Fellows in Action

1. Fellows Speaking

The Green Economy Paradox: A Critical Inquiry into Sustainability Indexes

In April 2015, Fellow in Residence Oren Perez (Faculty of Law, Bar-Ilan University) and a specialist in international relations, conflict processes, and foreign policy, elaborated on his research in progress, the “Green Economy Paradox”, in which he challenges the claim that the goals of (classical) economic growth and sustainable development can be achieved concurrently.

Large-scale land acquisitions and human rights in the developing world

In a seminar organized and co-presented in December 2013 by Fellow in Residence Semahagn Abebe, four panelists discussed the reality of what are popularly known as ‘land grabs’ in Africa. The discussion included the contractual realities of these inequitable land transfer agreements, often facilitated by governments, which are often found to be unenforceable when promises and contractual obligations are not fulfilled. The panelists also explored the impact of large-scale land acquisitions on the local communities affected by the land transfer and the unfulfilled obligations, and the significance of such practises on the future of the world food supply. Winter 2014 Fellow Dzodzi Tsikata has also published extensively on such issues.

Engaging Moral Business amidst Uncertainties: Fostering Democracy in the New Indonesia

In a lunchtime seminar in November 2015, Fellow in Residence Pranoto Iskandar (Founding Director, The Institute for Migrant Rights, Indonesia), gave a personal, and frequently moving “from the trenches” account about the challenges of starting up an NGO in an authoritarian state. This talk included significant detail about the Indonesian legal, political, and academic context, but ultimately set out a roadmap for success (so far), that included finding the right location, making the right friends, and the value of academic credentials.

Like Your Own Child? Employer’s Perspectives and the Regulation of Domestic Work in Ghana

In March 2014, Fellow in Residence Professor Dzodzi Tsikata, a specialist in women’s studies, labour law, and social research and policy discussed her work on women’s organization in Ghana in recent years, and in particular the move toward institutionalization, rather than regulation, of previously informal labour arrangements such as domestic work, as well as hiring practices and working conditions for domestic workers. She also discussed some initiatives in progress to improve regulation of this informal industry.

The Syrian Crisis: Challenging Dominant Narratives

In October 2015, Tanya Monforte, former Director of the International Human Rights Law Program at the American University in Cairo, convened a roundtable featuring Centre member Frédéric Mégret, Canada Research Chair in the Law of Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (McGill); and Stefan Winter, a scholar of the history of the Middle East and the Maghreb (Department of History, UQAM). The panel canvassed a variety of approaches to explore the origins of the conflict of the Syrian Civil War and its impacts regionally and globally.

2015 Annual Graduate Law Students Conference: “Inside and Out: Probing the Boundaries of Law”

For both the 2014 and 2015 Graduate Student Conferences, Graduate Fellow Marika Giles Samson designed and convened a pre-conference presentation skills workshop to help students enhance their public speaking technique, presentation structure, and use of technology. This was followed up during the conference with a peer feedback program, which enabled participants to receive constructive, individualized critiques on the manner of their presentations.

2. Fellows Reading

Graduate Fellow Bethany Hastie organized the Critical Human Rights Reading Group in 2012-2013

Led by Bethany Hastie, the Critical Human Rights Reading Group met six times over the course of the 2012-13 academic year, engaging graduate students from the Faculty of Law in discussing readings such as Joseph Slaughter’s “Narration in International Human Rights Law”, Jack Donnelly’s “The Relative Universality of Human Rights”, and Upendra Baxi’s “Voices of Suffering and the Future of Human Rights”.

Former Graduate Fellow Futsum Abbay coordinated and hosted a Disability and the Law Reading Group in 2013-2014

During the 2013-2014 academic year, the reading group met three times to explore topics relating to disability rights. The goal was to initiate a reading group on disability rights law and policy and to create a less formal forum for exchanging research initiatives and ideas on disability rights issues among faculty members and students within McGill University. The topics explored were: “The Right to Life or the Right to Die?”; “A Comparative Perspective of Disability Law in Europe, Africa and the Americas”; and “Disability, Accessibility and Public Spaces”. All the three reading group discussions raised crucial issues in the context of the rights of persons with disabilities.

