Fordham Law

Int'l Human Rights Leader Delivered Comments at 100th Diploma Ceremony

May 21, 2007

Justice Richard J. Goldstone, a former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and international human rights leader, delivered the address to the graduates at the Law School's 100th Diploma Ceremony.

The Law School presented J.D. degrees to 491 students and LL.M. degrees to 91 students at the ceremony on Sunday, May 20, held at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center.

Justice Goldstone is one of the world's leading figures in international human rights law. In 1991, he assumed the role of Chairperson of South Africa's Commission of Inquiry regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, which came to be known as the Goldstone Commission. From 1994 to 1996, he served as was the Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Justice Goldstone held Fordham Law's William Hughes Mulligan Chair in International Legal Studies in the fall of 2005 and will return to Fordham to hold the post again in the fall of 2007.

Justice Goldstone's complete remarks at the May 20 diploma ceremony are included below.


It is a great privilege to have been invited to deliver this address and in doing so to celebrate your achievements with you and your families. Your Law School Commencement will stand out as one of the most memorable occasions and milestones in your life.

A law degree from this leading law school provides you with an array of choices for your future career. It gives you an opportunity to aspire to become a leader wherever you may live. In the leading institutions around the world, whether commercial, professional or political, you will find that a disproportionate number of senior officials are lawyers. This is no coincidence. The discipline of the law is an excellent foundation not only for a career in the law but also in many other fields.

It is a small proportion of citizens of this or any other nation who have a real choice of career. Unemployment is an ongoing problem and many people, out of necessity, have to accept uncongenial employment. The privilege each of you have now earned is the opportunity to choose the area of activity in which you would like to make your career. Your responsibility is to use your skills to create a better society for yourself, your family and your fellow citizens.

In my career I have been struck by the power of leadership. People, all of us, look to good leaders in all aspects of our communal lives. We appreciate civic leaders who lead by example and who foster democracy and morality whether at the city, state or national level. Most people enjoy following good leaders and that is what makes democracy possible, whether in large or small nations.

It is good leadership that has made this great nation the superpower that it has become. It is good leadership that has endowed the United States with the principles of freedom and democracy that make this country the envy of so many others. Unfortunately, it is also the reason that it is hated by those  relatively few who find those principles inconsistent with their own misguided fundamentalist ideals. Equality, and especially gender equality, is anathema to them. They have no tolerance for ideas that compete with their own -- for it is that tolerance that lies at the core of democracy. It is their hatred that feeds international terrorism that has as its aim no positive outcome but rather the destruction of freedom and democracy.

There are many examples of good leadership. I am fortunate as a South African in having enjoyed the example of Nelson Mandela. He had a real choice after the end of Apartheid. He could understandably have called on his people to take revenge on the white minority that had oppressed them so cruelly for over 350 years. Had he done so, there could well have been the bloodbath that so many people prophesied and feared. After 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela called for peace and reconciliation and his people followed him. The society in which I am now proud to live is the result. Of course there are problems - HIV-Aids, unemployment and criminal violence. But that was inevitable given our history. What is important is that South Africa has a prosperous economy and policies that are moving us in a good direction. It is a country governed by the most progressive democratic constitution in the world. And, importantly, the principles enshrined in the Constitution are widely respected.

Allow me to illustrate from my own experience the importance of the good leadership provided by the American legal profession to that of South Africa during the Apartheid years. Those interventions helped in substantial ways to ease the transition from Apartheid to democracy. It was the United States legal community, with generous support from foundations such as Ford and Carnegie, that encouraged the establishment of organizations such as Lawyers for Human Rights and the Legal Resources Center. They are public interest law firms that used the courts to find loopholes in the Apartheid laws and provided many thousands of pro bono defences to the oppressed majority in the face of prosecutions under racist and oppressive laws. They helped keep the flame of justice burning and helped maintain some respect for the processes of justice. They enabled some of us who opposed racial discrimination to work within the system and become part of the peaceful change.

The United States was seen as an important ally by the majority of our people. That explains the tumultuous reception accorded to President Clinton during his 1998 visit to South Africa. It also explains the close friendship that grew up between President Mandela and the leaders of this country.

