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SSHRC Aurora Prize
“I think there is a growing perception that corporations hold a significant amount of power globally and that they aren’t being held accountable for their actions beyond their local borders.”
Following WWII, representatives of various corporations were brought to trial for their business’ role in atrocities such as selling chemicals for gas chambers and pillaging the natural resources of invaded countries. Yet, in the decades since, only a relatively small number of business representatives have been brought to trial for international crimes such as crimes against humanity.
“We tend to forget the role played by outside actors, who often make essential contributions to atrocities,” says James Stewart, assistant law professor at The University of British Columbia and winner of the 2011 SSHRC Aurora Prize. He adds that there is, however, growing interest in holding corporations responsible for the crimes they perpetrate.
“Corporate responsibility, including in Canada, is a growth industry in and of itself. My latest research looks at corporate responsibility for international crimes in particular,” he says.
Stewart’s project, “Commerce, Atrocity and International Criminal Justice,” examines the implications of prosecuting corporations and business representatives for acts such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. His research will show how existing international criminal laws could be used to help actually prevent atrocities, rather than just to prosecute their outcomes.
“My work offers an alternative to sending in troops; that is, prosecuting companies in order to undermine the ability of foreign regimes to commit atrocities,” he explains.
For example, Stewart is researching exactly how and when corporations and their representatives are responsible for pillaging natural resources from conflict zones. These acts often both perpetuate and fund violence. He is also looking at whether arms vendors can be held liable as accomplices for international crimes.
Stewart has already received the Antonio Cassese Prize for International Criminal Law Studies for a paper on the same topic as his Aurora Prize-winning proposal. He says the greatest significance of the Aurora win “is the promotion of justice and accountability in this area.”
“Canadians have a long history of fidelity and commitment to international law principles, and we have the opportunity to take the lead on an issue of international justice that really is pressing,” he says.
Prior to joining UBC, Stewart spent two years as an associate-in-law at Columbia Law School. He has also acted as an appeals counsel with the prosecution of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and has worked for the prosecution of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Stewart’s project has been recognized for its strong emphasis on mentoring.
“My role in mentoring is first and foremost to give students permission to explore their sense of justice in the world … to highlight opportunities for them to be proactive in the process … and to help students avoid the idea that the world need be the way it is,” he says.
The SSHRC Aurora Prize is awarded annually to an outstanding new researcher who is building a reputation for exciting and original research in the social sciences or humanities.