Graduate Fellow Rokeya Chowdhury organized a Legal Pluralism Reading Group in Winter 2015

In 2015, Rokeya Chowdhury, Graduate Fellow and Centre member, initiated a Reading Group on Legal Pluralism to provide a forum for graduate students to think and rethink the scholarship on legal pluralism. Three consecutive monthly sessions of the reading group (January-March) progressed through key literature in the area, culminating in a fourth and final session on April 22, 2015 with Fellow in Residence, Professor Oren Perez. The reading group helped the participants to engage in a conversation on legal pluralism from their diverse experiences, understanding and insights.

3. Fellows Graduating (a sample)

Bethany Hastie “Migrant labour and the making of unfreedom: how the law facilitates exclusion and exploitation under Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs” (May 2015)

Carlos Ivan Fuentes, "Normative plurality in international law: The impact of international human rights law in the doctrine of sources of international law" (March 2014)

Amar Khoday, "Legitimizing resistance? International refugee law and the protection of individuals resisting oppression" (February 2014)

Edin Hodžić, "The (not so) gentle civilizer of consociations?: International human rights law and the challenges of group political rights"
(May 2014)

Futsum Testafion Abbay, “Disability rights in Africa: towards a citizenship approach” (November 2012)

4. Fellows Teaching (Highlights)

Judge Anthony Fernando lectured on the role of the judiciary

Judge Fernando gave lectures on the protection of human rights, the rule of law, the doctrine of separation of powers, and the independence of the judiciary in both Professor Vrinda Narain’s Constitutional Law class, and the Rule of Law and Development class convened by Professor Nandini Ramanujam.

Professor Jeffrey Kahn taught the rule of law

Professor Kahn, former US Justice Department lawyer and consultant to the Russian Human Rights Council, gave a guest lecture in Critical Engagements with Human Rights (convened by Professor Nandini Ramanujam) on the relationship between fighting corruption and building the rule of law, using Russia as a case in point. Professor Kahn was also invited to lecture on freedom of movement and the use of terrorist watchlists (such as the U.S. ‘No Fly List’) in Centre Member Pearl Eliadis’ Civil Liberties class.

Semahagn Abebe convened a special course on regional governance

For the Winter 2014 term, Semahagn was invited to design, convene and teach a course in Governance and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa, allowing him both to engage with undergraduate students and to build his teaching profile. This opportunity proved highly attractive to the Human Rights Centre at the University of Connecticut who invited him for a residency immediately following his stay at McGill, encouraged him to continue his scholarship as a Scholar at Risk, and asked him to teach the same course.

Charles Ngwena speaks about equality and socioeconomic rights in South Africa

Professor Ngwena gave a lecture in Professor Colleen Sheppard’s Constitutional Law class on one of his key research areas: socioeconomic rights and progress in Africa.

Students learned Constitutional Law from Johann van der Westhuizen, one of the drafters of South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution

Justice van der Westhuizen, a very well-respected scholar as well as an accomplished jurist, discussed his experiences in both a Constitutional Law plenary facilitated by Professors Colleen Sheppard and Robert Leckey, and in the more intimate setting of Professor Vrinda Narain’s Constitutional Law class.

Vrinda Narain: “It was an honour and a privilege to have Justice van der Westhuizen of the Constitutional Court of South Africa visit our first year constitutional class. His knowledge and experience, from the drafting of the South African Constitution to hearing constitutional cases interpreting the very provisions he had helped draft, proved fascinating to the students. He was so inspiring, approachable and encouraging that as soon as the class ended, I found the students rushing to meet him to continue the discussion in his office!”

Tanya Monforte lectures on international and domestic human rights

During her time in residence, Tanya guest lectured on the law of treaties in Professor Frédéric Mégret’s International Human Rights Law, and on civil liberties and the NGO laws in Egypt, in Critical Engagements with Human Rights (convened by Interim Executive Director Marika Giles Samson).

5. Fellows in Print

Esmeralda Thornhill in her opening remarks, “I commend the CHRLP for its vision and insight in creating such a significant discursive space within the Academy, geared to promoting interdisciplinary human rights scholarship that both reflects theory and, more importantly, validates praxis and field experience.”

