When Canada did – and didn’t – stand up for human rights

David Webster, Bishop’s University

Justin Trudeau’s government is under fire not only from Saudi government officials, but also from some Canadians who have implictly criticized Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for being too aggressive in advocating for the release of Saudi human rights activists.

A tweet from the minister expressed her support for the activists, while her department followed up the next day with another seeking the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

None of it was anything unusual: Western diplomats call for the “immediate release” of political prisoners all the time.

Canada’s Parliament unanimously called for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (Samar’s brother) in 2015. That followed a similar unanimous motion for Badawi’s “immediate release” by the Quebec National Assembly.

The same U.S. State Department official who now asks Canada and Saudi Arabia to sort out their dispute called on Russia earlier this year to “immediately release” Ukrainian prisoners. Navi Pillai, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Saudi authorities in 2014 “to immediately release all human rights defenders.” Saudi Arabia imposed no sanctions on the U.N. – instead it stayed in, and soon afterwards sought and won a seat on U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown,” nine U.N. experts added in June 2018 — again prompting no Saudi attack on the UN or its Human Rights Council (of which the Saudi kingdom remains a member).

Nothing remarkable

So there’s little remarkable in Freeland’s anodyne call on Twitter for the “immediate release” of two Saudi activists. It is typical diplomatic language, and actually falls short of what the United Nations human rights system has said on several occasions.

What is remarkable is that Saudi government reaction has allowed Canada to be portrayed as a human rights champion even as it continues to arm Saudi Arabia and thus implicitly accepts Saudi human rights violations.

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Now in Open Access: Flowers in the Wall

Flowers cover imageFlowers in the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Melanesia is now available for free Open Access download, thanks to University of Calgary Press.

Click to access downloadable pdf version

What is the experience of truth and reconciliation? What is the purpose of a truth commission? What lessons can be learned from established truth and reconciliation processes?

Flowers in the Wall explores the experience of truth and reconciliation Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, with and without a formal truth commission.

For more see the project web site: Truth & Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia & Melanesia.

Contents

Flourish Everlastingly

Poem by Abe Barreto Soares

1 Introduction: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and Melanesia

David Webster

2 Incomplete Truth, Incomplete Reconciliation: Towards a Scholarly Verdict on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

Sarah Zwierzchowski

 

SECTION I

Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste

3 East Timor: Legacies of Violence

Geoffrey Robinson

4 Shining Chega!’s Light into the Cracks

Pat Walsh

5 Politika Taka Malu, Censorship, and Silencing: Virtuosos of Clandestinity and One’s Relationship to Truth and Memory

Jacqueline Aquino Siapno

6 Development and Foreign Aid in Timor-Leste after Independence

Laurentina “mica” Barreto Soares

7 Reconciliation, Church, and Peacebuilding

Jess Agustin

8 Human Rights and Truth

Fernanda Borges

9 Chega! for Us: Socializing a Living Document

Maria Manuela Leong Pereira

 

SECTION I I

Memory, Truth-seeking, and the 1965 Mass Killings in Indonesia

10 Cracks in the Wall: Indonesia and Narratives of the 1965 Mass Violence

Baskara T. Wardaya

11 The Touchy Historiography of Indonesia’s 1965 Mass Killings: Intractable Blockades?

Bernd Schaefer

12 Writings of an Indonesian Political Prisoner

Gatot Lestario

 

SECTION III

Local Truth and Reconciliation in Indonesia

13 Gambling with Truth: Hopes and Challenges for Aceh’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation

Lia Kent and Rizki Affiat

14 All about the Poor: An Alternative Explanation of the Violence in Poso

Arianto Sangadji

 

SECTION IV

Where Indonesia meets Melanesia: Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua

15 Facts, Feasts, and Forests: Considering Approaches to Truth and Reconciliation in Tanah Papua

Todd Biderman and Jenny Munro

16 The Living Symbol of Song in West Papua: A Soul Force to be Reckoned With

Julian Smythe

17 Time for a New US Approach toward Indonesia and West Papua

Edmund McWilliams

 

SECTION V

Memory, Truth, and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands

18 The Solomon Islands “Ethnic Tension” Conflict and the Solomon Islands Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Terry M. Brown

19 Women and Reconciliation in Solomon Islands

Betty Lina Gigisi

 

SECTION VI

Bringing it Home

20 Reflecting on Reconciliation

Maggie Helwig

21 Conclusion: Seeking Truth about Truth-seeking

David Webster

 

 

Oxfam Canada and relief to East Timor, 1975-76

1.2.1Originally published by the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History, 13 April 2017.

