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Introductions of Justice Rosalie Abella on International Women’s Day

March 15, 2021

Professor Rangita de Silva’s class on International Women’s Human Rights celebrated International Women’s Day on March 9, 2021 with Justice Rosalie Abella of the Canadian Supreme Court, introduced by Martha Minow, the former Dean and 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University.

Professor Rangita de Silva’s class on International Women’s Human Rights celebrated International Women’s Day on March 9, 2021 with Justice Rosalie Abella of the Canadian Supreme Court, introduced by Martha Minow, the former Dean and 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University.

Professor de Silva de Alwis’s introduction of Dean Minow

Over the arc of her distinguished career, Dean Minow has reshaped Harvard Law School, and as a legal scholar her ideas have profoundly shaped the human condition and transformed law and justice in our world. Her towering intellect spans such an extraordinary range- from philosophy, to public affairs, to education, to human rights, to the law - that it is nearly impossible to identify her single most important contribution. Given my own background, I am highlighting three of her works.

First, her book Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence. From my own work around the world, including in Cambodia’s Extraordinary Chambers, I observed first-hand how her work was used in transitional justice and restorative justice processes and practices in many countries recovering from conflict. Her book was also pivotal in my own work with Sri Lanka’s now aborted Truth Justice and Reconciliation initiative. Her arguments helped me see that even 11 years after the end of a 25-year civil war, reconciliation remains a process and a challenging imperative.

Second, as we mark the 30th anniversary of her book, Making all the Difference: Inclusion and Exclusion, I reflect on the extraordinary impact it has had on our current public reckoning on the legacy of racism, sexism, ableism and their intersections. In fact, the book helped to shape this moment and our efforts on inclusion, much before the term ‘inclusion’ became a part of our national vernacular.

More significantly, her case studies in the book on integrated education and the rights of children with disabilities were pivotal to me in helping me make the case to the United Nations for Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in calling for inclusive educational systems for children with disabilities and for intersectional identities such as minority girls with disabilities in Articles 6 and 7 of the Convention.

Third, her latest work, When Should Law Forgive? is a monumental tour de force on the power of the law to forgive in times such as now. Her philosophy transcends narrow compartments, and she has forever challenged our understanding of justice. As a student of hers, she demonstrates to me the power of law to elevate our understanding of what it means to be human and humane. Her scholarship makes a lasting difference to those who most need it in far corners of the world, children, persons with disabilities, and intersectional groups. Her work draws on an astounding array of moral philosophy, law, and the humanities. To her I owe a debt of gratitude for demonstrating that the majesty of law requires that it be equal and maintains the dignity of all. But today, we thank her for giving us Justice Abella.

Dean Martha Minow’s introduction of Justice Rosalie Abella

“The goal of equality is more than an evolutionary intolerance to adverse discrimination. It is to ensure, too, that the vestiges of these arbitrarily restrictive assumptions do not continue to play a role in our society. …It is not a question of whether this discrimination is motivated by an intentional desire to obstruct someone’s potential, or whether it is the accidental by-product of innocently motivated practices or systems. If the barrier is affecting certain groups in a disproportionately negative way, it is a signal that the practices that lead to this adverse impact may be discriminatory.” These words are from Canada’s 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment. Then-Judge Abella was the author and sole Commissioner. That’s when I first heard of the distinguished, and one-and-only Justice Abella.

That is where I learned the she concept she invented: ‘employment equity,’ meaning “employment practices designed to eliminate discriminatory barriers and to provide in a meaningful way equitable opportunities in employment.” This idea and the underlying analysis informed the Supreme Court of Canada in its first decision dealing with equality rights under the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedom, as well as the governments of Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and South Africa—and informs ongoing advocacy in the United States.

When a constitutional crisis arose over the role of Quebec in Canada, the national government turned to Judge Abella to chair the Constitutional Conferences which were set up to deal with the crisis over the role of Quebec within Canada. She also wrote a ground-breaking study on Access to Legal Services by the Disabled. She chaired the Ontario Labour Relations Board and was a leader of law reform.
She was the youngest judge in Canadian history, appointed at the age of 29 to the Ontario Family Court (now part of the Ontario Court of Justice), becoming both the youngest. She was apparently also the first pregnant judge in Canadian history. Elevated then to the court of appeals and then to the Supreme Court of Canada, where she became the first Jewish woman in that role. Author of scholarly articles, global lecturer, and visionary jurist, she does justice every day.

Born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany on July 1, 1946, Her parents survived the Holocaust. This heritage, her parents’ guidance, and her opportunities in Canada have something to do with her lifelong devotion to human rights, her membership in the United States Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Conscience. Among her many awards and recognitions, The Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center for International Human Rights named her the Global Jurist of the Year in 2016 for her lifelong commitment to human rights and international criminal justice. Her humanity is all hers and I am so honored by the invitation from your amazing teacher to introduce her to you.


Justice Rosalie Abella’s comments to the class not publicly available.