the liberal interpretation of rights; on the other hand cultural relativists insist that universalizing the concept of rights as articulated by rights advocates will be tantamount to a western hegemony, and a delegitimization of other cultures.57 They argue that different societies should be allowed to define and promulgate rights to the extent that their cultures permit. Both sides make compelling arguments, but they confuse the issues; primarily because they fail to identify the source of human rights.58

A Confusion of Natural Law and Positive Law

In human rights discuss, two kinds of law have always been invoked to lend credence to the various propositions adduced by the principals: positive law and natural law. Positive law, in its popular apprehension, is the sort that different jurisdictions enact to govern conduct, and enforced by the police and the judiciary. But these laws are relevant only to the affairs of citizens within a particular jurisdiction, and are such not human rights. Thus, as a citizen of the US I can point to the Bill of Rights as the basis for my claims or rights; but those who live in Columbia or Nigeria where there are no such enforceable constitutional guarantees to protect them will have no use for rights based on positive laws that do not transcend jurisdictional boundaries. A different sort of law is therefore needed to overcome this difficulty.

Natural law, in a special apprehension, provides a set of general moral standard on which claims, immunities, and liberties may be based without the constraints of jurisdictional limitations. These moral standard must necessarily be universal and independent of culture, religion, and nationality. Thus, it must be the case that a particular version of natural law must inform the claim of universal human rights. For if humans have rights by virtue of their humanity, it must be the case that there exists a general moral standard that is universally accepted, the particularities of its manifestations or understanding notwithstanding. This is what gives natural law its special advantage over positive law as a source of human rights.


In 1998 the World Health Organization estimated that about two million girls and women are circumcised every year.59 A study by the Kenyan government reports that over 80% of circumcised women experienced at least one serious medical complication from the procedure.60 In other notable studies conducted in other countries, researchers found that between 15% and 30 % of all girls circumcised die from infections and bleeding.61 The primary objective of human rights is to confer on individuals a certain degree of dignity that enable free exercise of will, to engage in meaningful and sustaining relationships, free from harm, and the freedom to pursue objectives that would enhance personal welfare without being subjected to the indignity of physical and spiritual domination.62 Since 1948 rights advocates have consistently argued that human rights should be universal, and that all cultures are ultimately malleable to the liberal interpretation of rights.63 On the other side of the fence are cultural relativists, who have also for long argued that universalizing the concept of rights as articulated by rights advocates will be tantamount to a western hegemony, and a delegitimization of other cultures.64 They argue that different societies should be allowed to define and promulgate rights to the extent that their cultures permit. Both sides make compelling arguments, and a compromise must be reached or the obstacles to a coherent and consistent universal observance of rights will persist.

The practice of female genital circumcision falls squarely within this debate, and clearly illustrates the kind of difficulties that rights advocates must overcome in their quest to universalize basic human rights. Unquestionably, there are certain human rights, such as the right to be secure in person, and freedom from civil, political and religious subjugation, that must enjoy the international status of jus cogens, regardless of domestic cultural observances. Female circumcision comes with a high risk of physical endangerment, and must be strongly condemned, and discouraged. But it is the outcome of a powerful tradition that permeates most of Africa, and some religious observances. While Westerners may find this practice abhorrent, it remains a right of passage for many, hence the need to seek the most effective approach to curb its practice is imperative; but the approach taken must also be, at once, equally sensitive to cultural and religious sensibilities.

A starting point in this campaign should be the enlistment of national governments in countries where circumcision is prevalent; such enlistment is critical for the simple reason that national governments have the capacity to carry ‘carrots’ or wield the ‘stick.’ The ‘stick’, however, must always be the last resort in all human rights discourse. This should be followed by a concerted effort to educate the relevant population and people in responsible offices, such as traditional and spiritual leaders, on the health risks of circumcision, and the attendant inhumane treatment to recipients. If this fails, then an alternative ritual that approximates the same need may be adduced; and with patience, the old practice of female circumcision may gradually fade away. Criminal sanction cannot be a viable solution in this case, for it fails to address the fundamental reasons for the practice; and unless those reasons are properly addressed, the practice will continue, albeit out of public view, even with the prospect of severe sanctions.

While the ideals of human rights are admittedly western and liberal in inclination, their substantive values and usefulness are not limited to societies that espouse western ideas, but are rather just as meaningful and useful to non-Western societies. The common bond of humanity makes these ideals non-parochial, and imbues them with universal qualities. The fact that individual rights and freedom were first comprehensively articulated and formalized as principles of governance and conduct by Western societies is not enough to make them objectionable to other cultures as long as experience has shown them to be salutary to individual welfare and societal progress. By way of example, the idea that man can fly, and hence the invention of modern air travel, is of Western origin. The benefits from air travel are unquestionable; should non-Westerners now refuse to fly because the idea and the subsequent invention are Western? Are we also to reject the global use of modern Western medicine because they may be incompatible with traditional observances in other cultures? For now, a contemplation of these questions will do. Perhaps, but the words of Lightfoot-Klein remain very instructive:

…childhood genital mutilations are anachronistic blood rituals inflicted on the helpless bodies of non-consenting children of both sexes. The reasons given for female circumcision in Africa and for the routine male cir. in the US are essentially the same. Both falsely touch the positive health benefits of the procedure. Both promise cleanliness and the absence of “bad” genital odours, as well as greater attractiveness and acceptability of the sex organs. The affected individuals in both cultures have come to view these procedures as something that was done for them and not to them.65

Female circumcision, like other habitually observed rituals in different societies and in different eras, must have a presumed social or religious relevance amongst its practitioners in order to remain serviceable. Once so convinced, it is hardly necessary to adduce further reasons for its observance, and the ritual would remain in practice until its usefulness is found wanting or alternate rituals with less inconveniences are introduced. In order to curb its practice, practitioners must be convinced that its assumed benefits can be achieved through other means impose with less severe hardship on beneficiaries. But given its long history in Africa this would require sustained effort in exposing its harmful effects to children and adults who are subjected to the procedure as a matter of course, and not by free will; and that a better policy would be to either abandon the practice altogether or retain it with the proviso that only individuals that have reached the age of consent may freely engage in it as an elective procedure. This is an area that would benefit from further research on alternative rituals that serve the same end.


1 Immigration And Naturalization Act. 1980. (8 U.S.C. sec. 1101 (a) (42) (A).

2 ibid.

3 IN RE KASINGA. 1996. Interim Decision 3278, 1996 Westlaw 379826, 35 ILM 1145

4 ibid. pp.5.

5 Lewis, Hope. 1995. Between Irua and Female Genital Mutilation: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide, 8 HARV. Hum. Rts. Journal, 1 2-3.

6 Larsen, Ulla; Yan, Sharon. 2000. Does Female Circumcision Affect Infertility and Fertility? A Study of the Central African Republic. Cote D’Ivoire, and Tanzania, Demography, Vol. 37, No. 3, 313-321

7 ibid.

8 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

9 Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, pp. 5.

10 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

11 Rich, S., Joyce, S. 1997. Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: Lessons for Donors. Occasional paper, Wallace Global Fund, Washington, D.C.

12 Boddy, Janice. 1989. Wombs and Alien Spirits. Madison Univ. of Wisconsin Press, pp. 52

13 Larsen, Ulla; Yan, Sharon. 2000. Does Female Circumcision Affect Infertility and Fertility? A Study of the Central African Republic. Cote D’Ivoire, and Tanzania, Demography, Vol. 37, No. 3, 313-321.

14ibid. at pp.316.

15 Boddy. 1989. pp. 54.

16 Geertz, 1973. pp.14.

17 ibid.

18 Gruenbaum, Ellen. 2000. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 25.

19 Toubia, N; Rahman, A, 2000. A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide. Zed Book, New York. pp. 12.

20 ibid. at pp. 13.

21 Tobia, N. 1995. Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action. RAINBO, New York

22 Bashir, Layli. 1996. Female genital mutilation in the United States: An Examination of criminal and Asylum Law; The American University Journal of Gender & Law, 4 Am. U.J. Gender & Law, pp. 415.

23 Gruenbaum, 2000. pp. 35

24 ibid.

25 ibid. at pp. 153

26 ibid. at pp. 56.

27 ibid. at pp. 59.

28 ibid.

29 Boddy, 1989. pp. 56

30 Rich, S., Joyce, S. 1997. pp.38.

31 Universal declaration of Human Rights; G.A. res. 217A (III), UN Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948).

32 World health organization. 1979. Seminar on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women And Children, Khartoum, Sudan.

33 Assaad, Marie. 1980. Female Circumcision in Egypt: Social Implications, Current Research, and Prospects for Change. Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 11. No. 1, 3-16.

34 ibid.

35 Babalola, S., Adebayo, C. 1996. Evaluation Report of Female Circumcision Eradication Project in Nigeria, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, New York

36 ibid.

37 United Nations General Assembly, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Geneva: U.N. General Assembly, A/RES/48/104, 23 Feb. 1994) at pp. 2.

38 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 12, GA RES. 44/25, Annes, UN GAOR, 44th Sess., Supp. No. 49, at 199, UN Doc. A/44/49 (1989)

39 ibid. Art. No.24.

40 Freeman, Michael. 1994. The philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly, Aug., Vol. 16, n3, pp. 451-514.

41 Organization of African Unity. 1990. African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Art. 24(3).

42 ibid. Art. No. 21(1).

43 United Nations (UN). 1994. Report on the International Conference on population and Development, New York.

44 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

45 Donnelly, Jack, 1989.Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice; Cornell University Press, New York, P44.

46 ibid. at pp.120

47 Teson, F. 1984. International Human Rights and Cultural Relativism. Virginia Journal of International law, 25, pp. 87-122.

48 ibid. at pp. 13.