Unfortunately evil leaders also have appeal and find followers. History has conclusively taught that the policies of those leaders have driven their societies to ruin. Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein come to mind. It is significant that leaders of their ilk, while causing tremendous suffering, in the end failed. They achieved nothing of value but brought ruin and disgrace to themselves and many of their people.

The huge challenge facing democracies at the beginning of the 21st Century is to maintain and protect the fundamental principles of freedom in the face of attempts by evil people to subvert and destroy them. They use the freedoms inherent in democracy to achieve that end. Hence, the dilemma facing all democratic societies around the world.  How do we counter terrorism that is aimed at destroying our democratic way of life. If we weaken, or worse, destroy our own democratic way of life, we will be complicit in bringing victory to the terrorists. That is their first desire. I have no doubt that the likes of Bin Laden consider it a win whenever fundamental democratic principles or the rule of law is weakened in response to acts of terrorism. That is precisely what the terror is designed to achieve.

With the end of the Cold War in 1989 the standing of the United States in the world community could not have been higher. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 the whole world stood with the United States.

At this time in your history it is important for you to analyse and understand why so much of that support and admiration for the United States has  hemorrhaged.  I would invite you to examine the causes for the way in which the reputation of the United States has been tarnished in the eyes of people from nations who are your traditional friends.

I would suggest that the opposition so prevalent in many countries and especially in the developing world to the policies of your present Administration comes from the disrespect it appears to show for international law and international institutions. Traditionally, the exceptionalism of the United States has been its leadership of the free and democratic world. Unfortunately, today the United States is widely perceived as standing for exceptionalism that is based upon the application of double standards and unilateral action.

You should take a step back, and without any preconceived conclusions, examine the recent policies of your government. Consider the manner in which they have failed to respect and protect some of the fundamental freedoms that have become synonymous with America as the great beacon of democracy. Consider the manner in which your government has chosen, in the fight against terrorism, to sanction the use of inhumane and degrading treatment of people held for excessively long periods in detention without trial; treatment that has for decades been inconsistent with both American law and with the norms of international law to which the United States has bound itself. Consider, too, the recent practise of the extraordinary rendition of persons subject to the control of your government to countries where they are likely to suffer torture. You should try to imagine the suffering of hundreds of people who have now languished for over five years at Guantanamo Bay. They have not been tried for any offense and recent legislation denies them the writ of habeas corpus. And, you should also consider dispassionately why this country has now abandoned its traditional allies in their endeavor to withdraw impunity from war criminals by establishing a permanent international criminal court. Most important of all you should ask yourselves and examine which, if any, of those measures have made you any safer than you would have been been without them. We read earlier this week of the arrest of six alleged terrorists planning to attack Fort Dix. I would suggest that their plot will have been foiled by efficient policing by the FBI that does not rely on any of the methods to which I have referred.

Law graduates in all democracies should conduct this exercise, for the leaders of many of them have also acted contrary to the democratic principles for which they have always stood.  It is to the credit of their courts as it is to your own that some corrections to overreach by executive authorities have come. Judicial oversight and the separation of powers are the only safeguard of your democracy and mine.

These are all difficult and complex issues and there are no ready or simple answers to them. That is the challenge you face. It is in this context that your law degree equips you to provide good leadership to your community and your country in whatever career you choose to follow. It is an opportunity that you should seize. This is a democracy in which you really have that choice.

You live in what is undoubtedly the most open society in the world. I have spent much of the past four years teaching in this country. In my experience, there is no other nation in which a foreign visitor would feel as free and comfortable raising the issues to which I have referred today. You will not consider me impertinent for doing so. That is not true of many other democracies. In oppressive societies it would not be possible at all.

It is this openness and freedom that you should cherish and fight to preserve. The challenge, especially for lawyers and lawmakers, is to find the means to fight the scourge of terrorism without destroying democracy. If we fail in that endeavor we will have lost the battle and terrorism and evil will be the winners. It is especially in times of violence and fear that democracy is endangered and has to be protected. Terrorism should be recognized for what it is - an extreme form of criminality. It should be fought as such and its supporters and leaders should not be given the status of war leaders.

Allow me to conclude by making a plea for the United States to continue to lead the free world by its traditional values and to use its incomparable power to that end.

I warmly congratulate you and your families on your achievements and wish you every success and happiness in your future careers.



Contact: Jennifer Spencer, 212.636.7604