Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security

The Simons Chair in International Law and Human Security was established in 2006 thanks to a generous contribution from The Simons Foundation to Simon Fraser University.  The Chair, which is housed in the School for International Studies, is intended to promote interdisciplinary research and programming focused on the intersection of politics, law and human security, broadly defined.

Jeffrey T. Checkel, the current holder of the Simons Chair, is a political scientist and international-relations specialist.  An American who was educated at MIT (PhD in Defense and Arms Control Studies, 1991), he nonetheless spent much of his professional career living and working in Europe before coming to SFU in late 2008.  Originally trained as a physicist and then a Sovietologist – his first book was an exploration of the ideational dynamics that led to the unexpectedly peaceful end of the Cold War – Checkel more recently studied a very different type of peaceful change: the development of the European Union and of a possible European identity.

At SFU, Prof. Checkel has been pursuing three projects in recent years, two of which mark a return to his roots in security studies.  The starting point for his new research on security is that, with the Cold War’s end, the greatest threats to international peace and security come no longer from inter-state wars, but from intra-state or civil wars.  Thus, in one project, ‘Transnational Dynamics of Civil War,’ he argues that civil wars rarely play out within the borders of one state – think of Syria today.  They have international and transnational dimensions that must be studied if we are to craft better policy and theory.  These arguments are explored at length in a book published in 2013 by what is widely recognized as the premier university publisher in the world - Cambridge University Press.

A second project – ‘Socialization and Violence’ - seeks to understand better the group dynamics that fuel so much of the violence and bloodshed seen in civil wars.  Why do some rebel groups engage in the widespread use of sexual violence, while others do not?  Why do some child soldiers not want to leave the very same rebel group that recruited them by violent means?  The answer, Checkel suggests, lies in group-based socialization dynamics.  In making this argument and consistent with the School’s commitment to inter-disciplinary research and teaching, he draws upon insights from several disciplines, including sociology, political science and organizational theory.  This project is currently undergoing review for publication as a special issue of the Journal of Peace Research, ranked as one of the best in the world in the fields of peace and conflict.

A third project has less to do with security directly and speaks more to how we study it – in social science jargon, the methods we employ.  Many scholars of security and international studies argue that we need to study the process and dynamics producing particular outcomes.  This leads them – often in a vague, unclear way – to invoke so-called process tracing as their key method.  Basically, this last project is designed to bring more rigor to its use - by delineating its philosophical foundations, specific techniques, and standards and best practices.  The resulting book – published by Cambridge University Press in 2014 – is a practical ‘how to’ guide, highlighting best use exemplars of process tracing by students of international institutions, scholars of civil war, comparativists, interpretive scholars, Europeanists, and specialists on international security.

Beyond his own work, Checkel views the Simons Chair as an important vehicle for fostering a culture of research excellence within the School.  Thus, the Chair sponsors a seminar series – the Simons Series in the Social Dynamics of Peace and Conflict – that brings leading scholars to the SFU campus for a two-day visit, where they give both a public lecture and an academic seminar.  The Series has sponsored visits by over a dozen internationally recognized scholars, addressing topics ranging from civil war, to the power and limitations of international law, to genocide, to the decline of war in the world today.

To promote research excellence among his colleagues, Checkel also founded and edits the Simons Papers in Security and Development.  This internally peer reviewed working paper series highlights and disseminates the cutting edge research being conducted at the School.

Finally, during each academic term, Checkel uses his Chair to organize and lead a bi-weekly internal series – the SIS Research Colloquium – that features debate and discussion of colleagues’ draft articles, chapters and the like.  In a clear sign of its success, this particular initiative continues even in Checkel’s absence, for example, when he was on sabbatical in 2013-14.

Aside from his scholarly pursuits, Checkel is an avid mountain climber and lover of all things Swiss, including a seemingly inexplicable love for cows – as visitors to his office will quickly notice!