When does the humanitarian impulse to provide aid and relief contribute to activism to promote human rights? When does it prompt avoidance of activism in favour of quietly enduring access to places and people in need?

This is one of the questions I am trying to answer in current research on relations between Canada and East Timor. Under Indonesian military occupation from 1975 to 1999, Canadian aid agencies tended to shy away from criticizing Indonesian actions in order to make sure they could deliver aid supplies. Humanitarian impulses dictated a quiet stance on human rights from a range of Canadian NGOs.  But there was an early exception, in the work of Oxfam Canada.

The small half-island country of East Timor was invaded by the army of Indonesia, the regional giant of Southeast Asia, at the end of 1975. Under Indonesian military occupation, more than 100,000 people died in what some observers called “tantamount to genocide.” Canada was among the many Western governments that backed Indonesian rule as “an accomplished and irreversible fact.” It wasn’t, of course: East Timorese fought on with guerrilla resistance, clandestine non-violent organizing, and diplomatic struggles, until they won the right to hold a referendum in 1999. After the vote went overwhelmingly for independence, an interim United Nations administration took over the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste formally regained its independence in 2002.

When are the beginnings of Canadian support for East Timor? Finding an answer to this sort of question requires interrogating both government and non-government archival sources. It’s only in 1983 that protest letters start to appear in the Timor file of Canada’s Department of External Affairs (after several name changes, External is now part of Global Affairs Canada). But it turns out that relying on the government records comes up with the wrong answer.

In fact, Canadian efforts to send humanitarian aid to East Timor began in 1975 before the Indonesian invasion, continued afterwards, and included efforts to lobby the Canadian government. These were not successful efforts – and there is no trace in the External Affairs documentary record – but they laid the groundwork for subsequent Canadian support for East Timor amongst humanitarian networks.

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In memoriam George Aditjondro

20161220_204557_resized“Academics are too caught up in comfort and too often afraid,” George Aditjondro told me in Vancouver back in 1997. It’s not a trap he fell into.

Friends are marking the death of George Aditjondro this month. The Indonesian professor and activist taught many people formally and, I imagine, even more people informally. I didn’t study with him, except on a rather makeshift course in Portugal one summer in which he tried to free a group of human rights activists of some of our illusions about Indonesia. But in remembering him this month, I’m recalling some informal lessons.

George Aditjondro taught me that Canada and Indonesia were more enmeshed than I’d imagined on the level of daily life. He grabbed a package of instant noodles and showed how the noodles tied Saskatchewan wheat farmers to Javanese farm labourers through a chain running from the prarie farm, through the Canadian government’s wheat marketing board, to buyers in Indonesia dominated by one of President Suharto’s cronies, to Indonesian labourers needing a quick and cheap snack while they worked the rice fields. The result? Indomie, or Indonoodles, easy to make and cheap to buy, and owned by PT Indofood Sukses Makmur, itself part of the Salim Group controlled by Indonesia’s Liem family, one of the world’s richest families – which got its start when Fujianese migrant Liem Sioe Liong became quartermaster to an Indonesian soldier named Suharto, who in 1965 led a slow coup and plunged Indonesia into three decades of dictatorship.

As George Aditjondro told this story, it was 1997 and we were getting ready to protest the arrival of Suharto in Vancouver for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit. I thought noodles were just about noodles. In a few minutes, George Aditjondro taught me they were also about global capitalism and how trade linked the everyday to global politics, and farmers across oceans to each other, and economics to human rights. I was just trying to finish off a B.A. and doing a bit of East Timor support work on the side. “Have you read Gramsci?” he asked. It’s not a name I knew. “Antonio Gramsci,” he explained. “Read some Gramsci, and then maybe we can talk about this again one day.”

“George was known as a passionate critic of what he saw as corrupt power,” reads his obituary in the Jakarta Post. “During the Soeharto regime he researched the business empire of the ‘Cendana family’, referring to Soeharto’s family that resided on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta.” Earlier, and the obituary is quieter on this, it meant he spoke up for human rights in East Timor and Papua (then officially called Irian Jaya). That cost him a safe academic postings, though (through the work of some supporters in the academic world) it also brought him a new post in Australia. For me he was an example of solid research connected to his “research subjects,” and of the sort of teaching outside the classroom that’s an all too rare skill.

