Name: Lisa Finnegan Email: [email protected] Phone: 212 636 7175 New York- Supreme Court justices are the gatekeepers of democracy and must keep human rights and human dignity at the forefront of all their decisions especially in times of war, said Aharon Barak, president of the Supreme Court of Israel. Barak told more than 250 people attending the Law School’s Sonnett Memorial Lecture on Sept. 10 that the Israeli Supreme Court operates on a real-time schedule so these two tenets can be protected. “I see my role as a justice on the Supreme Court in a democracy as protecting our Constitution and protecting our democracy,” he said. “The supreme test [of this]is during the war against terrorism. It is a deception to believe there is a distinction between human rights and democracy during times of war or peace.”
Since human rights violations often happen in the evening or on weekends, Israel has what it calls a “jurist on duty” who takes late-night calls from petitioners seeking justice. Barak has made several difficult rulings after being awakened from sleep by such a call. In one instance a group of refugees was on its way to deportation to Lebanon and, potentially, harm’s way when their fate was sealed by a decision by Barak. “Their cars were literally turned around because they had not had a chance to be heard and we guarantee that right,” he said. Another time a human rights organization petitioned on behalf of a captured terrorist they believed would be tortured by police for information. “Our police officers were called in and asked if they would use torture against this prisoner and they said yes,” Barak said. “We made a decision on the spot that this could not happen. There is no real democracy without such principals as morality and values.”
Justices cannot be swayed by public opinion but must focus on making decisions that will shape the future, Barak said. They must insist on receiving answers to difficult questions about everything, including proclaimed security concerns. “The concept of democracy is broader than the concept of majority rules,” he said. “The court must insist on hearing security concerns and must be convinced in the framework of these security measures. The war against terrorism must be conducted within the law.” When asked his opinion about the U.S.’s actions in the aftermath of Sept. 11, he refrained from taking sides and quipped “that’s your problem.” Barak recalled his early years in a Jewish ghetto in Lithuania during World War II and said those years formed his lifelong belief that human life and human dignity cannot be compromised. “Though we were dust in those ghettos, we were human beings and we had our dignity,” he said. The lesson was not hatred. The lesson was the centrality of a state’s responsibility to protect human rights. The lesson was the centrality of the human being and of human dignity.