Rebecca Sutton

Study program:
PhD Law
Current affiliation:
London School of Economics and Political Science

She is studying the international community’s response to armed conflict today through the new lens of law, war, and aid combined.

2014 Trudeau scholar Rebecca Sutton is a lawyer and PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. Sutton earned a JD from the University of Toronto; after clerking at the Ontario Court of Appeal, she was called to the Ontario bar. She holds an MSc in violence, conflict and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and she served as Sudan country director for War Child Canada from 2009-2011, based in Darfur. Sutton’s research has been published in journals such as the National Journal of Constitutional Law, Criminal Law Quarterly, Refuge, and Citizenship Studies. Her doctoral project involves ethnographic research in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Doctoral research

Humanitarian Assistance in Law and War: The Fate of the Traditional Humanitarian Principles and the Future of Civil-Military Relations

The starting point of Rebecca’s interdisciplinary research project is that neither humanitarian law nor humanitarian aid can be considered apart from the conflicts they seek to regulate or mitigate. In interventions by Canada and the international community in conflict settings today, the “humanitarian space” in which aid is delivered is no longer the exclusive domain of humanitarian actors. Military and political actors engage in humanitarian assistance with the aim of meeting strategic, intelligence, political, and security goals. Interestingly, these actors often appeal to traditional humanitarian principles to legitimize their actions. While this suggests that these principles retain some power, there is also the risk that this power will become diluted over time. Of course, military and political actors are not the first to instrumentalize or politicize aid; the humanitarian community has struggled with this phenomenon for years. But do the traditional humanitarian principles remain valid in today's multi-mandate and multinational interventions across the globe? What should civil-military relations look like? Rebecca makes the argument that Canada should lead the debate.

Broadly, my project is concerned with humanitarian law and how the traditional humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence play out in practice. I use the concept of “humanitarian space” to describe the room that humanitarian workers have to carry out their tasks unimpeded. In recent years we have been seeing more engagement by political and military actors in this space, and this raises questions about civil-military relations and the relevancy of the traditional humanitarian principles. Do these rules and principles remain valid when Canada and the international community respond to armed conflicts today? In order to explore these questions, my project brings together law, humanitarian action, and the social sciences. While these fields are often studied or practised in isolation, they inevitably intersect in war. That is, international law seeks to regulate and restrain armed conflict, humanitarian action seeks to mitigate armed conflict’s impact on the victims of war, and the social sciences seek to analyze and digest the patterns of conflict as well as responses to it. By bringing these areas together, I hope to offer new insights into this pressing global problem.

What led you to choose this research project in particular?

The seeds of this project were planted during my graduate studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2006. I studied the political economy of violence, conflict, and development and also took courses in comparative literature and human rights law. I was struck by how differently war was understood through these diverse disciplines. I went on to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and for the NGO War Child Canada. When Canada implemented the Provincial Reconstruction Team model – which integrates military, humanitarian, and political actors in the response to conflict – in Afghanistan, I became concerned about this approach. Did more integration really mean better impact? Time passed, and I went to law school and worked in Sudan. As Sudan country director for War Child, I arrived in Darfur in 2009 on the heels of Sudan’s expulsion of many humanitarian actors from Darfur. This was in response to the International Criminal Court’s decision to lay charges against President Omar Al Bashir and the Sudanese government’s belief that humanitarian actors were passing intelligence to the Court. The realms of politics, security, intelligence, and humanitarian action were colliding, and the consequences were drastic for intervening actors as well as the local population. Returning to law school, I found that the picture law painted of war looked nothing like what I had seen in Sudan with my own eyes. These experiences led me to envision a doctoral project situated at the intersection of law, aid, and war, which would generate empirical findings to address some of the intuitive concerns I have developed in the past several years.

What is new or surprising about your research?

