Remembering David Petrasek

Remembering David Petrasek

We have lost a wonderful colleague and friend. David Petrasek, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and former director of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS), died on Monday after a long, hard-fought illness.


David was no ordinary professor. He came to the University of Ottawa from a successful career in human rights activism and mediation, having spent years with the International Council of Human Rights Policy, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. With the help of his extensive networks and connections, he used CIPS to draw attention to some of the worst human rights atrocities around the world. Among the many well-known human right defenders who visited CIPS in that period was former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whom David knew from his time at the UN.

David’s research and writing were similarly marked by a passion for human rights and social justice of all kinds, applying his extraordinary analytical skills (he was trained as a lawyer) and his distinctive style of pragmatic optimism to every problem. In a CIPS conference on the future of liberal internationalism in an illiberal world, he argued that the threat posed to human rights from a retreating liberal internationalism was exaggerated. This pessimistic outlook, he suggested, failed to take account of the fact that the main supporters of human rights have not historically been Western powers, or even middle powers like Canada, but countries and peoples in the Global South. The challenge for middle powers like Canada, he concluded, was not one of retrenchment around the status quo, but rather to build new coalitions of concerned states to meet new human rights challenges..

David’s last contribution to CIPS was a blog post on what to read during the COVID-19 lockdown. His book recommendations echoed his commitment to social justice and his questioning of orthodoxy. The first was Anand Giridharadas’ Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, an account of the so-called philanthro-capitalists who give billions to good causes, but in ways that may end up subverting democracy and damaging citizenship. David’s other recommendation was a biography of Mahatma Ghandi.

David was not only a scholar and a public intellectual. As a professor, he was enormously committed to his students and the craft of teaching. Long before the COVID-19 crisis drove instructors and students from the classroom to the Internet, David had developed one of the University of Ottawa’s first fully online courses – an introduction to human rights – that was rigorous, engaging, and full of practical learning. Shortly before he passed away, David reflected on how much his years of teaching had meant to him. In private messages to us, and in social media posts, his former students have expressed their sadness at his death and how much he meant to them, too.

We will remember him not only for his lasting contributions as an activist, thinker, researcher, writer and teacher, but also – and perhaps most importantly – as a profoundly decent, caring, and committed colleague and friend. He was a good man who lived a good life. We were fortunate to know him.

Rita Abrahamsen and Roland Paris
Director & Founding Director

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