Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Donat Pharand

It is impossible to even begin to do justice to this pioneer of international law in Canada in these few words, but I would like to touch upon some of his extraordinary achievements and qualities as a scholar and publicist, as a teacher and consultant, as a European judge and, simply, as a person.

Ron, the scholar and publicist, took the first steps toward his academic career by completing a B.A. at St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish, in 1949, and an LL.B. at Dalhousie in 1952. He then went on to complete two LL.M. degrees: one at London University in 1954, the other, at Harvard in 1955. During his 50 years of scholarly work, Ron published more than 75 substantial articles exploring various aspects of international and constitutional law. His focus was mainly on human rights and international organizations, particularly the United Nations and the need for its reform.

Ron believed that there was a need “to promote the idea that law is liberating instead of constraining” and that “law makes possible the kind of society we want to live in”. He applied that vision to the international community, and he pressed for the adoption of a process which could lead to an eventual global constitution. It is remarkable that Ron never ceased to publish, even when he was dean, and he strongly encouraged his professors to publish as well.

In addition to his prolific personal writings, Ron was the founding editor of four law journals and the general editor of some seven voluminous books. One of these was a 972-page volume entitled Canadian Perspectives on International Law and Organization which he organized and co-edited with his colleagues Gerald Morris and Douglas Johnston in 1974. As a teacher for over 35 years at Osgoode Hall, Western Ontario, University of Toronto and Dalhousie, and dean for twelve of those years at the last two universities, Ron never ceased to make teaching his priority along with his writings. Along with his teaching, Ron was a consultant to foreign governments, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of External Affairs. He was even Canada’s representative on the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the General Assembly of the UN for some five sessions, in the 1960s and 70s. His numerous consultancies with External Affairs were all the more significant that the Department was still rather reluctant at that time to seek outside legal advice.

As if the above record were not impressive enough, it was perhaps as a judge on the European Court of Human Rights that Ron might have made his most memorable contribution. At the request of Lichtenstein, he became the candidate of that country and was elected to the court where he quickly became known as the Canadian judge. During his tenure of eighteen years (1980-1998), he heard a great variety of cases and developed a reputation for taking a reflective and flexible approach. In particular, he supported the doctrine of “margin of appreciation”, which permits a country to take reasonable account of its own culture and values in the implementation of its human rights obligations.

With this adaptable approach in mind, it is not surprising that Ron paid special attention to human rights in China. Having supervised the graduate work of numerous Chinese students at Dalhousie in the field of human rights, several of his former students became professors of international law in China and one, Bai Guimei, is now Deputy Director of the Research Center for Human Rights at Peking University, Beijing. She is presently pursuing a project with the University of Ottawa on various forms of discrimination, particularly in relation to women. Ron firmly believed that, in our global village, we should stress our common humanity rather than our diversity, particularly in the area of human rights.

As a person, Ron was a profoundly good human being, genuinely interested in others. Endowed with an exceptional intellect and sound judgment, he always showed the greatest respect and tolerance for the views of others. In the fifty-seven years I knew him, I do not recall once his having used disparaging words when disagreeing with someone else. Indeed, it might be said that he carried his politeness and diplomacy to a fault. But this was his nature and hallmark: gracious, charming, unassuming, generous in his judgment of others and quick to recognize their contribution.

Among Ron’s innumerable accomplishments, perhaps the most important and enduring for the international law community in Canada was his foundation of the Canadian Council on International Law. He was not only its founding President, but the Council was his vision and it remains his lasting legacy. Beginning with a modest membership of 35 in 1972, consisting mainly of academics and a few government lawyers, the Council now maintains an average of over 200 regular members and about 150 student members. Aware, however, that the Council had difficulty making ends meet, Ron proposed that a special dinner be held on the occasion of its 35th anniversary. At that dinner, the contribution of the Council to the study of the legal aspects of Canada’s international problems would be highlighted and suggestions to improve the Council’s financial situation would be discussed. My earnest hope is that Ron’s proposal will be implemented, in spite of the view of some that it was somewhat grandiose. We owe it to Ron to give it our best effort.

Described as a citizen of the world, Ronald St. John Macdonald was a Companion of the Order of Canada, a Queen’s Counsel, a member of the Institut de droit international, an honorary professor of law at Peking University, a former President of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, the recipient of the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Medal for Law awarded by the Canadian Bar Association, the holder of four honorary degrees of doctor of laws awarded by the universities of McGill, Dalhousie, Carleton and St. Francis Xavier, and a recipient of the John E. Read Gold Medal awarded by the Canadian Council on International Law. Ron devoted his whole life to the law and never married. He will be profoundly missed by his two loving sisters, Dr. Mairi Macdonald, of Halifax, and Dr. Elizabeth Podnieks, of Toronto, and by his colleagues, former students and friends.

May his legacy be a model and his memory a blessing.

Note: A more complete version of this tribute will appear in the next issue of Ocean Yearbook.

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