President of Israeli Supreme Court Speaks Out on Rights, Security, and Proportionality

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Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, spoke in Oxford on Thursday at the Annual Lecture of the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society (FLJS), to outline his vision for the role of proportionality in limiting and protecting human rights. The lecture, organized by FLJS in association with the Law Faculty and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University, addressed the appropriate balance between security and the safeguarding of human rights. The lecture comes in response to Barack Obama's speech in Cairo calling for a halt to Israeli settlements. Aharon Barack argued that, "Many legal systems have strong protections in times of peace but not in times of war. ... In a country like Israel where terror is always with you, you had to develop ways of thinking which will not distinguish between terror and peace. If you develop special categories in times of war, you will not be able to get rid of them. They will linger in times of peace."

Aharon Barak

Many legal systems have strong protections in times of peace but not in times of war

Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel spoke in Oxford on Thursday on 'Rights and their Limits: the Role of Proportionality', at the Annual Lecture of the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society (FLJS). The lecture, organized by FLJS in association with the Law Faculty and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University, addressed the appropriate balance between security and the safeguarding of human rights.

Whilst Barack Obama's speech in Cairo increases pressure on Israel to end settlement construction in the West Bank, Aharon Barak has recently expressed regret at some of his decisions on Israel's activity in the territories. He admits to having handed down rulings contrary to his personal opinion: "I thought for many years, and still think, that house demolition is unworthy and not good. ... But as a judge, I felt I had no discretion on this subject. … I told myself, even though I am very much against house demolitions, that the article of the law allows demolition and all I can do is apply the principle of proportionality."

In his lecture, delivered at 6pm on Thursday 4th June at Rhodes House, Oxford, Barak examined the role of proportionality as both limitation on, and protection of, the right to dignity and liberty. He argued for the need to balance the importance of achieving the public goods such as national security and the importance of preventing injuries to these rights. "Many legal systems have strong protections in times of peace but not in times of war", he said. "I spent 28 years in court, I saw the rise of terror and the fall of terror. In a country like Israel where terror is always with you, you had to develop ways of thinking which will not distinguish between terror and peace. If you develop special categories in times of war, you will not be able to get rid of them. They will linger in times of peace."

Barak identified a divergence between his approach to this balance and that endorsed in America, arguing that, "the principled balance ... guides the legislator, administrator, or judge. It restricts the wide discretion in balancing. It makes the act of balance more open, more transparent, more structured and more foreseeable. This kind of balance differs from the principled balance endorsed in America."

Barak is renowned for championing an activist judiciary and the rule of law. In 2006 he was awarded the Gruber Justice Prize, and he is regarded by some legal scholars as the "world's greatest living jurist". Barak retired in 2006 as President of Israel's top court after 11 years at its helm, and 28 years in its service, during which time he expanded the powers of the court and reshaped Israel as a constitutional democracy.

The lecture is followed by a workshop on 5 June in which a leading group of academics discuss the issues raised in Professor Barak's lecture, as part of the FLJS programme on Courts and the Making of Public Policy.

Download a podcast and transcript of the lecture

Notes for editors

6.00pm, 4 June 2009
Rhodes House, South Parks Road, Oxford
Public Lecture:
'Rights and their Limits: the Role of Proportionality'
Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel
In this Annual Lecture for the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society, Professor Barak will address the appropriate balance between security and the safeguarding of human rights.

9.30am-1 pm, 5 June 2009
St Hugh's College, Oxford
Workshop: (invitation only)
'Human Rights, Security and Proportionality: the Courts' Point of View'

  •     Professor Barak retired on 16 September 2006 as President of Israel's top court after 11 years at its helm, and 28 years in its service. Barak has said that his role as a judge is to "protect human rights and the dignity and equality of every human being". He has spoken widely of how his experiences in the Holocaust have shaped his outlook and of the need to preserve the rule of democratic law not just in times of peace but also in times of war and terror.
  •     Born in Lithuania in 1936, Barak was one of the very few children to escape the Kovno Ghetto. He immigrated with his parents to Israel in 1947. He studied law, economics and international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and received an MA in law in 1958 and a doctorate in 1963. Barak was appointed Associate Professor of Law at the Hebrew University in 1968, and was made Professor in 1972.
  •     Barak participated in the preparation of an international treaty on bills of exchange for the United Nations, and served as Israel's Attorney General for three years from 1975, before his appointment to the Supreme Court in 1978. Under Barak's helm, the Israeli Supreme Court has interpreted Israel's basic law as its constitution and has, when necessary, challenged Knesset laws on that basis.
  •     Barak received the 2006 Gruber Justice Prize on September 21, 2006. He is the author of several books in English and Hebrew including The Judge in a Democracy (2006), Purposive Interpretation in Law (2005) and Judicial Discretion (1989).
  •     The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society is an independent institution affiliated with the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford.
  •     Founded in 2005, the mission of the Foundation is to study, reflect on and promote an understanding of the role that law plays in society. The Foundation draws on the work of scholars and researchers, and aims to make its work easily accessible to professionals in government, business, or the law.

http://www.fljs.org

  •     For more information, please contact Phil Dines, Communications Manager:

+44 (0)7809 219 543 (mobile); +44 (0)1865 284433

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