Though Rosalie Abella’s father, a Jewish lawyer in pre-Nazi Germany and Holocaust survivor, died a month before she graduated from law school in 1970, the Canadian Supreme Court Justice said she has felt his influence throughout her judicial career, which has focused on human rights.
“I learned from him that democracies and their laws represent the best possible chance for justice,” Abella said at a Law School talk on Monday. “I am very proud to be a part of that legal system, but I will never forget why I joined it.”
In the talk, “A Justice Journey: Developing a Culture of Rights,” Abella reminisced about her family’s past and how it shaped her legal and judicial focus. More than 100 people gathered to hear the talk from Abella, who is this year’s Robert P. Anderson Memorial Fellow. Abella, an outspoken human rights activist, used parables, historical retrospectives and personal narratives to argue for action to protect human rights.
Abella defended her record as a progressive justice by decrying the notion of an idle judiciary. On the world stage, she said, ideals mean little without action.
“Enforcing rights may court controversy, but better to court controversy than to court irrelevance,” she said. “It’s not just what you stand for. It’s what you stand up for.”
During the talk, Abella focused on the differences between human rights and civil liberties. The primary distinction between civil liberties and human rights lies in their focus, Abella said. While civil liberties like those found in America’s Bill of Rights treat everyone as equal, human rights such as affirmative action and spousal medical benefits for homosexuals acknowledge and account for the differences that exist among members of a society, she said.
“Civil liberties assimilate, human rights integrate,” Abella said.
Abella said she recognizes the necessity of balance between civil liberties and human rights, but she believes the proliferation of human rights is of greater importance because of their more fundamental social impact.
“Unlike civil liberties, human rights is a direct assault on the status quo,” she said. “It’s about how we treat each other, rather than how our governments treat us.”
A number of students said Abella’s passion was stirring.
“I thought it was an amazing lecture, and I think we can all be motivated by her message of justice,” Sarah Spinner LAW ’06 GRD ’08 said.
Others who listened to Abella’s lecture said they think Canada should be thankful that Abella is serving on its court.
“I think it’s great to see somebody with such a humane disposition ascend to the supreme court of a neighboring country,” Adil Haque LAW ’05 said. “Hopefully one day our supreme court will follow her lead.”
The daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Abella was born in a German displaced persons camp in 1946 and came to Canada as a refugee in 1950.
After presiding over Ontario’s family court for 16 years, Abella served on the Ontario Court of Appeals from 1992 until this year. She was appointed to the Canadian Supreme Court on Aug. 30.
Abella was the recipient of the 2004 Walter S. Tarnopolsky Award for Human Rights by the Canadian Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists and the 2003 International Justice Prize of the Peter Grube Foundation.