49 A. Belden Fields, and Wolf-Dieter Narr, 1992. Human Rights as a Holistic Concept; Human Rights Quarterly, Feb., Vol. 14, n1 p1-20.

50 Universal declaration of Human Rights, supra note 31.

51 Teson, F. 1984, supra note 47.

52 Donnelly, Kack, 1989, supra note 45.

53 Brown, Chris, 1993. Universal Human Rights: A Critique; in Dunne and Wheeler, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 105.

54 Howard, Rhoda, 1993. Cultural Absolutism and the Nostalgia for Community; Human Rights Quarterly, May, Vol. 15, n2 p315-338.

55 Assaad, Marie. 1980. Female Circumcision in Egypt: Social Implications, Current Research, and Prospects for Change. Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 11. No. 1, 3-16.

56 Babalola, S., Adebayo, C. 1996. supra note 35 at pp.21.

57 Steiner, H, and Alston, P, 2000. International Human Rights in Context; Oxford Univ. Press, pp.180.

58 ibid. at pp.189.

59 World Health Organization. 1998. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva

60 African Report, March, 2003, pp. 37.

61 ibid.

62 Donnelly, Jack, 1989, supra note 45.

63 ibid.

64 Lewis, Hope. 1995. Between Irua and Female Genital Mutilation: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide, 8 HARV. Hum. Rts. Journal, 1 2-3.

65 Lightfoot-Klein, H., 1989. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into female Genital Circumcision in Africa, Harrington Press, New York, pp. 78.



Global land ecosystems are becoming less efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide

An update by NASA on global warming trend.

Plants play a key role in mitigating climate change. The more carbon dioxide they absorb during photosynthesis, the less carbon dioxide remains trapped in the atmosphere, where it can cause temperatures to rise. But scientists have identified an unsettling trend – 86% of land ecosystems globally are becoming progressively less efficient at absorbing the increasing levels of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Land ecosystems currently play a key role in mitigating climate change. The more carbon dioxide (CO2) plants and trees absorb during photosynthesis, the process they use to make food, the less CO2remains trapped in the atmosphere, where it can cause temperatures to rise. But scientists have identified an unsettling trend – as levels of CO2 in the atmosphere increase, 86% of land ecosystems globally are becoming progressively less efficient at absorbing it.

Because CO2 is a main "ingredient" that plants need to grow, elevated concentrations of it cause an increase in photosynthesis, and consequently, plant growth – a phenomenon aptly referred to as the CO2  fertilization effect, or CFE. CFE is considered a key factor in the response of vegetation to rising atmospheric CO2 as well as an important mechanism for removing this potent greenhouse gas from our atmosphere – but that may be changing.

For a new study published Dec. 10 in Science, researchers analyzed multiple field, satellite-derived and model-based datasets to better understand what effect increasing levels of CO2 may be having on CFE. Their findings have important implications for the role plants can be expected to play in offsetting climate change in the years to come.

“In this study, by analyzing the best available long-term data from remote sensing and state-of-the-art land-surface models, we have found that since 1982, the global average CFE has decreased steadily from 21% to 12% per 100 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Ben Poulter, study co-author and scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “In other words, terrestrial ecosystems are becoming less reliable as a temporary climate change mitigator.”

What’s Causing It?

Without this feedback between photosynthesis and elevated atmospheric CO2, Poulter said we would have seen climate change occurring at a much more rapid rate. But scientists have been concerned about how long the CO2 Fertilization Effect could be sustained before other limitations on plant growth kick in. For instance, while an abundance of CO2 won’t limit growth, a lack of water, nutrients, or sunlight – the other necessary components of photosynthesis — will. To determine why the CFE has been decreasing, the study team took the availability of these other elements into account.

“According to our data, what appears to be happening is that there’s both a moisture limitation as well as a nutrient limitation coming into play,” Poulter said. “In the tropics, there’s often just not enough nitrogen or phosphorus, to sustain photosynthesis, and in the high-latitude temperate and boreal regions, soil moisture is now more limiting than air temperature because of recent warming.”

In effect, climate change is weakening plants’ ability to mitigate further climate change over large areas of the planet.

Next Steps:

The international science team found that when remote-sensing observations were taken into account – including vegetation index data from NASA's Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instruments – the decline in CFE is more substantial than current land-surface models have shown. Poulter says this is because modelers have struggled to account for nutrient feedbacks and soil moisture limitations – due, in part, to a lack of global observations of them.

“By combining decades of remote sensing data like we have done here, we’re able to see these limitations on plant growth. As such, the study shows a clear way forward for model development, especially with new remote sensing observations of vegetation traits expected in coming years,” he said. “These observations will help advance models to incorporate ecosystem processes, climate and CO2 feedbacks more realistically.”

The results of the study also highlight the importance of the role of ecosystems in the global carbon cycle. According to Poulter, going forward, the decreasing carbon-uptake efficiency of land ecosystems means we may see the amount of CO2 remaining in the atmosphere after fossil fuel burning and deforestation start to increase, shrinking the remaining carbon budget.