Two offerings from the files of George Aditjondro’s work: a piece he wrote in the 1980s on Indonesian NGO collaboration with indigenous Papuan communities, and a table laying out the details of Indonesian monopolies in East Timor that he produced in the 1990s.

George Aditjondro, Non-governmental organizations’ collaboration with indigenous communities in Irian Jaya…” (1988)

George Adijondro, Indonesian monopolies in East Timor, TAPOL occasional report 24

 

25 years since the Santa Cruz massacre

img_4818

Monument to Sebastiao Gomes, killed in 1991, Dili, Timor-Leste (2015 photo)

This sentence has been written a thousand times: On 12 November 1991, Indonesian soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, killing more than 250 people and injuring many more. The massacre was neither the first nor the last in the period of Indonesian military occupation, which lasted from 1975 to 1999, but one thing was different: it was the first time international journalists were present as witnesses, the first time a massacre in East Timor was captured on film, the first time that foreign citizens were among those killed and beaten. The film footage screened around the world, leading to a wave of outrage and activism. The fuller story has been told many times – Clinton Fernandes’ Companion to East Timor being one of the most accessible.

25 years later, East Timor is independent as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (first declared days before the Indonesian invasion in 1975). In the final days of Indonesian rule, some outside governments started to support Timorese self-determination (Canada did so in 1998, for instance).

At the time of the Santa Cruz massacre, however, those governments did not. Documentary evidence continues to emerge and much is still hidden. But what there is shows that Western governments knew very well what had happened; that it was a cold-blooded act of revenge (in the words of one US State department official days later, speaking to a Canadian counterpart) by Indonesian soldiers; and that many more were killed than the Indonesian government would admit. Some outside governments raised concerns with the Indonesian government, but none shifted to support the Timorese right to self-determination. In the days following the Santa Cruz massacre, only one G7 country – Canada – suspended any aid. Denmark and the Netherlands were the only other Western countries to link aid to human rights. No country linked trade or went further than raising concerns on human rights grounds.

As documents continue to emerge, I share here two new documents from the days immediately after the Santa Cruz massacre, from Canadian government archives. The first is an initial report on what happened that day, from the Canadian embassy in Jakarta. The story was much worse than had been thought, the embassy reported. The army’s story was false, people in Timor were “terrified,” and it seemed that army officers had decided deliberately to shoot protesters in cold blood. The document indicates that Western governments knew, almost immediately, that the massacre was deliberate and that the Indonesian army was being dishonest.

Canadian embassy report on Santa Cruz massacre, dated 14 Nov. 1991: cej-massacre-report-1991-11-14

Despite this knowledge, few Western governments planned anything more than verbal protest to the Indonesian government. A second report from the Canadian embassy one week after the massacre indicates that no Western embassy in Jakarta had received any instructions to take any concrete action, other than words of concern. After a meeting of 12 Western and ASEAN embassy political counsellors, “general impression was business as usual.” Only Canada had decided to review its aid to Indonesia. Only 4 of the 12 countries (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States) had made official protests over the massacre. No country had altered plans for official visits to Indonesia or East Timor, including military visits.

Canadian embassy report on meeting of embassy political counsellors, Jakarta, dated 20 Nov. 1991: cej-embassies-meeting-report-1991-10-20

International support for Timorese self-determination began to increase after the Santa Cruz massacre,  but the inclination of most governments in the days that immediately followed the massacre was, in the words of the Canadian embassy in Jakarta, to carry on with “business as usual.” It is only as Timorese resistance continued and public protest in the Western countries mounted that any Western government started to look at taking action any stronger than words.

The pattern of UN technical assistance, 1954

Where did United Nations technical assistance advisors in the early years come from? Where did they go? A comprehensive “experts list” from 1954 provides the data to answer.

The UN created a Technical Assistance Administration (TAA) and started sending out technical assistance advisors in the early 1950s. I’ve written about the TAA’s short, strange history elsewhere. But what nationality were the “experts” chosen to go overseas? Which countries were the darlings of the TAA, receiving the most advisors? The 1954 list helps to answer those questions.

experts-by-nationality

In August 1954, the TAA had 398 experts on its list. Of those, 70 held American nationality. The UK followed with 63 and France stood third, with 49. Canada (23), the Netherlands (22) and Sweden (18) led a large number of other countries. But this is a crude measure. One advisor was listed as “stateless.” One man listed as British was in a long-drawn out process of obtaining Canadian citizenship. Others were dual citizens. What stands out is the domination of Europe and North America, of course, but also a striking diversity within this – no country approached 20%.

