Alum Ajmal Pashtoonyar, LLB ’09: Inspiring Advocate in International Law

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

Ajmal Pashtoonyar, taken at the Canadian High Commission in London overlooking Trafalgar square.
Ajmal Pashtoonyar, taken at the Canadian High Commission in London overlooking Trafalgar square.
Accomplished Common Law alum Ajmal Pashtoonyar, LLB ’09, has dedicated his life to advocating for human rights and advancing the principles of international law.

Born in Ningarhar, Afghanistan, Pashtoonyar experienced the upheaval of his homeland due to the Soviet Union invasion, when he was a very young child. His family to fled to Peshawar, a tribal frontier city in northwest Pakistan and only 50 kilometres from Afghanistan. Growing up amidst the Afghan refugee community, Pashtoonyar's early experiences instilled in him a deep empathy for displaced populations and a profound understanding of the importance of justice and human rights. 

In 1998, Pashtoonyar's educational journey took a transformative turn when he was selected as one of 16 Afghan refugee students for the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) program. This opportunity provided him with a scholarship sponsored by the College of the North Atlantic in Burin, Newfoundland. With a thirst for knowledge and a drive to make a difference, Pashtoonyar embraced the chance to continue his post-secondary education in Canada. He moved to Burin in October 1998, where he spent two semesters before relocating to St. John's, Newfoundland, to begin his undergraduate studies at Memorial University. 

During his time there, Pashtoonyar actively engaged with various human rights causes on campus, collaborating with organizations such as Oxfam Canada and the Red Cross. His dedication to humanitarian efforts extended beyond the borders of Canada when he became the provincial youth ambassador in the international campaign to ban landmines. Pashtoonyar travelled to Bosnia, where he witnessed the lasting scars of armed conflict and experienced firsthand the crucial humanitarian de-mining work led by Canada and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This profound experience further solidified his commitment to making a positive impact on the global stage. 

Motivated by his involvement in humanitarian and development work and the continuous exposure to international law, Pashtoonyar decided to pursue legal studies. The Faculty of Law, situated in the heart of the nation's capital, provided him with a unique opportunity to immerse himself in legal education and benefit from the mentorship of several faculty professors. During his time at the university, Pashtoonyar's passion for international law and human rights found expression through various projects and initiatives. 

One notable experience was his participation in Professor Craig Forcese's Foreign Policy Practicum course. As part of the course, Pashtoonyar and his research team conducted a study on the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian Citizen who at the age of 15 was detained by the United States at Guantanamo Bay . Their research was presented to the House of Commons, and the legal team was called to testify before a Parliamentary Committee. Additionally, Pashtoonyar had the opportunity to work as a pro bono legal researcher for Senator Romeo Dallaire, focusing on the critical issue of child soldiers. For Pashtoonyar this was a unique exposure of how the rule of law, politics, human rights intersect and learning first hand about client advocacy from the inspirational U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander William (Bill) Kuebler, the U.S military appointed defense attorney at Guantanamo Bay for Khadr who presented to his class at uOttawa in 2008. 

On graduating in 2009, Pashtoonyar's dedication and expertise led him to receive a global fellowship through the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation. This prestigious fellowship allowed him to conduct field research in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda, delving into the study of transitional justice and reconciliation processes. The knowledge gained from this research became instrumental in his work at the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, where he served as a visiting professional in 2011, focusing on the situation in Afghanistan. 

Since 2012, Pashtoonyar has been working with Global Affairs Canada to advance consular policy and build legal cooperation on private international law disputes involving countries not party to international treaties. Through his work, he has recognized the intricate complexities and opportunities inherent in finding common ground based on human rights in the many global legal systems. Pashtoonyar's expertise has assisted in addressing complex consular cases, such as child abductions and forced marriages. 

“My legal education at uOttawa has allowed me to put my career aspiration into practice and given me the tools to navigate complex international legal issues,” he says. 

In 2020, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Pashtoonyar played a key role in developing Canada's international response against the use of arbitrary detentions in State-to-State Relations. His contributions leading to  the adoption of a Canadian-led declaration that has garnered endorsement from over 70 countries, reinforcing the importance of protecting individuals from arbitrary detention and safeguarding the principles of justice and human rights. This Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations was lauded by the U.S. President Biden in his recent speech to the Parliament of Canada in March 2023.   

Throughout his remarkable journey, Pashtoonyar's passion for learning and discovering new perspectives has been a driving force in his life and has reinforced his commitment to making positive changes. 

He says “Our world is a diverse place and I have been fortunate to have opportunities to travel, work with and learn from many people, including the most vulnerable and marginalized communities globally. It is this common good of humanity that drives me and inspires me to contribute in meaningful ways to the greater common good.” 

In his current role as Legal Officer at Global Affairs Canada, Pashtoonyar provides strategic advice on international criminal law, human rights law and public international law, including jurisprudence and procedures of international tribunals. He is part of Canada’s legal team seeking to hold Iran accountable for the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752. 

Reflecting upon his own journey, from young refugee to tireless human rights advocate and international law expert, Pashtoonyar urges current and future law students to “be curious and take full advantage of the breadth of courses and extracurricular activities the faculty has to offer. Engage in pro bono work. No matter your legal interest, be open and seek out other areas of the law, including international law.”