Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella stressed the importance of pursuing universal democratic values and human rights in an emotional speech at the eighth annual David J. Bederman Lecture, held in the Tull Auditorium at the Emory School of Law.
Speaking on the state of international law, Abella described what she saw as an atmosphere “polluted by bombastic anti-intellectualism, sanctimonious instability and a moral free-for-all,” which she believes sets a dangerous precedent for the future.
“Everyone is talking, and no one is listening,” she told the audience. “We are in danger of a new status quo where anger triumphs over dignity and indignity over decency.”
A renowned human rights advocate, Abella pointed to recent events concerning the treatment of Syrian Kurds, which she described as the “latest unconscionable global tragedy,” as confirmation of her “deepest fears” that the relationship between international human rights law and justice is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.
Abella clarified that one cause of this increasing dysfunctionality may be confusion over the term “rule of law,” which she argued was used merely as a justification for the legitimacy of a perspective.
“This generation has seen the rule of law impose apartheid, segregation and genocidal discrimination,” she said.
Abella instead called for the universalization of democratic values such as due process and the right to religious freedom, which she argued were more important.
“When we trumpet those core democratic values, we trumpet the instruments of justice, and justice is what laws are supposed to promote,” Abella said.
Abella related to the audience a narrative of American legal history, which she argued was synonymous with liberal democracy, and how attitudes towards individual rights were in part responsible for rights discrimination, a reality that was not confronted the aftermath of the Holocaust.
“We were so far removed from what we thought were the limits of rights discrimination,” Abella explained. “[After 1945], we had no moral alternative but to acknowledge that individuals could be denied rights not in spite of, but because of their differences.”
Abella reckoned that we have since relapsed into individualistic thought with regard to human rights, rationalising it with terms such as “political correctness”, “cultural relativism” and “domestic sovereignty.”
“These are concepts that excuse intolerance,” she said. “Silence in the face of intolerance means that intolerance wins.”
Abella identified recent incidences of religious terrorism in Pittsburgh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka as evidence that the “horrifying spectacle of group destruction” had returned.
“We have also had, among others, the genocide of Rwanda, the massacres in Bosnia and the Congo, the repression in Chechnya, child soldiers in Sudan, Zimbabwe, China, Myanmar, Pakistan and more,” Abella continued.
Abella also cited the fact that, since 1945, 40 million people have been killed as a result of military conflicts.
Nevertheless, Abella did recognize the “great success” of several UN agencies in their efforts since 1945. However, given the “enormous capacity” for constructing legal systems and institutions to advance international human rights law, Abella noted her disappointment in the overall lack of progress in the area, particularly when compared to progress in international economic law.
“What states have been unable to achieve in 65 years of international human rights law is up and running after 25 years of international trade regulation,” Abella said. “I find this dissonance startling and unsettling.”
Although Abella did admit she had “no solutions,” she elucidated that her ideas were not purely hypothetical but also based largely on her experiences.
“To me this is not just theory,” she explained. “I am the child of Holocaust survivors.”
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946, many of Abella’s relatives were killed in the Treblinka extermination camp in German-occupied Poland.
“My father was the only person in his family to survive the war,” Abella disclosed.
Abella came to Canada in 1950, shortly after the publication of the Nuremberg principles, a set of guidlines for determining what constitutes a war crime. She admitted that the publication of these principles provided little consolation for her family.
“I’m sure that they would have preferred by far that the sense of outrage that inspired the Allies to establish the military tribunal at Nuremberg had been around many years earlier, before the events that led to it ever took place,” she explained.
Abella made history in 2004 when she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, becoming the first Jewish woman to ever do so. Abella was also the youngest and first pregnant judge in Canadian history when she was appointed to Ontario Family Court in 1976.
Speaking on her own life and career, Abella revealed that it had “never occurred to [her] to be anything but a lawyer.”
“My life started in a country where there had been no democracy, no rights and no justice,” she said. “It created an unquenchable thirst in me for all three.”
Abella also revealed that the best advice she could give law students was to not listen to anyone.
“Don’t take anybody’s advice!” she quipped. “If I had, … I would not be a lawyer, and I certainly would not be serving on the Supreme Court.”,, sta
Abella’s elegiac lecture was received tremendously by the Emory community, who gave her a standing ovation at the lecture’s conclusion.
Correction (11/6/19 at 1:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article misquoted Abella in “anger triumphs over indignity and indignity over decency.” In fact, she said “anger triumphs over dignity and indignity over decency.”