“What this means is that to avoid 1.5 or 2 °C warming and the associated climate impacts, we need to adjust the remaining carbon budget to account for the weakening of the plant CO2 Fertilization Effect,” he said. “And because of this weakening, land ecosystems will not be as reliable for climate mitigation in the coming decades.”

*Courtesy of NASA/Photo credit: NASA



American democracy is tested; but foremost is political stability, then sustainability in all else.

Steven Cohen.

It may seem paradoxical, but political stability is a prerequisite for the change we need to transition our economy to one that is environmentally sustainable. The beating heart of America’s economic wealth and power is the politically stable system of law that we Americans take for granted. Investors around the world know that a dollar loaned to the United States or invested in American corporations will not disappear or be stolen by a corrupt, lawless regime. Last week, we saw both the fragility and the resilience of our political system. Its stability was attacked by an aspiring autocrat and his deluded followers as they ransacked the U.S. Capitol building. Its resilience was demonstrated as determined legislators worked all night to complete the certification of the duly elected President of the United States.

It was shocking, but sadly, not surprising. And it is far from over. Inauguration Day and the days leading up to January 20 will see more political violence. Hopefully this time our police and military will be better prepared to resist it.

President-elect Biden and his team have an enormous task ahead of them. They must vaccinate the nation, restore the economy, promote equity, address racism, combat climate change and reinforce and solidify our democracy. That work requires a stable, functioning political process. In my view, there is a mistaken belief that autocracies are stable, and democracies are not. The American experience has been the opposite: that a democracy governed by a system of law and built on the consent of the governed provides the highest probability of political stability. The consent of the governed, not the “muscle” of the autocrat is the source of genuine political stability. But as we have learned over the past four years, our political system is more fragile than we thought. Trump’s attack on the electoral system before and after the election was relentless. Fortunately, it was met with determined, bi-partisan resistance. Democracy does not run on autopilot. It requires people to place principle over power. We saw that with the Republicans in charge of Georgia’s elections. We saw that in Congress before the assault on the Capitol building and it only grew stronger after Trump’s mob was expelled from the building. A belief in the Constitution and the rule of law dominated the discussion of our elected leaders.

But it was far from unanimous. Fear of the Trump base led elected officials all over the nation to parrot the president’s disinformation about the presidential election. Millions of misled voters all over the nation fell victim to the campaign of lies and fantasy perpetuated by the insecure and vain man who simply could not accept his electoral loss. We are fortunate that Trump is an incompetent aspiring autocrat. A more skilled operator might have had greater success in attacking our political institutions.

Since the initial attack was quickly repelled, the resilience of our institutions should provide some assurance that political stability will be maintained. Disinformation-fueled extremism will continue, but it will no longer be led by the most powerful elected official in the world. The images of the Capitol building desecrated by a mob should serve to delegitimize this form of political extremism, as will the calm, principled and moderating voice of President-elect Joe Biden.

And we need calm voices and political stability to take on the climate crisis and the challenge of creating an economy that provides economic opportunity without destroying the planet. The type of economic transformation we need will require massive long-term investment of capital. Government needs to invest in green infrastructure to decarbonize our economy and private capital must be attracted to investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and the production systems and supply chains of the circular economy. Long term investments require government incentives, and we require a stable government to assure that these long-term investments will eventually pay off.

Political stability is not simply a set of laws but is based on belief in the sanctity of those laws. It is a social construct. A dominant social paradigm about how the political world works. A great challenge to that set of beliefs is the ability of social and mass media to create a universe of alternative facts. The recent election is a visible case in point. Scores of challenges to the election were filed in court and dismissed over and over by judges all over America. But the mob attacking the Capitol continued to repeat the same fiction in scores of interviews and on social media. Clearly, some of the intensity stemmed from the president repeating these falsehoods relentlessly. Removing the presidency from the equation and separating Trump from his 80 million-plus Twitter followers should help, but political stability and the capacity for constructive political and economic change requires a shared consensus about reality.

Attacks on the electoral process, the seriousness of COVID-19 and the science of climate change have been part of the political landscape of the Trump administration for years. The result has been a massive pandemic impact, a steadily warming planet, and a Congress hunkered down in the basement while mobs ran amuck above. These impacts are closely connected and a direct result of our incompetent but aspiring autocrat-president seeking to retain his hold on political power.

We Americans are fortunate that most of us have never lived under conditions of political instability. While racism and xenophobia make America less free than it should be, and too many fear they will be attacked for their appearance or accent, there remains a calm predictability in our daily lives that people in Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and other places in the world long for. That calm predictability is why wealthy people from all over the world purchase real estate in the United States and try to ensure that some of their wealth is invested here. Coupled with our vast military power, America possesses the wealth and stability that is needed to invest in the renewable resource-based economy. I know that sounds like a logical contradiction since the lust for economic power is what created the crisis of environmental sustainability. But we need organizational competence, financial capital and political power for a peaceful transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. The transition will be a high wire act, maintaining a productive economy while eliminating its destructive environmental impacts. We need to repair the airplane and fly it at the same time. An economic crash would slow and possibly end the transition to sustainability. Our methods of production and consumption must be transformed rather than reduced. A stable political system inspiring economic confidence is a prerequisite to a successful transition to sustainability.