Where did they go? The TAA favoured middle-sized countries seen as having good potential for the sort of economic development the TAA appreciated. Some advisors were posted to UN headquarters or regional projects. Of the 352 working in defined countries, the largest group (28) was in Burma, followed by Turkey (25), Bolivia, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia (24 each), and then Iran and Pakistan (21 each).

experts-by-destination-country-1954

While India led the way as the biggest recipient of aid dollars in the 1950s, TAA advisors spread out. (India tried to be a source of experts, especially in Asia, contributing to a pattern in which lower-income countries sent advisors within their region – Latin American and Middle Eastern states sent quite a few advisors to their neighbours.)

In those seven biggest destination countries for TAA advisors, no country was dominant enough in experts to dominate the technical assistance field. The largest national contingent stood at 8 (French advisors in Iran). British in Bolivia, Americans in Turkey, Swedes in Yugoslavia – none over a third in any destination country.

field-and-home-country

The TAA tried to paint itself as diverse. In the range of its advisors’ home and destination countries, it did better than many to reach that goal.

Australia “anchor of instability” faces increased tensions

 

If the media wrote about wealthy countries the way they write about the Third World:

CANBERRA — The unstable South Pacific nation of Australia has had another chaotic election that leaves the strife-torn country’s future in doubt.

Notorious for its defiance of international law in the contentious and oil-rich Timor Sea, Australia supreme leader Malcolm Turnbull is presiding over a time of economic uncertainty. After a tension-wrought election in which he changed the electoral rules in order to sweep out members of the country’s upper chamber who were thwarting his will, the fractious island country faces the prospect of a fifth prime minister in six years as Turnbull’s party colleagues sharpen their knives against him.

 

 

Upside-Down-World-mid

A nationalist map popular in Australia because it shows that country at top centre rather than in its usual marginal spot.

 

Mr Turnbull came to power in an internal coup against his party colleague Tony Abbott, a practice so common it is known in Australia by the tribal term “leadership spill.” He toppled rival Tony Abbott in a bloodless putsch some years after Abbott had done the same to him. The opposition Labor party (which spells its name using the spelling system of Australia’s main international patron, the United States) was equally prone to internal coups during its own time in power. Australian politics is uniquely prone to this sort of lightning coup, though the country’s parties have succeeded in removing violence from the “leadership spill.”

The international community now fears further instability and tensions post-election as factions unhappy with the result mobilize. The government – an uneasy coalition of at least four parties formed for electoral convenience – furiously accuses its Labor rivals of dishonest campaigning. Labor leader Bill Shorten has demanded that Mr Turnbull resign after his promise to deliver “stability” led to yet another chaotic and ungovernable parliament. The two men represent the two largest states in the diverse federation, raising the prospect of tensions between New South Wales and Victoria – a rivalry so fraught that a former government was forced to build a new capital city halfway between the two states. Can the Australian federation, rife with ethnic tensions which have seen the rise of the European tribalist One Nation party, survive as a united country? 

Australia’s vote counting goes on slowly, days after people went to the polling booths to mark the complex voting papers that law requires them to fill out.

Australia seems likely to remain the “anchor of instability” providing regional troubles for more mature regional democracies such as Timor-Leste. As Australians face the prospect of another early election and await the slow counting of their votes to see which of the two major factions will govern them in the weeks to come, calls are mounting for greater international scrutiny of this beautiful but tension-torn island.

Failing Fragile States: Canada and East Timor 1975-99

Opening section of my chapter in the new book From Kinshasa to Kandahar: Canada and Fragile States in Historical Perspective, just out from University of Calgary Press. This is a free e-book available for download in e-book format or chapter-by-chapter as pdf.

