Most people consider the 20th century, with its unprecedented technological advancement and evolving global economy, as the most progressive period in human history in terms of improvements in the quality of human life. In her lecture at Vanderbilt Law School April 5, Canadian Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin noted another distinction of the 20th century: In her view, it was “one of the most intolerant and bloodiest of all history."
Chief Justice McLachlin delivered the law school’s annual Jonathan I. Charney Distinguished Lecture in International Law, “Intolerance in the 20th Century: Will the 21st Century Be Better?” The 20th century, she noted, started with the Armenian genocide by the Turks, ended with genocidal wars in Rwanda, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia, had as its mid-point the Holocaust, and was marked by the assassinations of many leaders seeking to reconcile peoples with ethnic and religious differences, including Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin. “We stand today at the threshold of a new century, and so far, there’s little sign that we’re doing better than before,” McLachlin said.
McLachlin divided the forms intolerance takes into five categories: intolerance of ideas, of political views, of other ethnic groups and races, within the context of war, and economic imperialism or “unbridled capitalism.” In a mobile society where groups of differing ethnicities, religious heritages and economic status must co-exist in a single society, she emphasized, ongoing dialog and a culture of mutual respect are essential. “A nation may rightly feel it’s important to protect the core values that define it – democracy, value of women, a common language – values that may be perceived by some to be threatened by a foreign, invading culture,” she said. “Tolerance does not require that we love everyone we see or meet. What it does require is accommodation to the extent that can be offered without trampling on the rights of others.”
Affirming that “tolerance has always been present side by side with intolerance,” McLachlin cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, widespread acceptances of bills of rights and an independent judiciary as essential pillars of democracy, and the fact that sovereign nations are no longer afforded unfettered power to abuse their people without outside interference.
She recalled meeting with a group of Romanian judges after the fall of the Iron Curtain to discuss how an independent judiciary works within a democratic legal process. “At a cocktail gathering,” she said, “one of them got me in a corner, and said, ‘You can’t tell me that the minister doesn’t phone you up and tell you what to decide.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, one minister once phoned a judge just to ask when the decision was coming out, and that minister had to resign.’ We take for granted an independent judiciary, but this is still a very strange notion” in some other countries.
Although heinous acts of intolerance occurred during the 20th century, human rights also “became a force to be reckoned with” during its last five decades, McLachlin said. “The world for the first time in history recognized the inherent dignity of human beings.”
The Jonathan I. Charney Distinguished Lecture in International Law is an annual lecture series established in memory of prominent legal scholar and former Vanderbilt law professor Jonathan I. Charney after his death in 2002. The 2007 Charney lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for the Americas at Vanderbilt.