Our military might, global reach, and vast power have both costs and benefits, but this nation’s vast power makes the goals of the Green New Deal feasible. The transition we need requires America’s leadership and without that leadership, it is hard to see how the climate crisis and the interconnected crisis of environmental sustainability can ever be addressed. We have spent the past four years relying on corporations, non-governmental organizations, cities, states and civil society to lead the renewable resource transition in America. Although we’ve made progress, it’s clear that the job requires federal leadership and that leadership requires political stability and a shared factual understanding of how the world works. While last week was wrenching, the electoral results in Georgia, the courage of many Republican elected officials, and the silencing of Trump’s Twitter account give us reason to hope that better days lie ahead.

*Courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University.

Photos credit: AFT

Is the African continent more vulnerable to climate change than other regions?


Photo credit:AFP

Richard Washington*

The African continent will be hardest hit by climate change.

There are four key reasons for this:

  • First, African society is very closely coupled with the climate system; hundreds of millions of people depend on rainfall to grow their food
  • Second, the African climate system is controlled by an extremely complex mix of large-scale weather systems, many from distant parts of the planet and, in comparison with almost all other inhabited regions, is vastly understudied. It is therefore capable of all sorts of surprises
  • Third, the degree of expected climate change is large. The two most extensive land-based end-of-century projected decreases in rainfall anywhere on the planet occur over Africa; one over North Africa and the other over southern Africa
  • Finally, the capacity for adaptation to climate change is low; poverty equates to reduced choice at the individual level while governance generally fails to prioritise and act on climate change

Is Africa sleepwalking into a potential catastrophe?

Monsoons altering African climate is replete with complexity and marvels. The Sahara is the world's largest desert with the deepest layer of intense heating anywhere on Earth.

In June and July the most extensive and most intense dust storms found anywhere on the planet fill the air with fine particles that interfere with climate in ways we don't quite understand.

The region is almost completely devoid of weather measurements yet it is a key driver of the West African monsoon system, which brings three months of rain that interrupts the nine-month long dry season across the Sahel region, south of the desert.

For the decades following the 1960s and peaking in 1984, there was a downturn of rainfall of some 30% across the Sahel, which led to famine and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of many millions.

No other region has documented such a long and spatially extensive drought.

Evidence points to Western industrial aerosol pollution, which cooled parts of the global ocean, thereby altering the monsoon system, as a cause.

The currently observed recovery of the rains is projected to continue through the 21st Century, particularly over the central and eastern Sahel.

 Africa's capacity to adapt to climate change is low - and this year led to landslides in Kenya

But that change seems to depend on exactly where future heating in the central Sahara peaks, emphasising cruelly the region we least understand.

In southern Africa we are seeing a delay in the onset and a drying of early summer rains, which is predicted to worsen in forthcoming decades.

Temperatures there are predicted to rise by five degrees or more, particularly in the parts of Namibia, Botswana and Zambia that are already intolerably hot.


The East African paradox

Meanwhile over Kenya and Tanzania, the long rains from March to May start later and sooner - leading to an overall decrease in rainfall.

This observed change sits uncomfortably next to predictions of a wetter future in the same season - a problem scientists have termed the East African Climate Paradox.

Central Africa, one of three regions on the planet where thunderstorms drive the rest of the planet's tropical and sub-tropical weather systems, lives perilously close to the rainfall minimum needed to support the world's second largest rainforest system.

Even a little less rainfall in the future could endanger the forest and its massive carbon store.

We know remarkably little about that climate system - it is scarcely even monitored - there are more reporting rain gauges in the UK county of Oxfordshire than the entire Congo Basin.

Africa's complex climate system is, unusually, influenced by the three main global ocean basins.

Emerging from one of those rapidly warming oceans, tropical cyclones Idai and Kenneth in March and April 2019 destroyed parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, with Kenneth following a particularly unusual path over Tanzania.

Scientific breakthrough

But on the scientific front there is hope. In collaborative efforts we are working intensely hard to improve climate prediction.

More than 1,000 people died after Cyclone Idai hits Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Projections of climate change depend on climate models of which there are dozens, each as complicated to understand as the real world.

Through efforts such as the ongoing Future Climate for Africa (FCFA), a programme funded by the UK's Department for International Development and Natural Environment Research Council, the experience and insights of African climate scientists have led to a discernible jump in our ability to understand and model African climate.

We have new insights brought through that scientific ingenuity.

Each region and sub-region of Africa is changing differently but an emerging commonality is a shift towards more intense rainfall - even where there is observed and projected future drying.

The rainfall arrives in shorter bursts, causing more runoff and longer dry-spells in between.

