photoACLU President Susan N. Herman delivers inspirational Wallenberg lecture (March 22, 2012) at McGill Faculty of Law and stresses the need to remain vigilant in the current political climate

Susan N. Herman named a dozen “heroes” of human rights during her Wallenberg Lecture last month, one of whom was seated in the audience (view conference recording). McGill grad Maher Arar (B.Eng‘95) was singled out by Professor Herman during her talk on “Taking Liberties: The War on Terror, Civil Liberties and the American Courts” for his determination to continue pushing for civil liberties after a personal ordeal.

Arar was wrongfully suspected by the RCMP of having ties to terrorist organizations, which led to his extraordinary rendition by American forces to Syria, where he was tortured and detained for more than a year. Arar has since received an official apology from the Government of Canada, along with a $10-million settlement, and has founded PRISM Magazine, an online journal dedicated to issues of civil liberties.

“It was very special to have the presence of Maher Arar,” said Nandini Ramanujam, Executive Director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, which sponsors the annual lecture series.

The presence of Herman herself was equally inspiring. As the Centennial Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, where she teaches Constitutional Law and Criminal Procedure as well as seminars in Terrorism and Civil Liberties, Herman has also been the President of the American Civil Liberties Union since October 2008. “She exemplifies a full-time academic who is also hands-on and very involved,” added Dr. Ramanujam

About the Wallenberg Conferences
The Wallenberg Conferences are human rights lectureships sponsored by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, and named in honour of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat whose actions saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Hungary during the Second World War.

The Raoul Wallenberg Forum in Human Rights was inaugurated in 1988 by Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel in what became a national commemorative occasion for the cause of human rights.

Recent lectures have been delivered by Egyptian-American sociologist and civil rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 2004, Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow in 2006, and by Open Society Institute President Aryeh Neier in 2008.

Herman stressed the need to remain vigilant in the current political climate. She pointed out that during the decade since 9/11, American antiterrorism efforts have led to gross violations of human rights such as that seen in Arar’s case. While the brunt of the burden has been borne by particular groups, namely Muslim and Arab men, she reminded us that the infringement of a few select people’s civil liberties is a concern for all people committed to the basic principles of human rights.

Herman also highlighted the erosion of the privacy rights of ordinary Americans under post 9/11 security regimes, and critiqued American courts, legislators and the executive branch for their failure to protect Americans from the erosion of civil liberties. Going beyond that, Herman deliberately brought a positive spin to the lecture by putting the focus on Arar and other real-life heroes fighting for civil liberties in this post-9/11 world.

The second Canadian on Herman’s list of twelve heroes was Jameel Jaffer. A human rights attorney who grew up in Kingston, Ontario, Jaffer clerked for a year at the Supreme Court of Canada, later moving to New York City, where he works as the Deputy Legal Director at the ACLU. Jaffer has litigated several critical cases, including ACLU v. Department of Defense, which has resulted in the disclosure of thousands of government records, including the “torture memos” written by lawyers in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel.

“I thought Professor Herman’s talk really resonated with the spirit of Wallenberg’s work and legacy, particularly his belief that individual actions can make a tremendous difference in our fight for justice and liberty,” said Dr Ramanujam. “She really got it.”

Professor Herman was introduced by Professor Colleen Sheppard, Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. The evening also included a short presentation by Me Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, about the importance of securing civil liberties in Canada. Following a lively exchange of questions, final comments and thanks were given by Montreal human rights lawyer and CHRLP member, Me Pearl Eliadis, BCL’85, LLB’85.

Article by Bridget Wayland. Photos by Lysanne Larose.