Canada’s approach to failed and fragile states has been linked to the wave of decolonization that swept Asia and Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and its often chaotic aftermath. One decolonization that made small but still noticeable ripples in Ottawa was the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, normally referred to as East Timor. This small half-island state joined its fellow Portuguese colonies Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau in starting on the path to independence in 1974. After an internal conflict, it declared independence on 28 November 1975. Yet, just over a week later, on 7 December, Indonesian troops launched a full-scale invasion. The subsequent twenty-four years of military occupation cost some 200,000 lives out of a population of 680,000 people, a bloody toll that, along with the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, knows few parallels in modern Southeast Asian history. In 1999, finally, a United Nations (UN) referendum saw the Timorese vote overwhelmingly for independence. Under an interim UN administration, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste regained its independence in 2002, using the same name and flying the same flag as the short-lived state of 1975. Amidst some post-independence troubles, it celebrated the tenth anniversary of regaining independence in 2012, a year also marked by its third free election and a peaceful transition of power. The government changed again peacefully in 2015, when the prime minister stepped down in favour of a leading member of the major opposition party.

In 1975, East Timor was called an impossible state, too small and poor to do anything but fail. Similar rhetoric preceded East Timor’s passage to independence in 1999, and continues into the twenty-first century. Constructivist political scientists have pointed out that rhetoric matters: the languages used to describe overseas conflicts often shape how Western publics view faraway lands and underpin government policy decisions about them. The argument of this chapter is that this rhetoric of state failure is derived from outside, not based on any reality on the ground. More importantly, the rhetoric of “failure” has helped to construct the very thing it warns against. If a state like East Timor is a “failed” state, the “failure” comes from outside.

It is worth taking into account some of what has been written to challenge the prevailing notion of “failed states.” With regard to Haiti, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin has suggested “that ‘failed’ could also be used the way ‘disappeared’ is now used in Latin America: as an active verb. Countries can ‘fail’ other countries, the way the police or army ‘disappear’ protesters.” This does not suggest a simple failure to act; it means that at times the “international community”—meaning, usually, Western governments—works actively to ensure failure through intervention, economic pressure, or other means. The constructed image of a state as “failed” can then be used to justify intervention, as it has been in Afghanistan.

Click over to UCP to read the rest of the chapter or the whole book.

Colonial baggage: Canada considers a colony in Armenia

armenia cartoonWhen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently declared that Canada lacked the “baggage” of a colonial past, he was taking a step beyond his predecessor Stephen Harper’s claim that Canada had “no history of colonialism.” Trudeau conceded that the Canadian government had acted in colonial ways towards Indigenous peoples, but that it had not done so outside its borders.

As Christo Aivalis has recently written on activehistory.ca, there is plenty of baggage in Canada’s history in the British Empire and its colonial-style relationships with the global South. In fact, Canada once debated obtaining a colony, coming close to ruling over Armenia after the First World War. This was a time when several countries grabbed new colonies under a “mandate” from the League of Nations: Britain took Palestine, Iraq, Tanganyika, and other African territories; France took Syria, Cameroon, Togo, and more; Japan grabbed some Pacific islands. The British dominions got in on the act as well, carving up piece of the former German colonial empire: Australia took a slice of New Guinea; New Zealand took Samoa; and South Africa grabbed Namibia. There were no German colonies near Canada, but policymakers in Ottawa speculated about taking over some British-ruled pieces of the West Indies, perhaps even the Falkland Islands.

Canada’s colonial gaze fell most directly, however, on Turkish-ruled Armenia. This part of the former Ottoman Empire experienced a brutal genocide during the First World War. Genocide in Armenia engaged Canadian church and public sympathy, and considerable Canadian charitable aid. Armenia had been slated for a potential League of Nations mandate administered by the United States. When the United States remained outside the League, the search was on for other possible mandatory powers. First-choice Norway proving unwilling, British delegate Lord Curzon informed a League meeting that Canada would take the mandate. The news came as a surprise in Ottawa, which issued a swift denial that any such proposal was under consideration.

There is more to the story, however. As Aram Adjemian recounts, the fact that Canada could be announced as committed was the result of extensive campaigning by missionaries and The Globe newspaper for relief aid to Armenians facing mass killings. The relief campaign drew on images of Turkish cruelty and the persecution of Armenian Christians. George Munro Grant and other stalwarts of Canadian imperialism had raised $30,000 for Armenian relief in the 1890s; a campaign in The Globe in the early months of 1920 raised $300,000. As Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa assumed colonial mandates under League of Nations auspices, it was natural that some Canadians considered taking on the same “duty.” The Globe, for instance, ran a front-page cartoon suggesting that Canadian troops might have to accompany Canadian relief supplies.