Full article: http://publications.mcgill.ca/droit/2012/11/19/call-to-cap-bar-and-bench/

Student publication ‘Contours: Voices of Women in Law’ interviews Professor Thornhill

Lawyer and human rights and anti-racist educator, Dr. Esmeralda M.A. Thornhill, is a Professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and was the O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism in November 2012. From 1996-2002, she was the first scholar to hold the James Robinson Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies. Professor Thornhill developed and taught Black Women: The Missing Pages from Canadian Women’s Studies at Concordia University, which was the first accredited course in Black Women’s Studies at a Canadian university. She is a member of the Barreau du Quebec and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

McGill law student and freelance journalist Lillian Boctor spoke with Dr. Thornhill in November 2012 about R v. RDS, the unfulfilled promises that this case brought forth, race literacy, women in law, racism in Canada and in legal field, and the current state of legal education in Canada.

Full article: Contours Interview with Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill

Semahagn Gashu Abebe, McGill’s first Scholar at Risk

Faculty of Law In Focus magazine article about Dr. Abebe’s life as a Scholar at Risk

A law professor from Ethiopia, Semahagn Gashu Abebe is an O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) at the Faculty of Law for the 2013-14 academic year. He is also McGill University’s first visitor from the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR).

At McGill, Abebe is free to pursue his own academic work without the fear of reprisals he had experienced prior to fleeing Ethiopia in 2007 (see sidebar). But he also contributes greatly to the richness of intellectual life at the Faculty of Law. For instance, he is teaching a post-graduate course on Governance and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa this semester, offering seminars on his areas of expertise, and working on various projects with the other O‘Brien Fellows at the CHRLP.

While in Canada, Abebe is also doing his best to raise public awareness of the real situation in Ethiopia, on behalf of those who cannot speak freely. “I decided to go public because I want to promote human rights, and I am now living in a place where I’m safe, so I wanted to speak. That is what I have to do. The human rights situation in my country is deteriorating day by day. The situation is very serious. So, how can I be quiet about that?”

Full article: http://publications.mcgill.ca/droit/2014/01/16/scholar-at-risk/

Montreal Gazette Op-Ed on ‘Saudi Arabia’s Treatment of Ethiopians Has Been Shameful’

This article portrayed the brutality employed in the 2013 deportation of 140,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia, where they had been living as undocumented workers and was published in December 2013.

Dr. Abebe also maintains an online blog and an active Google profile

Given his desire to speak for and to the people of Ethiopia, his online blog is written mostly in the Amharic language:



Tanya Monforte, Fellow in Residence, and voice for the voiceless

During and immediately after her time in residence, Tanya wrote many op-eds speaking out on human rights issues, three of which have been published on the Huffington Post website:

“Hard Talks: Moving Forward From Vienna”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tanya-monforte/hard-talks-what-to-expect_b_8435380.html Posted on November 2, 2015

“Egypt Is No Place for Dissent”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tanya-monforte/egypt-no-place-for-dissent_b_8537124.html Posted on November 11, 2015

“Egypt Shuts Down Center Documenting Torture”

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tanya-monforte/egypt-shuts-down-center-documenting-torture_b_9327704.html Posted on March 13, 2016

6. Fellows in the World

Destaw Yigzaw, former Fellow in Residence and continuing Scholar at Risk, is now a Lecturer in Law at RMIT Vietnam

Destaw’s adherence to his ideas and values, and his determined pursuit of his human rights scholarship, have come at the considerable personal cost of a life in exile from his native Ethiopia. When he came to us, he was seeking a new and safe home country, a supportive institution, and a platform for his voice. A short time after his arrival at McGill, such an opportunity came along in the form of a 3-year lectureship contract in Vietnam. While it may lack in permanence so far, it has provided in a safe haven, an institutional platform, and a supportive community of new friends and colleagues. Our best wishes to Destaw.

Semahagn G. Abebe

Semahagn G. Abebe was also a former Fellow in Residence and was McGill’s first Scholar at Risk. Scholars at Risk are an international network centred at New York University who defend scholars, values, and academic freedom in higher education. McGill is a member of the network and Nandini Ramanujam is the McGill representative. The Faculty of Law’s ability to welcome Scholars at Risk is made possible by the O’Brien Fellows in Residence program. And McGill’s engagement with the Network has been recognized: Scholars at Risk are holding their 15th Anniversary Global Congress here at the Faculty of Law in June 2016.

Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo Wondieh, former Fellow in Residence, welcomes a McGill human rights intern in Cameroon following her Centre stay

Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo Wondieh speaks about this experience:

“…Michel has been of great added value to Women for a Change… His experience has not been limited to outreach programs & community practicing, but also institutional visits where he was allowed to observe court rulings, audit lecture sessions in the labour Code/Law in Cameroon. Among his experiences has also been tour to some rich and historic parts of Cameroon. The wealth of knowledge and education he has had within this short period of time is immeasurable.I feel very proud of his enthusiasm and commitment to impact and transform lives. Thank you all for this exchange opportunity!”

Anthony Fernando, former Fellow in Residence, is appointed to the Fijian bench

In September 2015, Anthony T. Fernando was one of two new Fijian Court of Appeal judges sworn in before the Fijian head of state and senior members of the judiciary. The Hon. Mr. Justice Anthony Fernando left behind the Seychelles where he lived and worked from 1991-2015 to join a team of twelve judges in Fiji.

Marika Giles Samson, former Graduate Fellow, appointed Interim Executive Director of the Centre for the 2015-2016 academic year

While Centre Executive Director Nandini Ramanujam takes a well-earned partial leave, Marika Giles Samson stepped in to coordinate a number of Centre programs, working closely with Centre Coordinator and O’Brien Program Administrator Sharon Webb and the new Centre Director, Professor François Crépeau. Included in her responsibilities were teaching the Fall 2016 Critical Engagements with Human Rights seminar, which is one of the two components of the Centre’s highly successful International Human Rights Internship Program, as well as interviewing and matching students to internship for the summer of 2016. Among a very heavy agenda of events and the celebration of the Centre’s 10th anniversary, Marika was also particularly proud to spearhead the organization of a conference called From Truth to Reconciliation: Towards a Just Future for the Indigenous Peoples of Canada in March 2016, in collaboration with Centre member Professor Payam Akhavan.

Marika has been an active and passionate member of the Centre since she began her doctorate as an O’Brien Graduate Fellow in 2012, and so was delighted to deepen her engagement during the 2015-2016 academic year. And when she steps down in June 2016, she will be equally delighted to get back to (and complete) the doctoral studies that brought her to McGill and to the O’Brien Program.

7. In Fellowship

We are proud of the way that the O’Brien Program not only proactively welcomes incoming Fellows, but works - long before the Fellows’ arrival - to identify potential opportunities for collaboration and engagement. These efforts begin during the selection process itself, and are spearheaded by the Program Director, Nandini Ramanujam. The Program Administrator, Sharon Webb, attends to all of the logistical details of getting the Fellows to Canada, and to plays a key role in designing and planning events during their stay. Upon arrival, each Fellow is individually welcomed by the Student Program Coordinator, and once each cohort has settled in, a welcome event is convened to introduce the Fellows to each other, the graduate fellows, and the wider CHRLP community.

This is all intended to get the ball rolling, and as will be evident from the body of this report, it rolls. But what is hard to reflect in a report such as this is perhaps the most valuable and enduring legacy of the O’Brien programs: the many informal, often undocumented ways in which the Fellows have engaged in the life of the Centre, the Faculty, and the community. We have been particularly touched by the way that Fellows in Residence have generously advised and mentored students, and the many ways in which they have shared their knowledge and expertise, and drawn upon the editorial and intellectual life of the Centre in return.

In Fall 2015, the O’Brien program welcomed three new Fellows in Residence, (Laurel Weldon (left), Pranoto Iskandar (middle), and Tanya Monforte (not pictured), two new Graduate Fellows, and a new student coordinator (Alizeh Ladak, right). All were present at a welcome lunch on September 9, the first of many occasions for them to engage with each other during the term, opportunities that were seized enthusiastically: this cohort were particularly close, attending each other’s lectures and roundtables, and providing each other with personal and editorial support.

Collaboration between the Graduate Fellows and the Fellows in Residence on the McGill Annual Graduate Conferences in Law

Fellow in Residence Annyssa Bellal chaired one of the panels in the 2014 conference, Emerging Scholars, Emerging Scholarship, a conference organized by a team of ten graduate students including graduate fellows Marika Giles Samson and Shimelis Kene.

And in 2015, Fellow in Residence Noam Schimmel, a recent PhD graduate himself from the London School of Economics, acted as a consultant in the planning of the annual McGill Graduate Students’ conference, Inside and Out: Probing the Boundaries of Law.

