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black and white headshot of Dr. Nathan Derejko

Dr. Nathan Derejko begins his position as Assistant Professor and Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice on July 1, 2022. 

University of Manitoba appoints new Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice

March 22, 2022 — 

With the arrival of March’s warmer weather, the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba received confirmation that Dr. Nathan Derejko would be starting his position as Assistant Professor and Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice on July 1, 2022.  

The Mauro Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice was created and funded through the generosity of the Mauro Foundation and is a key part of the Master of Human Rights program, now housed at Robson Hall, the Faculty of Law building on UM’s Fort Garry Campus.

The Master of Human Rights program’s inaugural cohort of students started classes in the fall term of 2019, as did the appointment of Dr. Kjell Anderson as the program’s director. The naming of the Mauro Chair is now the final key to opening the door to making Winnipeg “the next Geneva” as UM Chancellor Emeritus Mauro contemplated in a 2018 story in UM Today Magazine announcing his gift to endow the cross-faculty Chair in Human Rights and Social Justice.

“I’m very excited that Nathan Derejko will be joining our Faculty and the Master of Human Rights program as Mauro Chair,” said Anderson. “Nathan is a dynamic teacher and researcher, whose wide-ranging practice experience will energize our program and provide new opportunities for our students.”

Dr. Derejko holds a B.A., an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law, and a Ph.D. in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. He has been living, researching and teaching in the UK for the past 10 years, with his most recent practice experience having been at Rights Watch UK in London. Born and raised in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, Dr. Derejko has also lived in Vancouver and Halifax. Initially, he will be teaching human rights law for both the Juris Doctor and Master of Human Rights programs, as well as an elective Human Rights course, “Use of Force in International Law.” Robson Hall was pleased to interview Dr. Derejko prior to his arrival in Winnipeg, and we present here, a glimpse of our new Mauro Chair in the following conversation:

Robson Hall: How did you come to study human rights in the first place?

Dr. Nathan Derejko: Through a sense of frustration really. During my undergraduate studies at Dalhousie University I became deeply committed to grassroots activism on a range of social justice issues, and I was always evoking the idea of ‘human rights’ in advocacy and outreach, which proved to be a powerful language for mobilisation. But I soon came to realize that my knowledge of the actual scope and content of human rights, and how they work in practice, was pretty limited. I knew that human rights could be a tool for change, I just didn’t know how to use them effectively. This realization put me on the search for a Masters program in human rights, although to my surprise, I could not find a single one in Canada. Expanding my search abroad, I quickly discovered that Europe was abound in graduate programs dedicated to human rights. So without hesitation, I packed my bags and headed to Ireland to undertake an LL.M. in International Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland Galway. This program opened my eyes to the possibilities and challenges of using human rights as a tool for change, and I spent the next decade in Europe and beyond studying, teaching, and practicing human rights law.

RH: How exactly does one practice human rights law? What examples of cases might you encounter as a human rights lawyer?

ND: There are many ways one can practice human rights law. Of course, you can become a lawyer and litigate cases against the government before national courts. In Canada, this would include cases regarding any of the rights enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as the right to life, liberty, and security of person. But the practice of human rights is in no way limited to litigation and one does not need to be a lawyer to be a human rights practitioner – litigation is just one of many tools in the human rights toolbox.

I have an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in international human rights law, but I am not a human rights lawyer. Nevertheless, I have a wide range of experience as a human rights practitioner. For example, outside from academia, I have supported a range of strategic litigation efforts, provided legislative scrutiny and policy analysis to government review processes, engaged United Nations human rights mechanisms and special procedures, and developed advocacy campaigns both domestically and internationally. There is an abundance of roles in which a deep understanding of human rights law is essential.  

For example, many people with a Master in Human Rights go on to work at human rights NGOs, evaluating government policy – whether on health, housing, employment or other rights issues – through the framework of human rights law. Others end up working for government agencies advising on how to ensure that national laws and policies comply with international human rights standards. Some work with international organisations, such as the United Nations, doing research, advocacy or training. Some work in the investment or business sector, and conduct human rights due-diligence assessments to ensure investment policies and transnational corporations comply with human rights standards. The breadth of career opportunities is so incredibly vast, and whatever work one ends up doing will no doubt be tremendously rewarding, challenging, and inspiring. 

RH: What inspired you to apply for the Mauro Chair?

ND: Pretty much everything about this Chair inspired me to apply. First and foremost, the Chair is situated within Canada’s leading graduate program dedicated to human rights. This in and of itself presents a rich and inspiring research and teaching environment, for both students and staff, and means that I will have the opportunity to research and teach squarely within my areas of interests. If this program had existed when I was a student, I would have surely found myself headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, rather than Galway, Ireland. As someone who has spent the last decade with one foot in the academy and another foot in the practice of human rights, the unique multidisciplinary nature of the MHR program, and its specific focus on bridging the theory and practice of human rights, was also very appealing to me as it aligns with my own approach to teaching and learning. Finally, as Canada’s leading graduate program in human rights, the opportunity to contribute to its future development and provide students with both the knowledge and skills necessary to become effective human rights practitioners is simply and literally my dream job.

RH: What is your plan for your research as Mauro Chair?

ND: My current research focuses on the protection of human rights during armed conflict, and counter-terrorism and human rights, and there are plenty of unresolved challenges in these areas that I plan on exploring in more depth. In terms of future research agenda, I am interested in further exploring the relationship between climate change and human rights, and in particular, the role and relevance of international human rights law in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. I would also like to explore the possibility of developing a collaborative multidisciplinary research project on Climate Justice and Human Rights that will marshal a broad range of expertise from across the University of Manitoba, including expertise from law, political studies, Indigenous studies, environmental sciences, public policy, social work, and economics, to determine if and how the human rights framework can contribute to the regulation of climate change and the emergence of climate justice.

RH: To what extent will you be working with students in the MHR program?

Engaging directly with the students, both within and beyond the classroom, is what I find most inspiring and love most about teaching human rights law, and I am very much looking forward to meeting the students in the MHR program. I am deeply committed to bridging the theory and practice of human rights in all my teaching and learning activities, and will work towards creating various opportunities for students to augment the knowledge they gain in the classroom with the development of the practical skills necessary to become effective human rights practitioners.

RH: Why Winnipeg (the inevitable question about mosquitos and weather)?

As a Canadian, I am quite familiar with the mosquito and weather narratives about Manitoba. I love snow and I know my kids will too, but I have to admit I’m slightly terrified about the mosquitoes – I’m really hoping their size and appetite are a myth! Nevertheless, my family and I are beyond excited to be moving to Winnipeg. We can’t wait to explore the many parks, sprawling urban forests, rivers and vast lakes – all things that we have missed dearly while living abroad. We also love the arts, and are particularly excited about Winnipeg’s legendary music scene.  My partner also practices human rights law, and we are both really looking forward to tapping into the vibrant civil society in Winnipeg that is working on an impressive range of human rights and social justice issues. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Geneva, I am also intrigued by Arthur Mauro’s vision of Winnipeg as the human rights capital of Canada, or “Canada’s Geneva”. Cleary, for anyone dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights, Winnipeg is an inspiring place to live and work.

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Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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