New models, developed as part of FCFA, are now run at extremely high resolution with grid spacing of around 4km (2.5 miles) for the entire continent.

Understanding thunderstorms

The results point unambiguously to an increase in both rainfall intensity and the length of dry spells, and we have strong reason to believe them.

Central to that rainfall change is the behaviour of thunderstorms, which deliver around 70% of African rain.

Standard global climate models can only represent these key systems indirectly but the new models are capable of representing thunderstorms systems adequately for the first time.

This is part of the approach we are adopting - to find out exactly how the models simulate the changing weather.

From an extremely modestly resourced lab in Cameroon, for example, Wilfried Pokam and his team of researchers are exposing the way that the central African climate system and southern Africa are linked, thereby breaking the mould of our stubborn piecemeal, regional view of the continent's climate system.

 African governments have generally failed to prioritise climate change

Such breakthroughs are improbable when you consider that these researchers download massive data sets through cheap Sim cards in their mobile phones and analyse the output overnight.

By day, they keep the first Lidar system in central Africa running. The Lidar measures winds in the lowest few kilometres of the atmosphere, helping to fill the vast data void in central Africa.

They are part of a set of young scientists joining the race to set adaptation to climate change in motion before Africa is overwhelmed. It is a matter of social justice that we succeed. Africa will be hardest hit by climate change, but has contributed the least to causing that change.

*Richard Washington is a professor of climate science at the School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford University in the UK. Courtesy of BBC.

Inhabitants of Africa need only look to Taiwan to flatten their Covid 19 infection rates

*Photo credit: AP News

Steven O. Kimbrough (Wharton, University of Pennsylvania)

Christine Chou, (National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan)

When the novel coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, first spread in China, Taiwan was regarded as the next country most likely to be affected, due to its close geographic and economic ties with China. However, by mid-July 2020, after more than six months of rapidly growing COVID-19 cases around the world, Taiwan still counted substantially fewer cases than most countries. The worldwide news media have noted Taiwan’s initial success story, attributing it to Taiwan’s resilience, pervasive national health system, central command structure, rapid medical equipment build up, early prevention and transparent information sharing, as well as other factors. While these factors surely have played important roles in contributing to this initial success, it is too soon to tell whether that success will continue.

The purpose of our case study is to describe the work by a special group of people to assist in the pandemic response in Taiwan. That work has culminated, so its story can now be told. Our case study is based on 3,060 online community messages, 32 online shared interviews and information from several personal contacts. See “Not All Heroes Wear Capes: The Contributors Behind the Battle Against the Coronavirus Outbreak in Taiwan”for a fuller version of the study, including a detailed timeline.

The basic facts of the case are the following: Rationing of face masks began in Taiwan on January 28, shortly after the coronavirus appeared. This was partly in response to panic buying, but problems persisted, with long lines at all convenience stores that were originally designated to sell masks. There was also much agitation and anxiety among the public. At this point the idea of a name-based rationing system — tied to the national health system records — for buying face masks in the pharmacies was proposed. Under the system, each citizen or foreigner with a valid alien resident certificate could purchase two masks within a 7-day period using their identification cards as of February 6.

Once news of the forthcoming arrangement was released on February 4, a novel collaboration among the public, private and civic sectors began to emerge spontaneously. More than 1,000 software developers joined in the task of providing apps and other tools to identify in real time where face masks were available, sparing the public wasted time and anxiety. By the beginning of March, 59 map systems, 21 line applications, three chat bots, 23 mask sales location search systems, 22 apps, five audio systems, two information sharing systems, and one online mask reservation system were launched. Several applications have attracted more than 2 million users. The tools have been very effective, easing public anxiety and preventing a black market from emerging. As Microsoft executives Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl wrote, “These tools showed where masks were available, but they did more than that. Citizens were able to reallocate rations through intertemporal trades and donations to those who most needed them, which helped prevent the rise of a black market.” In the end, democracy and social capital in Taiwan were strengthened.

“In the end, democracy and social capital in Taiwan were strengthened.”

The rationing system and the searching tools fully met their expectations until late April when the government was able to produce ample numbers of masks domestically. The government began to donate masks to various countries in need beginning in early April and was able to accumulate uncollected masks to donate more to other countries in late April. There are several important lessons to be learned from this case:

  1. An Existing Platform

The software community coalesced on the platform, which is “an online community that pushes for greater information transparency [and] that focuses on developing an information platform and effective related tools for citizens to participate in society.” This platform was first set up in 2012 when a group of engineers was not satisfied with the government’s stance towards data availability.

  1. Persistent Key Members

The channels used by the g0v community (#general and then #covid19) had persistent, attentive members. In the development of the mask-searching system, several leaders responded to the community multiple times every day. The top three members’ IDs were kiang, minexo79 and tnstiger, all of whom steadfastly replied to channel members’ messages, and continue to do so.

