Justice Abella Delivers Ryan Lecture

November 4, 2011 — “We must never forget how the world looks to those who are vulnerable,” said Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada, delivering the 32nd annual Thomas F. Ryan Lecture at the Law Center on November 3.

Abella knows how that world looks. Her parents spent four years in a German concentration camp, her brother died in Treblinka. She was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Stuttgart, Germany, and migrated with her family to Canada, where she became a lawyer. She was appointed to the Ontario Family Court in 1976 (the youngest and first pregnant judge in Canadian history) and to the Court of Appeals for Ontario in 1992. In 2004, Abella became the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Taking her listeners on a “journey” that was as personal and emotive as it was challenging and scholarly, Abella said the human rights movement was “losing steam” at the end of the century. “We thought the war was won and we removed our weapons … [but] … the crash of four planes [on 9/11] changed everything.”

Calling for a reinvigorated human rights agenda (“I know the United Nations is all we have, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best we can do”), Abella laid out three lessons the human rights community should not forget: Indifference is the incubator of injustice. It’s not what you stand for but what you stand up for. And never forget what the world looks like to those who are vulnerable.

Abella closed by recounting the story of her lawyer father’s welcome to Eleanor Roosevelt. (The former first lady visited the displaced persons’ camp for which Silberman was defense counsel.) All we have left are these children, Silberman told Roosevelt. They alone are our future.

“I was one of those children,” Abella said. “The gift of American justice at its best is the gift that keeps on giving.”

The instant the justice stopped speaking, the audience leapt to its feet.

-- Anne Cassidy