Meredith Terretta
Meredith Terretta
Full Professor, History Department, Faculty of Arts, University of Ottawa
Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights (2016-2021)

Desmarais Building, DMS9110 (55 Laurier Avenue East)
613-562-5800 ext. 1302


Full Biography

Meredith Terretta is associate professor of history at the University of Ottawa where she teaches courses and directs student research in African and legal and human rights history. She returns to the University of Ottawa to take up the Gordon F. Henderson Chair of Human Rights after a membership at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Historical Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, USA (2015-2016). She is currently working on a SSHRC-funded research project (2016-2020) entitled Activism Along the Global Fringe: Rogue Lawyers, International Law and African Rights Claims in the Twentieth Century, which leverages historical data to show how Africans, in connection with activists and lawyers in Europe, the United Kingdom and North America, advanced rights claims and legal arguments against colonialism in the mid-twentieth century.

Professor Terretta’s work examines transregional legal and rights activism, both past and contemporary. Her recent book, Nation of Outlaws, State of Violence: Nationalism, Grassfields Tradition, and State-Building in Cameroon (Ohio 2014) probes the tensions between human rights and revolutionary liberation movements through the lens of the decolonization of the British and French Cameroons under United Nations trusteeship. She recently co-edited African Asylum at a Crossroads: Activism, Expert Testimony, and Refugee Rights (Ohio 2015), a collection of essays focused on asylum jurisprudence involving African refugees. Her essays appear in the Human Rights Quarterly, the Journal of World History, the Journal of African HistoryMatériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps, and Politique africaine, among others.

Professor Terretta is a legal consultant on the contemporary political, social and cultural climate in Central Africa. She has served as an expert witness for numerous asylum claims of Africans in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.

As a candidate for the Gordon F. Henderson Chair Professor Terretta Professor Terretta gave a talk titled “Activism in the Shadows of Universalism: Where is Human Rights, Then and Now?” at HRREC on March 4, 2016.

Focus and initial plans as Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights 2016-2021

How might an analysis of the histories of refugee and asylum seeking, and of the laws and protocols regulating these processes, enhance our understanding of the asylum-refugee-migration nexus of our time? During my time as Gordon F. Henderson Chair of Human Rights, I plan to work in collaboration with researchers, students and activists to examine the history of international refugee law and the innovative ways that government officials, jurists, activists, and displaced populations have put it to use since its interwar origins. Findings of the project titled Bursting at the Seams of International Refugee Law: Displacement, Statelessness and Asylum Seeking, Past and Present will facilitate an assessment of past failures and successes of refugee law in order to contribute to a historically researched and empirically grounded revision of international political asylum and refugee protocols.

As Gordon F. Henderson Chair of Human Rights, I will build connections with Ottawa-area researchers, activists, policy-makers, students, and refugees who are addressing questions of refugee and asylum systems, whether prescriptively or critically. My initial plan of action is to contact those working on refugee-related questions among HRREC members and through our university’s various initiatives, including the Human Rights Clinic, the Refugee Law Research Team, the University of Ottawa Refugee Assistance Project, and the University of Ottawa Refugee Hub and learn how we can work to enhance student-activist-faculty-lawyer collaboration to improve support systems and protocols that shape the lives of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in the Ottawa area.

My Approach

As a historian, I ask questions that enable us to better understand present day conceptions of human rights. For example, what is the historical relationship between violent protest as a form of claiming rights in certain situations, and the spread of a human rights movement? I also focus on rights claims that laws did not support at the time that they were first expressed, either because laws did not exist or existing legislation was not applied. I consider the ways that rights claimants and their advocates used the law—or its lack—as a way to push for the legislation and implementation of rights protections. Most historians do the history of some place in a given time: I ask these questions about rights in twentieth century Africa, a region of the world that is typically associated with rights abuses. My SSHRC funded research, Activism Along the Global Fringe: Rogue Lawyers, International Law and African Rights Claims in the Twentieth Century, shows instead how Africans, in connection with Africa-descended activists in the African diaspora, activists and lawyers in Europe, the United Kingdom and North America, were at the forefront of advancing rights claims throughout the twentieth century.

My current research on African rights claims connects with the project on refugees, which will be my focus as Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights. Africa countries have a long history of both generating and hosting refugee flows. Although none of the wealthy western nations of Europe or North America figure among the top ten refugee-hosting countries today, four of the ten are located in the African continent (UNHCR 2015). A primary aim of the Bursting at the Seams of International Refugee Law project will be to recuperate the history of asylum seeking within Africa by focusing on the intercontinental displacement of African populations from the time of the UNHCR’s formation in 1950, and to understand how, when and why refugee protection systems within the continent become unsustainable. Canada will be the northern host country of the project’s focus. Over the last three decades, Canada’s refugee law has been both highly selective and humanitarian in its portrayal and acceptance of asylum seekers. This multi-faceted, complex approach to immigration and refugee law makes Canada an ideal case study for coming to terms with present-day tensions between normative frameworks such as refugee law and asylum protocols and the realities of forced human migration on a massive scale.