Rosalie Abella asks why the world is indifferent to human rights abuses

Despite great strides by countries like Canada in asserting and protecting equal rights over the past 50 years, “I have a lingering and growing sense that rights are on the losing side in too many parts of the world," Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella told a York audience Saturday.

“The next 50 years will be especially crucial,” said Abella. "This is the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and we just finished recognizing some of the most iconic global anniversaries in the modern era – the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the last of the Nuremberg trials.

Right: Rosalie Silberman Abella          

“Unless we pay attention to intolerance, the world’s fastest growth industry, we risk losing the civilizing sinews that flexed the world’s muscles after the Second World War,” she warned the mainly academic crowd attending the 50+50 Symposium.

Abella has been a leader and trailblazer not just in the process of law but in creating a more just society in Canada, said Patrick Monahan, Osgoode Hall Law School dean, in his introduction. In 1976, she was the youngest judge appointed in Ontario. But she burst into prominence in the 1980s when then Minister of Employment and Immigration Lloyd Axworthy appointed her, at 37, to head a Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. She coined the term “employment equity” in her influential report, which led to Canada’s Employment Equity Act.

After tracing the path Canada has taken to creating a fairer and more just society, Abella turned her attention to international human rights.

“The human rights abuses occurring in some parts of the world are putting the rest of the world in danger because intolerance in its hegemonic insularity seeks to impose its intolerant truth on others,” she said. “Yet we appear to be reluctant to call to account the intolerant countries who abuse their citizens and instead hide behind silencing concepts like cultural relativism or domestic sovereignty or root causes.”

Citing massacres and abuses in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Chechnya and Darfur, as well as those by the Taliban and against the Kurds, she observed: “Clearly what remains elusive is our willingness as an international community to protect humanity from injustice.”

She said the world was supposed to learn – but hasn’t – three lessons from the concentration camps of Europe:

  1. Indifference is injustice’s incubator.
  2. It’s not just what you stand for but what you stand up for.
  3. We must never forget how the world looks for those who are vulnerable.

She cited Robert Jackson in his opening statement at the Nuremberg trials: The wrongs we seek to punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.

Left: Patrick Monahan and Rosalie Silberman Abella

“We still have not learned the most important justice lesson of all – to try to prevent the abuses in the first place,” said Abella. “All over the world, in the name of religion, national interest, economic exigency or sheer arrogance, men, women and children are being murdered, abused, imprisoned, terrorized and exploited.” Yet, no national abuser worries about a Nuremberg these days, said Abella. “We need more than words of justice. We need justice.”

The United Nations was set up to implement “never again” yet seems hardly to be an eager pupil, she said. “Nations debate, people die. Nations dissemble, people die. Nations defy, people die.”

“We may not be able to predict the future we have, but we can predict the one we want – a generous and fair future so children can wear their identities with pride, with dignity and in peace.”

She argued that core democratic principles – due process, an independent bar and judiciary, protection for minorities, free press, rights of association, religion and expression – are the bulwark against intolerance. “Without democracy there are no rights. Without rights there’s no tolerance, without tolerance there’s no justice, without justice there’s no hope.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer