Monday, January 15, 2007

William A. Schabas*

Ron and I were at the beginning of a project together when he passed away. I think the last time I had seen him was in Halifax a few years ago, when I was doing some guest lecturing at Dalhousie. Phil Saunders organised a lunch, and we met at a local hotel, I think. Phil had warned me that Ron’s health wasn’t at its best, and that we would keep the meeting relatively short. It was delightful and cordial. Those of you who knew him well will recall how charming and gregarious he could be.

About a year ago, Ron wrote me to inquire if I might get involved with him in a project he wanted to develop concerning the human right to peace. Ron had done some writing on this already, and he sent me an offprint. He was interested in developing the whole idea further. He was pushing on an open door, as far as I was concerned. I wrote him an enthusiastic reply, with a detailed explanation of my views and how I thought we might develop things.

Ron, of course, was still in the 1970s as far as technology was concerned. So these exchanges took place by letter, and I presume he dictated his to a secretary. Rather than get back to me by e-mail (he probably didn’t even have an e-mail address), he phoned me one day at my office. Alas, I was not available then, and all I received was a recorded message. It is my last memory of him.

I knew all about him long before I first met him. The Canadian judge at the European Court of Human Rights! It was all very impressive. To think that when the Europeans went looking for a non-European to sit on their Court, they picked a Canadian. He was a fine judge, of course, participating in the defining case law of the Court, such as Soering v. United Kingdom, which concerned capital punishment and extradition. That judgment has set the tone for so much in the area of human rights. It is really the basis of all of the non-refoulement decisions now.

I remember him telling me of his disappointment at the result in Cruz Varas v. Sweden, which dealt with the binding force of provisional measures requests. He was in dissent on that one. It was very close, ten to nine, I think. A few years ago, the Court reversed itself, subscribing to the views of the minority in Cruz Varas.

We got to know each other at the big academic gatherings – the Canadian Council of International Law, of which he was a stalwart, and the American Society of International Law, which he attended pretty regularly too. I know that in later years he wasn’t in the best of health, but somehow he managed to make the meetings. He showed such friendship to younger colleagues. He was the great judge and the learned professor, but one always felt that he viewed you as an equal, and that he was interested in what you were doing and what you had to say.

A mentor? A role model? Something like that. He sure was a great friend and colleague.

*Professor William A. Schabas, OC
Director, Irish Centre for Human Rights
National University of Ireland, Galway