The questions I am asking are not new, but I plan to take a novel approach in order to generate new ideas and reinvigorate the debate. We often study law as though it is apart from, or above, war. And we tend to think about humanitarian principles in an abstract way, ignoring the uncomfortable dissonance with realities on the ground. I suspect we often avoid looking at on-the-ground impact because it is logistically difficult, and perhaps we are afraid of the answers we will uncover. Yet there is a need for more empirical knowledge and robust scholarship, which can then feed into policy and practice. In order to make law’s attempts to regulate war more meaningful, and to make international attempts to mitigate harm to victims more effective, we need to get out of the books and go to war-torn areas. We need to gather the tacit knowledge of individuals caught up in war, specifically the victims of war and the (international) responders.

In your opinion, who will most benefit from your findings?

At this juncture, Canada and the international community need to engage in an informed debate about the fate of the traditional humanitarian principles and the future of civil-military relations in law and in practice. To do this, we need people who can bridge the worlds of academia and humanitarian action, and also work at the intersection of disciplines. The status quo is that lawyers are thinking about humanitarian law and international legal norms, policy experts are thinking about ethical guidelines and how to direct conduct by interveners in conflict, and civil and military actors are out there putting these things into practice in the operational context. While I plan to generate a research product that can inform new policies for Canada and the international community, I also aim to make a contribution to methodological approaches with my research process. That is, I will explore effective ways to gather and test evidence involving vulnerable populations in conflict settings and how this can be linked to law as well as humanitarian action.

Within the next three to five years, what impact could your research have on the Canadian public policy debate?

Canada’s last soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan, marking the official end of Canada’s twelve-year engagement there. This is an important time for Canada and the international community to reflect: what was our impact? Some of the intervention models Canada used in Afghanistan, such as the Provincial Reconstruction Team model, will likely be replicated in future interventions. Is this a good thing? Why or why not? At the same time, the United Nations model of “integration” is gaining more momentum, and military, humanitarian, and political actors are being asked to work ever-more closely together in war and in post-conflict settings. Before Canada and the international community go any further in integrating the roles of diverse actors, there is a need for a focused study of the risks and opportunities this presents. I hope that my research project will generate thoughtful recommendations to inform this debate.

As a teen, Rebecca Sutton spent six years in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, where she earned her pilot’s licence. For her undergraduate studies, she attended the University of McMaster’s Arts and Science program as a national laureate of the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation. Rebecca spent her third year as an undergraduate on exchange in Ghana, West Africa, before completing a combined honours degree in peace studies. After graduating from McMaster, Rebecca lived and worked as a youth worker on two Aboriginal reserves in Alberta. She next completed an MSc in violence, conflict, and development from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England, before spending several years working in the field of humanitarian aid and development. More specifically, she consulted for the Human Security Department at Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Development and for the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance, and she served as the manager of international programs at the Toronto headquarters of the nongovernmental organization War Child Canada.

Rebecca next attended law school at the University of Toronto, where she volunteered on the Emergency Team in the Refugee Division at Downtown Legal Services and was engaged in several International Human Rights Program (IHRP) working groups. As part of an IHRP summer internship in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rebecca investigated the detention and deportation of illegal migrants. She then took a two-year leave of absence from law school in order to work for War Child Canada in Darfur. Rebecca served as War Child’s Sudan country director from 2009 to 2011, in which capacity she oversaw the organization’s humanitarian programming in Darfur. Upon her return to law school, Rebecca led a student working group in international humanitarian law and continued clinical work with low-income clients. She spent one summer working at a leading litigation boutique and she conducted a multi-year research project on Canada's treatment of female prisoners with mental health issues. Rebecca graduated from the University of Toronto’s JD program with honours and received the Dean’s Key as well as the Goodman’s Prize in Administrative Law. In 2014, she is clerking at the Ontario Court of Appeal for completion of her articles. She will be called to the Ontario Bar in June 2014.

Rebecca is also a jammer for the Death Track Dolls, a Toronto Roller Derby home team!