Collaboration between the O’Brien and Echenberg programs

O’Brien Fellow Noam Schimmel was an invaluable collaborator for Echenberg program coordinator Nadia Lefter, as well. The two worked closely together in the planning of an International Young Leaders’ forum, part of a series of Global Conferences on human rights that focused on building an international community of the next generation of human rights’ advocates, professionals, and academics.

Fellows in Residence Oren Perez and Johann van der Westhuizen each participated in a DCL Coffee Hour and engaged formally and informally with doctoral students

Oren Perez, O’Brien Fellow in Residence offered two events in one day. The first, a seminar for a general audience on the Green Economy, was moderated by joint Law and School of the Environment Professor Jaye Ellis; the second, a workshop designed to help graduate students publish their work, was organized by Graduate Fellows Marika Giles Samson and Alvaro Cordova. His publishing talk was scheduled immediately before the bi-weekly DCL Coffee Hour, which he also attended to engage more informally with doctoral students and continue the conversation.

Johann van der Weshuizen, Fellow in Residence, Judge of the South African Constitutional Court, and one of the drafters of the South African constitution after apartheid, was also invited to speak and chat informally with DCL students at a Coffee Hour. An unprecedented opportunity for graduate students, it seems to have been a great pleasure for him too, and he even handed out his business cards to students for future reference!

Justice van der Weshuizen commented about his experience at McGill: “I wish to thank Mr. David O’Brien for making the fellowship possible; Nandini Ramanujam for inviting me and for all the arrangements and introductions; Sharon Webb for not only 100% efficient support, but also her extra-curricular kindness; Colleen Sheppard, Andrea Bjorklund, Vrinda Narain, Angela Campbell, and François Crépeau for making me feel at home; and the students for showing enthusiastic interest.”

Annie Macdonald Langstaff lecture offered by Fellow in Residence Laurel Weldon

Gendered Federal Systems: Informal Institutions, Intersectionality and Change

As part of the Annie Macdonald Langstaff lecture series, which provides a forum for academics, judges, lawyers, and community activists to present scholarly research and practical insights on issues relating to women and the law, Fellow in Residence Laurel Weldon (Purdue University, photo, left, with Professors Johanne Poirier and Colleen Sheppard) presented and received feedback on a work in progress from her time on residence with the Centre, which distinguishes formal from informal institutions and theorizes the role that social movements can play in furthering gender equality. Her goal is to contribute an intersectional approach to the study of gender and federalism that takes into account both the importance of informal institutions and the role of activism in sparking change towards greater gender equality.

Fellows in Residence Esmeralda Thornhill and Tanya Monforte also offered Annie Macdonald Langstaff lectures during and following their fellowships, in 2012 and 2016, respectively. The seminar series welcomes specialists, advocates, and thinkers in women’s rights and feminist theory.

Graduate Fellows take up roles in Faculty and Centre for Human Rights initiatives

From 2014-2016, Graduate Fellow Vanessa Clermont-Isabelle assisted former Centre Director Colleen Sheppard in coordinating and organizing the Discrimination and Inclusion Network and seminar series. The focus of this interdisciplinary network is on discussing and working through issues of systemic discrimination. This is of particular interest to Vanessa given her intention to practise in the area of labour and employment law and her desire to use law as an instrument of social justice.

For the 2015-2016 academic year, Graduate Fellow Bwighane Mwenifumbo (left) joined the team of student coordinators to contribute to the Disability & the Law seminar series. She acted as seminar rapporteur for two of the four seminars, and also assisted in organizing a disability-related dance performance on International Disability Day, December 3. Participating in this seminar series has enriched Bwighane’s research in disability law and introduced her to the Canadian context.

Centre Director François Crépeau offered the closing remarks at Pranoto Iskandar’s November 30 2015 seminar

In his remarks, Centre Director François Crépeau (centre, red tie) celebrated the richness of the O’Brien Fellowships and praised the engagement and collaboration of the Fall 2015 Fellows in Residence (Tanya Monforte, S. Laurel Weldon, and Pranoto Iskandar). Pranoto offered a seminar in which he discussed some important challenges to the struggling democracy in Indonesia. The entire 2015 O’Brien team were in attendance. (l-r: Tanya Montforte, Marika Giles Samson, Laurel Weldon, François Crépeau, Pranoto Iskandar, Student Coordinator Alizeh Ladak, and Graduate Fellows Bwighane Mwenifumbo and Rezaur Rahman; photo by Program Administrator Sharon Webb).