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Rh Awards to recognize Robson Hall professors Donn Short and Umut Özsu

March 24, 2016 — 

For over 40 years, the Winnipeg Rh Institute Foundation has given awards to University staff members who innovate, lead and show promise in their respective fields of research.

Past winners have gone on to become internationally known and recognized. This year, two Robson Hall faculty members – Prof. Donn Short and Prof. Umut Ozsü – are receiving Rh Awards for their research. Each will receive $12,000 toward their research programs.

We caught up with Profs. Short and Özsu to discuss their research, their motivations and their plans for the future.




Professor Umut Özsu

What is your current research focus?

I’m working on a book about decolonization. More specifically, on the international legal implications of the roughly thirty-year period of decolonization that followed the Second World War.

That period was enormously tumultuous. It witnessed the dissolution of a lot of different empires – British, French, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese, and others. It also witnessed the rise of “new states”. I’m a scholar of international law, and there are a lot of interesting legal questions raised by the emergence of a new state. How, from a legal standpoint, do you create a state? How do you dissolve an empire? These processes raise an enormous number of highly complex legal questions.

Say, for instance, that you have a people under colonial rule and the colonial administrators conclude a treaty or other legal instrument allowing a transnational corporation to mine on that people’s land. A concession agreement, for example. After that agreement is in effect, the colonial power withdraws and the people in question reconstitutes itself as an independent sovereign state.

What does the new state do? Does it honour the concession agreement, which may well not serve its real interests? Does it declare it null and void? Does it have the power to slough off the agreement? If so, how and under which circumstances? … International lawyers writing in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were deeply invested in these and related questions. And the “answers” they offered were anything but clear or consistent.

What are the modern-day implications of your research?

Well, first and foremost, this is a project of legal history. But conceptually and analytically, these doctrines are still very much with us. The international right to development, the principle of permanent sovereignty over natural resources, the right of collective self-determination, and so on. All of this comprises today’s international law, and a significant chunk of domestic law as well. And much of it acquired its current form during those few crucial decades after the Second World War. The non-aligned third world did a tonne of heavy lifting here, reshaping our understanding of bread-and-butter legal questions about state sovereignty, state succession to treaties, economic and political self-determination, and so on.

One very practical implication for contemporary legal debate relates to resource sovereignty. Do Aboriginal peoples, in Canada and elsewhere, have a right to permanent sovereignty over the natural resources on the land they’ve occupied for centuries? Can a government authorize the construction of a pipeline from Edmonton to the Pacific Ocean without the express consent of those peoples? Does it need to consult with them? What exactly counts as “consent” and “consultation” here?

Most of these questions were raised during the process of decolonization after the Second World War. And most of the “answers” we have now can be traced back to those debates.

How do you choose your research topic, and how do you stay focused?

I’m a nerd. I love international law. I love studying it from a range of historical and theoretical perspectives. That got me into academia in the first place, and that’s what I see myself doing the rest of my career.

International law has an enormous amount of influence that isn’t typically recognized. This is so for a range of reasons, but one reason is that its influence is often quite subtle and indirect. You may not always deal with it in the same way as domestic law. But much of domestic law, here in Canada but also elsewhere, is shaped by it.

International law is also often a weapon of the weak. If you don’t have the tools to make your case with domestic law, international law may provide you with some other tools. Indigenous peoples, for example, often invoke international law when domestic law falls short.

What’s next for you?

Well, the book is probably going to take me another year and a half. I’m moving more into international trade law and law and development. I’m not sure yet what form my research will take after this book project is completed, but these are the directions in which I’m headed.

For now, I’m just trying to get the book done!



Professor Donn Short

What is your current research focus?

I’m a member of a team looking at shining a light on Canadian educators’ experiences with and perspectives on LGBTQ-inclusive education. We launched our findings at the beginning of the year, and now we’re in the middle of a year-long process where we look for ways to implement our project’s findings and recommendations.

I’m also writing two books that deal mainly with the competition of rights between religious freedoms and equality-based claims.

What are the implications of your research?

I hope my research encourages more Canadian provinces to pass legislation similar to Bill 18 for safe and inclusive schools in Manitoba. I hope my research can give rise to more gay-straight alliance programs in schools – these types of programs have been shown to benefit all students. I’d also like to see more teachers willing and knowledgable about integrating LGBTQ* educational content in the classroom.

How did you choose this topic, and what keeps you going?

Everybody goes to school, but everyone has different experiences at school. For many people, including LGBTQ students, those experiences at school can be negative – even scary or threatening.

Those students need advocates. In many cases of bullying or oppression in the school environment, the victims at least have a family of people who are like them at home. Most LGBTQ students go home to people who are not like them. That makes advocating for those students exceptionally important – they need to feel safe.

What’s next?

After all this is done, I think I’d like to go back to theatre. Maybe write something more creative – but still dealing with these issues.

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