Amnesty International suspends relationship with U of T over decision to rescind job offer to human rights scholar

Published May 19, 2021 1:32 p.m. ET
Updated May 19, 2021 5:00 p.m. ET

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A person walks past the University of Toronto campus during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. The Ontario government announces the framework for reopening of colleges and universities as early as of July. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO -- The University of Toronto’s relationship with Amnesty International has been put on pause after the school decided to walk back a job offer to an international human rights scholar. 

In an open letter to U of T published Tuesday, the group said they are, “greatly concerned about the sequence of events that led to the faculty of law’s decision not to appoint Dr. Valentina Azarova as International Human Rights Law Program (IHRP) Director.”

Germany-based Azarova was the preferred candidate for the job and was the “strong, unanimous and enthusiastic first choice” of the selection committee, according to former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell, who led an inquiry launched by the school into the search for a new IHRP director.

While citing Cromwell’s report, Amnesty International said it was unable to “take at face value the claim that the hire was frozen solely due to immigration issues, rather than external influence from a major university donor critical of Dr. Azarova’s academic work on Israel and Palestine.”

The donor referenced in the letter published by the human rights group is not mentioned.

It should be noted, however, that Cromwell’s report found that external influence did not play any role in the decision to “discontinue the recruitment” of Azarova.

Amnesty International’s decision to suspend its relationship with one of Canada’s most prestigious schools follows a rare censure imposed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) last month.

The group, which represents 72,000 teachers, librarians, researchers, general staff and other academic professionals at some 125 universities and colleges across the country, said the move to “cancel Dr. Azarova’s hiring was politically motivated.”

More over, CAUT called the decision “a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom.”

The University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Law Program first became a partner of Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps (DVC) initiative in 2017. The DVC, which works with seven universities worldwide, trains students on the process and practice of open source research for human rights advocacy and accountability.

The partnership will be suspended until the CAUT censure has been lifted and a “sustainable roadmap for the future of the IHRP has been put in place,” according to Amnesty International. 

A U of T spokesperson said they were aware of the letter from Amnesty International and regrets they are pausing their relationship with the university.

"We have enjoyed a highly productive relationship with Amnesty International and very much hope to resume this relationship in the future," they said.


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