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A Human Rights Controversy at the University of Toronto

Case Raises Serious Concerns on Threats to Academic Freedom

Signage at the University of Toronto. © Faculty of Arts & Science, University of Toronto

The University of Toronto’s law school allegedly rescinded a job offer for director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program in response to external pressure about the candidate’s scholarship and work on Israeli government violations of international law. If true, not only does this do serious harm to the academic freedom, integrity, and reputation of the university’s human rights program, it creates a dangerous chilling effect on other scholars’ rights to research and advocacy.

The candidate, Dr. Valentina Azarova, was the university hiring panel’s unanimous top choice.

After the university reversed their decision, the chair of the program’s law faculty advisory committee resigned from the committee. Another member of the hiring panel quit his job with the program and the rest of the faculty advisory committee resigned.

Human Rights Watch has been in contact with both Dr. Azarova and the university. The position of the university is that “ no offer of employment was made,” but that “exploratory discussions occurred with one candidate.” News reports have published internal faculty emails that explicitly refer to an “offer.” The university claims it could not wait to obtain a work permit for Dr. Azarova, a non-citizen, but yet was pursuing a temporary contract for her as a workaround. The statement also denied that outside influence was a factor in their decision not to proceed with an offer of employment.

International legal academics, including Israeli and Jewish scholars, have written individually in support of Dr. Azarova’s scholarship. Other letters of support have well over 1,300 signatories, including former and current United Nations Special Rapporteurs. The program’s alumni association, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Amnesty International, and others have called for external investigations.  

For full disclosure, the spouse of Dr. Azarova is my colleague at Human Rights Watch. But this controversy is about more than the individuals involved; it speaks to the core of what academic freedom means and the principle that no country should be off limits for critique of its rights record. We have extensively documented and sought to address threats that undermine these principles. Human Rights Watch believes that our academic partnership with the law school, which has been a tremendously fruitful one over the past five years, also needs to be based on these values for it to continue.

The University of Toronto should urgently conduct an independent external review, make its findings public immediately, and swiftly address any improprieties. No one should pay such a price simply for exposing human rights violations by any country, including Israel.

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