Elite voices in Canada called for the country to take up the “duty” of a mandate. Canada, argued H. F. Angus in The University Magazine, had the qualities needed for a mandatory power: strength adequate to the task, disinterestedness, enterprise, responsibility, idealism, and reasonableness. The Canadian cabinet fuelled expectations that it might take on the mandate by noting that it was “absolutely opposed to return of any Armenian provinces of Turkey to Turkish rule.” (This and other Canadian documents are available in the print editions of the marvellous series Documents on Canadian External Relations.) That month (April 1920), Curzon made his claim that Canada stood ready to take on a mandate. In November, the League passed a resolution calling for an armed force to halt hostilities in Turkish Armenia and invited Canada among others to take part; in a one-sentence telegram, Prime Minister Arthur Meighen’s government refused to do so. Meighen was soon out of power, but Mackenzie King was no keener to deploy troops to Turkey. Meighen’s government did respond to public sympathy for the Armenians by voting (with just seven others, and in opposition to Britain and the other Dominions) to admit Armenia to the League of Nations in December 1920.

Advocacy of the Canadian mandate proposal continued. A mandate would be “a fine thing,” in the words of one typical appeal from 1921, penned by L.P. Chambers in The Globe:

Such an act would put Canada “on the map” in international affairs; would give Canada a new sense of nationhood arising out of the assumption of a new responsibility; would place on Canada her share of the “white man’s burden” and thus serve to justify the fast-waning confidence of the Armenian people in the humanitarian idealism of the Anglo-Saxons, and finally would give Canadian enterprise, political, industrial and commercial, a fine field for effort and adventure.

Canadian debates over the possibility of taking on a colonial mandate over a Third World territory underlined the link between empire and an emerging Canadian diplomatic self-image as an advocate of justice. Only the conclusion of a new treaty more favourable to Turkey ended talk of a mandate for Armenia once and for all. Canada, however, had very definitely considered becoming a colonial power overseas. The pressure to do so had drawn on images of a backward and barbaric Turk and on the duties that fell to noble humanitarian Anglo-Saxons—Canada as much as other colonial powers.

(An earlier version of this post appears in my chapter in the book Canada and the Third World: Overlapping Histories. Thanks for research assistance go to Jessica Morais.)

 

How to show (and yet hide at the same time) linguistic diversity

There’s a great graphic making the rounds online:

Infographic: The Countries With The Most Spoken Languages | Statista

Which is fascinating: linguistic diversity lives in Papua New Guinea more than anywhere else in the world. Indonesia (boosted by West Papuan numbers as well as its own vast store of languages) holds down second spot. Nigeria, India, the USA and China are also leaders.

The graphic (and its source web page) shows something important: linguistic diversity. But it also conceals which are the most linguistically diverse regions by simply adding up the number of “living languages” spoken in each country. So the top countries, other than PNG, are mostly just the world’s largest countries (minus Japan, a country rarely accused of linguistic diversity).

Credit for the source data goes to Ethnologue‘s table of “living languages.” But scroll down and there’s a better measure of linguistic diversity that considers number of languages relative to the country’s size. PNG is still tops, cramming more than 10% of the world’s spoken languages into one country that takes up half of the incredibly diverse island of New Guinea. (The other half of the island is swallowed up in high-population Indonesia, though West Papua is also remarkably diverse – a factor that boosts its movement for independence from Indonesia.) But languages compared to total population? The most diverse list runs like this:

  1. Papua New Guinea
  2. Cameroon
  3. Vanuatu
  4. Solomon Islands
  5. Central African Republic

Run down the list further for many more African countries in high spots. Africa and the Pacific – and especially Melanesia, the “African Pacific” – dominate. The USA and China are well back, though India, Nigeria and Indonesia still display a high degree of diversity. In other words, the map like so many makes the world’s most powerful countries look more important on this measure than they really are. And of course it masks the dominance of a dominant majority language in both China and the USA.

Among “Western” countries, Canada is ranked with the highest linguistic diversity. Which raises another issue with the graphic: an erasing of Indigenous languages in the global North. The definition of “living language” is a language with at least one person speaking it as their first language. That, too, could begin to erase First Nations languages in Canada from the statistics even if they live on as the second language of significant numbers of people.

Ironically, Wikipedia maps it better (though small countries are still hard to see: Timor-Leste with a million people and at least 20 languages is invisible, for instance). Here’s their image of global linguistic diversity based on the same index used by Ethnologue:

Ethnologue_18_linguistic_diversity_index_BlankMap-World6.svg