  1. Openness of Government Data 

Thanks to the universal national health system, the Ministry of Health and Welfare had complete data available on pharmacies around the country. That data included pharmacists’ store codes, locations, business hours, mask inventory, and ways of issuing numbers to distribute the masks. This data was made available to the g0v developers after they requested it.

  1. Emotion Sharing

The g0v community shared frustrations among its members as the project got underway and elation as successes were achieved. Emotion sharing was a key element in binding the community together and serving its higher purposes.

Stepping back, we should see the generous behavior of the g0v community in a larger context. It is an example of people spontaneously coming together in the spirit of community service during a public disaster. Rebecca Solnit documented multiple such examples in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell. Her chronicle begins with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the acute firsthand observations of the philosopher William James, who noted the initial effective and peaceable self-organization of response by the diverse citizenry. Sadly, that period of comity and effectiveness soon ended because authorities imposed force where it was hardly needed and, in fact, detrimental. Solnit found this to be a recurring pattern up to the present day.

“In a time of immense challenge, each contributor became a hero in his or her own way.”

Happily, Taiwan so far has been an exception. In this case, the government responded with welcome and alacrity to the pro-social impulses of the g0v community. Audrey Tang, the government’s digital minister, has been a linchpin. With expert skills and knowledge in information technology, and the political skills that come with holding an important position in the government — a rare combination — she actively supported the projects and served as a crucial go-between for the multiple stakeholders present. An exceptional talent, she is also openly a transgender woman who, remarkably for Taiwan’s historical culture, has achieved the highest levels of access and influence in government and society. Her voice is eagerly sought and listened to. See “How digital innovation can fight pandemics and strengthen democracy” for Tang’s broader take on the situation.

The success of the name-based mask projects was enabled by an unusual combination of elements including: outstanding leadership and commitment (the digital minister, the leaders of the g0v collective); trust and residual goodwill (among the g0v community, and between the citizens generally and the government, which had recently obtained a very strong electoral mandate); deep preparation and steady, highly competent, informed leadership by the government that welcomed the g0v contributions; a well-educated, highly skilled group of techies with the freedom and capacity to contribute without being paid for their services; and a general, creative openness to diverse people and ways of thinking (including enlisting volunteers to visit pharmacies in person and collect additional data).

Above all, the success of this case relied on many volunteers willing to contribute large amounts of their time and effort. As writer Andrea Randall put it so well, “Heroes don’t always wear capes, badges or uniforms. Sometimes, they support those who do.” In a time of immense challenge, each contributor became a hero in his or her own way. Not only did they help solve the problem, but they also warmed everyone’s hearts with their effort and generosity. The gratitude they merit is perhaps even more for the lasting value and example they created for the future, and what this means for Taiwan’s social capital, than for their fine achievement of the day.

*The authors acknowledge the help and authorization from CC BY 4.0 by g0v Contributors and helpful comments from Finjon Kiang. 

*Courtesy of Wharton School.


Climate change is killing coffee production; East African coffee farmers know this too well

*Photo credit: Emily Garthwaite

Elizabeth Sharpiro-Garza (Duke University)

Michael Hoffman (Cornell University)

Editorial commentary: What is discussed here has particular relevance to East African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia where coffee production accounts for a significant share of gross domestic product.

A rich cup of coffee is one of life’s little pleasures, but it will become more difficult and expensive to obtain in the near future. Coffee is among the crops under threat from climate change. An extensive study published in Januaryfound that 60% of wild coffee species — or 75 of 124 plants — are at risk of extinction.

Global warming, deforestation, disease and pests are contributing to the decline, and scientists warn that without conservation, monitoring and seed preservation measures, one of the world’s most popular drinks could become a thing of the past. Beyond the environmental implications, coffee is a $70-billion-a-year industry that is supplied mostly by small-scale farms in parts of Africa and Latin America. Not only is the supply chain in danger, but so are the livelihoods of the estimated 25 million farmers who sustain themselves by growing coffee. In addition, countries that rely on coffee as a major sector of the economy could see a significant decrease in their gross domestic product numbers year after year. “Make no mistake,” former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told Time magazine last year, “climate change is going to play a bigger role in affecting the quality and integrity of coffee.”

The Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM invited two experts to discuss what is happening in the coffee industry, how companies are responding and what consumers could be facing down the road. Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza is associate professor of the practice of environmental policy and management at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Michael Hoffman is an entomology professor at Cornell University and executive director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions. The following are key points from their conversation.

Climate Change Affects Quality and Quantity

Hoffman and Shapiro-Garza don’t downplay the issues with coffee production or the ripple effects on the environment and economy. The problems are quite serious, they said, and action is needed now to ensure coffee is enjoyed by future generations.

“It is an incredible threat,” Shapiro-Garza said. “And I think that it’s really important that we’re starting to talk about some of the solutions.”

Although the industry is dominated by two bean varieties — high-quality arabica and low-quality robusta — wild species are needed to boost the quality of commercial plants. Those wild plants serve as a genetic library, enabling scientists to cross-breed them to create plants that are more drought or disease resistant, for example.

