University of Toronto Mississauga students lead efforts to understand justice in global conflicts

From left: Pedro Andrade, Fatimah Ahsan, Rohit Bahal, Nicole Fernando, Geoff DanFrom left: Pedro Andrade, Fatimah Ahsan, Rohit Bahal, Nicole Fernando, Geoff Dancy, Joseph Mangin, Mary Kazek, and Farah Radwan are among the researchers working on the Transitional Justice Evaluation Tools project (supplied photo)

A group of students at the University of Toronto Mississauga are at the forefront of efforts to understand transitional justice across the globe - a scholarly field that confronts how to pursue accountability for human rights violations in the context of authoritarianism and violent political conflict.

Working with  Geoff Dancy , associate professor in University of Toronto Mississauga’s department of political science, nine students are collecting data on criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, legal amnesties and reparations policies in all the regions of the world.

Their goal is "to provide a comprehensive database for academic research, and to predict human rights trends internationally," says team member  Pedro Andrade , a fourth-year undergraduate student from Brazil.

Dancy, post-doctoral researcher  Oskar Timo Thoms  and the group of undergraduate students received a $3-million grant from Global Affairs Canada - administered jointly between Harvard University and University of Toronto - for their Transitional Justice Evaluation Tools (TJET) project.

TJET’s student researchers have developed a wide range of expertise while working on the project.

Mary Kazek , an undergraduate student studying international affairs and economics, has become a go-to authority on criminal proceedings against Chilean military and intelligence officers who were responsible for extensive human rights violations during the Pinochet regime.

Collecting data on over 500 prosecutions has also given Kazek an appreciation for detailed research. 

"Political science tends to focus on the macro level and gloss over the details of atrocities and human rights violations, which prevents people from fully understanding the true horrors of what has happened," she says.

Third-year student  Fatimah Ahsan , who is a University of Toronto Global Scholar studying political science, has helped finalize an exhaustive database of over 80 truth commissions that were established in the last 50 years - including Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which completed its work in 2015.

"I personally enjoy how much I am able to learn about the cases," Ahsan says. "Every case I code, I learn something about the country I am working on, including its history and political state."

Other researchers are focused less on specific mechanisms of justice, and more on overall themes. Political science and criminology student  Farah Radwan  has spent months studying prosecutions of state agents for sexand gender-based violence, combing through information on over 17,000 accused rights violators.

"I think the biggest thing I learned while working on this project is that the workload can seem daunting, and it is really time-consuming," she says. "But it is extremely rewarding and fulfilling when it’s done - and done right."

The detail-oriented work has been challenging yet fulfilling. Through her work with TJET, political science student  Nicole Fernando  has come to specialize in coding, converting publicly available information into useable data.

"I love the methodical nature of coding - there is a process to follow for examining each case," she notes.

Amid their exacting individual research, the TJET group has come together through regular group meetings and team hangouts on the fifth floor of the Maanjiwe nendamowinan building on the University of Toronto Mississauga campus.

"What has struck me the most is the team-oriented nature of the research. We regularly discuss with each other about our respective work, which gives us a better understanding of our contribution," says  Joseph Mangin , a third-year student from France studying politics and international relations who has been going through news articles to collect data on global amnesty laws.

Dancy, who previously worked at Tulane University in New Orleans, brought the TJET project with him when he moved to University of Toronto last summer.

He’s effusive about the University of Toronto student researchers currently taking part in the project.

"Not to diminish the work of other teams I’ve led, but this is probably the most joyful and committed group of students I’ve ever worked with," says Dancy, who gives each of his researchers coffee mugs labelled "Researching justice, one cup at a time."

Dancy, along with colleagues from Harvard University, recently presented findings from TJET’s data collection to Global Affairs Canada at a meeting in Ottawa.

"All of the hard work the students have done directly informed high-level policy conversations about how to proceed with transitional justice in contexts such as Ukraine and Ethiopia," he said.

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We wish to acknowledge this land on which the University of Toronto operates. For thousands of years it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work on this land.  Read about University of Toronto’s Statement of Land Acknowledgement.