Nature blasts Swiss anti-immigration referendum

As part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, Swiss voters recently approved immigration caps by a narrow margin. This means that the country, which has remained independent of the European Union, will no longer be able to continue to allow the free movement of labour with its neighbours (a fundamental plank of the EU).

It’s not clear yet how much the Swiss government is going to clamp down on immigration but the vote has already attracted condemnation from the editorial board of the leading scientific journal, Nature. They note that the move was fuelled by xenophobia rather than rational debate:

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

I’m encouraged to see Nature weigh into this debate. Often scientists are wary of stepping into political debates – either for pragmatic reasons (you need to keep everyone happy to keep funding up) or personal disinterest (they’d rather focus on their experiments). But in USA under George Bush and in Canada under Harper, we see a continued assault on science and pure research by those who would rather focus on industry and climate change denialism.

Similarly, immigration debates have a huge impact on the exchange of ideas. Here in the UK, there are many stories of professors, professionals with PhDs, who are unable to secure the proper visa to begin employment, due to draconian anti-immigration laws.

Discriminatory engineers?

One of my undergraduate classmates linked to an article on a recent Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal finding that Alberta’s professional association for engineers (APEGA, formerly APEGGA – which it’s referred to in the decision) discriminated against an international applicant. APEGA is already planning to appeal the decision.

The 67 page decision is available on the APEGA website.

So what happened?

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Is the Humanist brand dying?

It’s no secret that the term humanism (or secular humanism) have never really taken off. Simply ask a random sampling of people on the street and you’ll likely be met with blank stares.

Now regardless of the utility of a word, I think it’s important for organizations to choose language that will be widely understood. If a word has little cultural understanding, then it may be too difficult for any one organization to aim to reclaim it or to bring it to prominence.

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Supreme Court strikes down Canada’s prostitution laws

A few weeks ago I did a “mini-cruise” to Amsterdam. We spent two nights on a ferry (which was really a small cruise ship) and had about 6 hours to explore the infamous capital of The Netherlands.

During that time, we walked through De Wallen, Amsterdam’s red light district where prostitutes stand in windows in their undergarments, advertising to potential clients. The entire practice is fully legal, regulated, and generally safe (though perpetually controversial).

It may now be a glimpse of Canada’s future as the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, has ruled that the governments laws against prostitution do not stand up against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, the exchange of money for sex is not illegal in Canada, but (1) living off the profits, (2) advertising, and (3) running a brothel were. This combination of rules made it effectively illegal as one could be arrested for soliciting sex on the street, could not operate out of their own or a shared premise, and could not hire security or bodyguards.

Because of the dangers created by working the streets, a number of sex workers and their supporters from various civil liberties and legal defence groups in Ontario challenged the laws in the Ontario Supreme Court. That court overturned the laws but the government won appeal at the Court of Appeal.

This lead to the showdown in the Supreme Court of Canada today, which has the final say on the issue. Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, who tends to write brilliant decisions, wrote for the unanimous majority:

The appeals should be dismissed and the cross?appeal allowed.  Sections 210, 212(1)(j) and 213(1)(c) of the Criminal Code are declared to be inconsistent with the Charter.  The declaration of invalidity should be suspended for one year.

This verdict is very similar to the Morgentaler decision, which ruled that Canada’s abortion laws infringed upon a woman’s right to security of the person but granted Parliament a year to draft new legislation.

Brian Mulroney’s government actually did pass a bill through the House of Commons but it died in the Senate (our unelected chamber) in a tie vote. Since then, Canada has had no legal restriction on abortions (instead it is now treated as the medical procedure that it is).

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are now in the awkward position of having to draft a law on a highly controversial topic – something they have opted not to do at every turn for the entirety of their time in power.

Not that I like to be in the position of giving advice to the government, but one potential option might be to criminalize prostitution itself. The entire ruling dealt with Canada’s way of making a legal activity incredibly dangerous. I suspect that this is the direction that will likely come about (although I haven’t read the full background to the decision) and would also probably be supported by the Liberal Party and maybe even Mulcair’s NDP (because unfortunately no one really wants to be seen as on the side of the prostitutes).

Despite the progress Canada made in the 1990s and early 2000s, I don’t think it’s quite reached the permissive attitude of The Netherlands.