“There’s a fungal disease that just loves the new warmer conditions and higher humidity, and that’s a real serious pest,” Hoffman said. “There’s also something called the coffee borer, which is spreading worldwide, and that is also a very serious pest and one that’s really difficult to control. So, there’s a whole suite of challenges facing the small coffee producers worldwide.”

In Central America, a disease known as stem rust cut coffee production by 15% in 2012-2013, pushing up prices per pound by 33% in the United States, according to Time.

In other coffee growing regions, changes in rainfall can affect production. Too much rain can cause mold or interfere with harvesting; too little can result in substandard fruit.

“It is an incredible threat. And I think that it’s really important that we’re starting to talk about some of the solutions.”–Elizabeth Shapiro-Garza

“What’s really tough is that climate is changing in different ways across the landscape, and it’s really hard to predict how it will change” Shapiro-Garza said. “These impacts are being felt every place where coffee is grown, but in very different ways and in ways in which it’s difficult to predict how the climate change will progress. So, it’s difficult to plan for how to adapt if you don’t know what your climate is going to be like 10 years from now.”

Small-scale Growers Are Hit Hardest

About 70% of the world’s coffee comes from smallholder farms of two hectares or less, Shapiro-Garza said. One reason those small farms are so prevalent is that arabica beans need high elevation to grow, which means farmers are planting in mountainous areas where large-scale production would be impossible.

“That means that as coffee markets go down, as production goes down, as we get further impacts on climate change, such as increases in pests and diseases and other hits to their production, those are the people who are incredibly susceptible to those kinds of economic hits,” she said. “It is affecting overall GDP of these countries, but it’s also affecting some of the most vulnerable people in those populations.”

Shapiro-Garza has conducted research on smallholder farms in Latin America and said the solution isn’t as simple as moving to a different plot.

“You don’t have the resources to buy new land,” she said. New coffee plants can take up to five years to bear fruit, “so if you think about having to move your crops someplace else, plant new bushes and wait five years to get any production, that’s a huge risk.”

Hoffman agreed, saying small-scale farmers have limited capacity. They can’t afford to invest in irrigation or make radical changes. Even if they could move “up-slope,” they don’t own that land, and doing so could lead to further deforestation.

“At that local level, on that farm level, the challenges are pretty severe,” he said.

Given those challenges, it would seem that large-scale farms would fare better. But the experts pointed out that high-quality beans need elevation, which can’t be found in expansive tracts.

Consumers Will Notice the Decline

While the research released last month painted a dire picture for the future of coffee, consumers aren’t yet feeling the widespread effects of supply chain problems. Java seems as abundant as ever, with endless varieties in stock on supermarket shelves and corner cafes popping up all the time.

But the experts said coffee lovers eventually will feel the impact. Prices will go up, quality will go down, and premium beans will be harder to find.

“And some of our choices may just disappear. Some of the particular specialty coffees will just no longer be on the market.”–Michael Hoffman

“The production worldwide is such right now that the consumer is not yet feeling that,” Shapiro-Garza said. “But as time goes on, it might mean that you go to your favorite coffee shop or the grocery store to buy a bag of specialty coffee, and the quality just won’t be the same, or you can’t get the same types of coffee that you’re used to. The other thing that will be hit over time is actual overall production, which could lead to price increases as well.”

Hoffman noted that coffee prices have gone up in the short term, but not enough to change consumer purchasing behavior. That will change long term, he said.

“And some of our choices may just disappear,” he said. “Some of the particular specialty coffees will just no longer be on the market.”

Coffee isn’t the only commodity affected by climate change. In his book, Our Changing Menu: What Climate Change Means to the Foods We Need and Love, Hoffman explains how human activity is threatening a number of food staples around the globe. Heat, carbon emissions, water quality and other environmental factors are lowering the quantity and nutritional quality of wheat, rice, corn, cacao and other crops.

“In one way or another, everything on the menu is changing,” he said.

What’s Being Done to Save Coffee

From small-scale farmers to big producers, those involved in the coffee supply chain are taking steps to save the vital crop. In areas that are heating up, some farmers are planting larger trees to shade the smaller coffee plants underneath them, Hoffman said. In Latin America, governments that are dependent on coffee are investing in research to make more resilient plants, Shapiro-Garza said.

Sellers are responding, too. Starbucks, for example, is working with farmers to help provide seeds, monitor production and develop different strategies. Starbucks said it’s sharing the information it collects about adaptive farming techniques with other coffee farmers around the globe.

“It may be hard for people to understand why we are sharing all this information,” Schultz told Time. “If we don’t, there’s going to be tremendous adverse pressure on the coffee industry.”

The experts applaud the efforts underway to keep the java flowing, but they remain concerned about the crop’s long-term success.

“There are a lot of different initiatives that are moving forward within the industry to support coffee farmers in changing their practices in adapting to climate change, to looking to other areas where they could produce coffee as another strategy,” Shapiro-Garza said. “But it’s a tough problem for a lot of reasons.”