Friday, 3 December 2010

Sixty Years and a Gold Watch

Unwrapping the gold watch.

From left, Annabel Egan, Kathleen Cavanaugh, Shane Darcy, myself, Vinodh Jaichand, Noam Lubell, Penelope Soteriou and Nancie Prud'homme
At our annual holiday party Wednesday night, my students and colleagues surprised me with a birthday cake and a beautiful gift. They presented me with an extraordinary gold watch, a tank-style Bulova made in the 1940s, to mark my sixtieth birthday. In the past, individual students have occasionally given me modest and symbolic presents, but I have never in my entire university career received something so splendid. I take it as a sign of great affection and appreciation, and I will cherish it for the rest of my life. I am deeply touched by your thoughtfulness and generosity. Perhaps, many years from now, I will pass it on to one of my beloved grandsons.
I was born on 19 November 1950, just two weeks and a day after the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights. I suppose I started becoming aware of the events and ideas that have dominated my professional life by the time I was about 10. My maternal grandmother kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings recording the march towards independence of African states and the end of colonialism. I recall her showing this to me, and I started doing the same thing. I also remember the Sharpville Massacre, the brutal killing in 1960 of peaceful demonstrators in South Africa that is commemorated to this day, on 21 March, as the world day against racial discrimination. Eichmann was captured a few weeks later; my friends and I all shared in a sense that justice was being done. When I was twelve, we were taken to the basement of our school in Toronto and shown how to sit with our heads between our knees and our eyes closed, the better to protect against a nuclear blast that seemed a plausible consequence of the Cuban missile crisis. Many of my students are now too young to recall when Nelson Mandela was released from jail, whereas I still think of the day that he was convicted. Later, we protested the war in Vietnam, using terms like aggression, genocide and war crimes, although I knew them only in a rhetorical sense and had no real grasp of their legal significance. I don’t believe that I was even aware of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the Genocide Convention, until I studied international law at the Université de Montréal in the early 1980s. I suppose I first heard of the European Court of Human Rights about that time, as well. In other words, from a very young age I was acutely aware of racial discrimination, genocide, apartheid and fair trial issues, but I had no idea until much later of the international legal framework that has become so central to my own academic work.
Slightly more than ten years ago I moved to Ireland to take up the new professorial chair in human rights that had just been established. My goal then was to direct a university-based human rights centre, and the National University of Ireland, Galway gave me the opportunity. I was given the key to the front door of a newly-renovated building designated as the future home of the ‘Irish Centre for Human Rights’. Soon, I was joined by one of my students from Québec, Nancie Prud’homme, and shortly afterwards by two of my dearest colleagues, Joshua Castellino and Kathleen Cavanaugh. We began the great adventure of creating this institution. Then, Ray Murphy moved down the road from the School of Law, and we recruited Vinodh Jaichand from South Africa. More recently, we’ve added Noam Lubell and Shane Darcy – one of our distinguished doctoral graduates – to the team. Joshua moved on eventually, as part of his own stunning career path; he took with him Nadia Bernaz, who worked with us for two years. Both Nadia and Joshua were a great loss to us, but their ongoing friendship and involvement in the Centre remains. In the background were devoted support staff, especially Fiona Gardiner, Louise Burke and Louise McDermott, and a constantly evolving cohort of masters and doctoral students. And in the deep background – always – was Penelope, who frequently hosted the Centre staff, students and visitors at her legendary parties.
We marked the tenth year of the Irish Centre for Human Rights a few weeks ago. It coincided with my birthday (we had initially planned the events for the Centre’s ten years on another weekend, but it had to be rescheduled), and I didn’t want the two events to be confused. The organizers respected my insistence that there be no cakes or singing, although David Norris couldn’t resist and let the cat out of the bag during the banquet. Now, both of these events have been properly celebrated.
All of the stars seemed to line up in the creation and growth of the phenomenal institution known as the Irish Centre for Human Rights. There was a marvelous synergy created by some fabulous scholars who all seemed to enjoy each other’s company, to respect each other’s individuality and above all to value the unique contributions of people with different strengths and areas of interest. Our students have found this collegial spirit to be infectious, and they have shared in and benefited from it with great enthusiasm. We profited from a prosperous and optimistic time in Irish history (that may now be coming to an end), and from a University that supported our work at the highest levels. The chemistry of it all was special, unique, and maybe it isn’t reproducible. Judging by the wonderful celebrations of 19 and 20 November, the Centre has certainly got enough energy and momentum for many years to come. And so do I. Someone said that sixty is the new forty, which does a good job of describing how I feel as I enter my seventh decade.

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