“What’s innovative about IRAP is that it brings together people who would not otherwise be together.”
– Scott Simon
The group of scholars gathered around a meeting room table in Gendron Hall is a study in diversity: some come from mainland China, others from Taiwan and a few represent indigenous or minority groups from the two jurisdictions. They have come to meet their Canadian counterparts at a small, but significant conference. China and Taiwan, which is not recognized as a sovereign state by China or much of the world, have had a tense relationship for more than 60 years. Though the professors come from historically hostile lands, a common thread unites them—a keen interest in legal pluralism (the existence of multiple and diverse legal systems within a given region), the rule of law and, most importantly, human rights.
In his keynote speech, University of Ottawa common law professor and human rights expert Errol Mendes notes that the goal of the conference, held last October, is to “open up a dialogue, which is so incredibly important, especially on the question of human rights.” To illustrate the power of such exchanges, he tells the story of a project on human rights that he and colleagues from the University of Ottawa—one of the first Western universities allowed into China after the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989—started with professors from Peking University Law School in 1993. About five years later, during a Government of Canada-China dialogue on human rights, Mendes found out from a Chinese official that the collaboration had been instrumental in convincing China to sign the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Last fall’s meeting of minds is part of an international collaborative project developed by Mendes and professors Scott Simon of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and André Laliberté of the School of Political Studies. All three share a common interest in legal pluralism but come at it from a different angle: Mendes specializes in the rule of law, Simon in indigenous rights and Laliberté in religious diversity. All have conducted research in China and Taiwan for years; Simon and Laliberté both head the Chair in Taiwan Studies.
Their research initiative was launched in 2012 with the financial support of the University of Ottawa’s International Research Acceleration Program (IRAP), which provides internal seed funding—up to $20,000 over two years—to help researchers establish long-term international collaborations. Since its inception in 2012, IRAP has supported 15 projects in fields as diverse as nanotechnology and business.
“In a sense, IRAP is like an incubator,” says Simon, who explains that the funding has not only allowed him and his colleagues to travel to China and Taiwan and to organize the conference on legal pluralism, but it has served as a springboard to obtain funding from other sources, including Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. It will also help them apply for a large grant to keep their partnership with Peking University Law School and Soochow University in Taipei going for many more years.
“What’s innovative about IRAP is that it brings together people who would not otherwise be together,” says Simon. “What is really innovative about this project is that it brings together colleagues from our networks in China and in Taiwan, who work in human rights, and allows them to sit down and talk to one another at the same table.”
That is the fundamental aim of the research project, but it’s not without its challenges. Laliberté points out that their Chinese colleagues must often walk a political tightrope in discussing human rights, remaining careful about respecting their government’s official line while trying to move the discourse forward. The conference, for example, which broaches topics such as minority language rights in China and indigenous rights in Taiwan, is run under Chatham House rules—what is discussed does not leave the room. “What we offer them is an opportunity to speak what they think, what they believe in, and that stays here,” says Laliberté.
Fostering such an exchange can also have political implications, explains Laliberté. “It’s not about us influencing the Chinese, not at all,” he says. “It’s also about helping our government to understand the realities of our Chinese peers. To show them that China is not monolithic, that there’s a diversity of views.”
As China may one day rival the United States economically and politically, forcing other countries to adapt their foreign policy toward the emerging superpower, that type of intellectual dialogue will become increasingly important, notes Mendes. In the meantime, projects such as the one spearheaded by Mendes, Simon and Laliberté will help position the University of Ottawa as a leader in legal pluralism and human rights research in one of the most strategic and rapidly evolving regions of the world.
by Monique Roy-Sole