Lloyd Axworthy taught at the University of Winnipeg and directed its Institute of Urban Affairs before serving as a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly from 1973 to 1979. A Princeton-educated academic (PhD), he had been a student activist, which he attributed to his formative years and United Church roots. His political career would span 27 years, 6 in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and 21 in the federal Parliament.
Lloyd Axworthy entered federal politics in May 1979 as a Liberal MP, defeating former provincial Progressive Conservative leader Sidney Spivak in the Winnipeg-Fort Garry riding. Following the 1980 federal election, he became the only elected representative from the west in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's last government. He held several Cabinet positions, including minister of employment and immigration (1980-83), minister responsible for the Status of Women (1980-81) and minister of transport (1983-84). Following the Liberal defeat by the Progressive Conservatives in the 1984 election, Axworthy became Liberal critic for regional and industrial expansion, the Canadian Wheat Board (1984), trade (1985-90, a prominent critic of free trade in that role), and external affairs (1990-93). The latter position involved working closely with Central American lobby groups and rights organizations to advance security and development in that region.
Appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as minister of human resources development (1993-96), Lloyd Axworthy carried out a controversial 18-month social security review, which imperfectly attempted to balance employment insurance reforms and benefit reductions with job creation measures. However, Axworthy is best known for his term as minister of foreign affairs (1996-2000) and for innovative policies that sought to make the most of limited resources following a series of government cutbacks in the mid-1990s. He was widely credited with initiating a shift in Canadian foreign policy away from preoccupations with instruments of traditional state power and territorial security and toward human security campaigns that included and mobilized civil society actors at home and abroad. His notable human security endeavours included the successful adoption in December 1997 of the Ottawa Convention banning the production, use, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. His contribution to what became known as the "Ottawa Process," and the signing of the landmines treaty on 1 January 1998, led to a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize. Under Lloyd Axworthy, the concept of human security was focused on freedom from fear or the protection of people from violence. At the United Nations (UN), Axworthy became a strong advocate on behalf of women and children caught in the midst of armed conflict. His determination that state sovereignty could no longer shield abuses committed against civilians in a global society was the context for Canadian leadership over a treaty establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC) that came into force in July 2002. The ICC and child soldier campaigns earned Axworthy the North-South Institute's Peace Award.
As chair of the advisory board to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) immediately following his term as foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy actively promoted the responsibility to protect, the idea that the protection of human rights and security takes precedence over traditional non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states. Published in December 2001, The Responsibility to Protect report laid out a set of principles to guide actions carried out by the international community to protect individuals under threat.
Upon retiring from political life, Lloyd Axworthy became the director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues and in 2004 was named president of the University of Winnipeg. His work on global issues continued as a member of the International Academic Council for the United Nations University for Peace (UPEACE), as honourary chairman of the Canadian Landmine Foundation and as a member of the High Level Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor at the United Nations. In January 2006, Axworthy was appointed by the Organization for American States (OAS) to head an OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Peru. As a UN envoy, Axworthy worked at resolving the Eritrean-Ethiopian War and was also an active proponent of the deployment of a hybrid UN-African Union force to the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.
In Canada, Lloyd Axworthy has championed the better management of Canadian cities and meeting the needs of the Aboriginal community and new Canadians, particularly through education. Axworthy briefly re-entered the fray of federal politics when he openly declared his support for Bob Rae over Michael Ignatieff at the Liberal leadership convention held in 2006. His book, Navigating a New World (2004), combines autobiography with advocacy for active global citizenship in a more humane world. Lloyd Axworthy was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003.