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What’s in a treaty?

Harvard professor to present on how agreements have made, and unmade, our world

By Joshua Goudie

A treaty is like plumbing: we only think about it when it’s broken.

Dr. David Armitage, a white man in his early 50s, gestures with his hand while looking to the left.
Dr. David Armitage is an expert on global treaties.
Photo: Submitted

That’s according to Harvard University’s Dr. David Armitage.

Dr. Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein professor of history, chair of the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies and former chair of the Department of History at Harvard.

On Friday, March 22, he will deliver a public lecture on the topic of treaties as part of Memorial’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Science’s annual Henrietta Harvey Lecture Series.

Benefits and inequities

Dr. Armitage says three types of laws influence political conduct: constitutions; laws made by parliaments; and congresses and treaties.

While the first two receive significant attention in news coverage and through civics education, treaties often remain obscure to the general public, understood mainly by legal experts or directly affected parties, such as Indigenous communities.

“Studying treaty-making and treaty-breaking can show the power behind treaties,” he said. “It can also reveal the ways in which they benefit certain actors while enshrining inequities for others.”

Currently, approximately 70,000 treaties regulate global affairs. Some date back centuries while others are freshly drafted each day.

“To learn about treaties is to become more aware of the worldwide web of agreements that inform all of our lives.” — Dr. David Armitage

Dr. Armitage says treaties have a “pervasive” influence; they govern nearly every facet of our lives, from technology development to space exploration.

While many people may associate treaties with land or peace agreements, they have also been instrumental in establishing international organizations like the United Nations and NATO, nuclear arms proliferation agreements and ongoing negotiations to manage or mitigate climate change.

Simply put, treaties determine almost every aspect of our lives.

Canada’s connections

In the Canadian context, Dr. Armitage says the impact of treaties on Indigenous-settler relations is “profound.”

Seventy per cent of the country’s territory was passed from Indigenous groups to colonial settlers in what remains one of the largest and most enduring land transfers in world history.

Negotiation and litigation over the terms of those treaties are ongoing, with Indigenous communities continuing to try and retain or recover their rights.

“Those Canadian treaties were part of a much longer history of treaty-making and treaty-breaking across the world,” Dr. Armitage said. “Things really began to accelerate in the 19th century, reaching unprecedented levels in the aftermath of the Second World War.”

‘A giant’

Born in Britain and educated at the University of Cambridge and Princeton, Dr. Armitage taught at Columbia University before moving to Harvard in 2004.

A prize-winning teacher and writer, he has lectured on six continents. He held research fellowships and visiting positions in Australia, Britain, China, France, Germany, South Korea and the U.S.

According to Dr. Sean Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, the event promises to be of wide interest to faculty, students and alumni, and members of the general public.

Dr. Sean Gray is a white man in his mid 40s. He is wearing a suit with his arms crossed and smiling broadly.
Dr. Sean Gray
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Dr. Armitage is a giant in the fields of intellectual history, oceanic history and political thought,” said Dr. Gray. “We’re absolutely delighted to be able to welcome him to the Memorial community to speak with us. His work has impacted our understanding of the legacies of empire, colonialism and evolution of racial discourses in the Atlantic world, and has also touched on the place of Newfoundland and Labrador as an important centre for trade and commerce.”

Titled What’s In A Treaty? How Agreements Have Made, and Unmade, the World We Live In, Dr. Armitage’s lecture will consider the historical importance of treaties in creating our current legal and international order, touching on issues ranging from climate change and human rights to the management of fisheries and oceans.

The Henrietta Harvey lecture series will take place on Friday, March 22, at 6:30 p.m., at The Rooms theatre.

It is a free event, but a ticket is required. Please reserve your free ticket online or by calling (709) 757-8090.

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