Cohen Doctoral Seminar tackles international law and politics

April 2012

A conference during the 2010 inaugural edition of the Cohen Doctoral Seminar
In mid-June, a dozen doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows from around the world will converge on McGill to participate in the second Dean Maxwell and Isle Cohen Doctoral Seminar in International Law.

Portrait of Maxwell and Isle Cohen

Max Cohen and International Law

Maxwell Cohen was pivotal in establishing McGill at the forefront of legal education in Canada, as Dean of the Faculty from 1964 to 1969, and had a profound influence on international law through his many roles and responsibilities in the legal community at large.

Cohen variously served as a member of the Canadian delegation to the UN, President of the Canadian Branch of the International Law Association, and a member of the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law. From 1974 to 1979 he chaired the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission, while from 1981 to 1985 he was the Canadian judge ad hoc for the International Court of Justice.

Cohen was also a significant influence of the drafting of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while the anti-hate section of the Canadian Criminal Code is generally attributed to his work as Chairman of the federal Minister of Justice’s Special Committee on Hate Propaganda.

Portrait of Maxwell and Isle Cohen by artist Eva Praeger, owned by JoAnne Sulzenko.

This year’s theme will explore the tensions between law and politics at the international level. Faculty members will chair the panels and act as discussants, while participants consider each other’s ideas and approaches from the many perspectives they bring to the table.

The inaugural conference, held in the spring of 2010, proved a great success. “We had very good feedback from the students,” says Associate Dean (Academic) Jaye Ellis, who is organizing the second edition with professors Payam Akhavan and Andrea Bjorklund.

“I came here because I wanted to discuss with other doctoral students,” said 2010 seminar participant Sunil Kumar Agarwal, a research associate at the National Maritime Foundation and holder of a PhD in International Law from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

According to Ellis, the Cohen Doctoral Seminar is not only an opportunity for graduate and post-graduate students to bounce ideas off international peers, but also a chance to network and meet “in a bit of a friendlier, safer environment than the professional conferences they’ll be expected to engage in during their academic careers.”

While exploring the politics of international law, participants will also tackle the tensions between realism and idealism. “Some scholars have very ambitious plans for international law,” explains Ellis, “while more cynical observers might see that approach as naïve.”

“It’s one of the fraught questions in international law: How do you give legal decision-making a separate identity from international politics and diplomacy? It’s bound to be interesting,” says Ellis. “There are many possible threads within that theme, and any number of directions to take it.”

This year, the Seminar is organized by the Faculty of Law and the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law, together with the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law and the Labour Law and Development Research Network.

The Dean Maxwell and Isle Cohen Doctoral Seminar in International Law was created in 2012 through the generous contributions of alumni, friends of the family and, particularly, their daughter JoAnne Sulzenko.


Story by Bridget Wayland. Photos by Lysanne Larose.

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