New York, December 5, 2012—Columbia Law School Visiting Professor Arthur Chaskalson, who was the first president of the South African Constitutional Court and an international champion of human rights, passed away on December 1, at the age of 81. Chaskalson twice spent extended periods of time in Morningside Heights as a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, and, over many years, took part in the Law School’s constitutional and human rights programs.
“Columbia Law School was privileged to have had a close intellectual and personal connection to Arthur,” said David M. Schizer
, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law; Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics.
Chaskalson was born on November 24, 1931, in Johannesburg, the city that would later become the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. In 1954, he graduated with an LL.B. cum laude from the University of the Witwatersrand.
At Witwatersrand, Chaskalson made a name for himself as an individual of great integrity and a fervent supporter of equal rights. During a symposium marking Chaskalson’s retirement from the Constitutional Court, his friend and fellow human rights lawyer George Bizos (who also has taught South African human rights law at Columbia Law School) recalled when Chaskalson rose to his defense after Bizos ran into trouble with the Student’s Representative Council at Witwaterstrand for questioning the school’s policies on the treatment of black students.
“Surely the question is not what the University policy is, what is has been, and what it ought to be,” Chaskalson said, challenging the council’s chairman. “The question is actually a simple one. Let us just ask what is right and what is wrong.”
Chaskalson became a leading member of the bar in Johannesburg, esteemed across a wide range of legal practice, including the defense of human rights during the rise of apartheid and a period of increasing governmental repression. In 1963, Chaskalson was chosen by human rights lawyer Joel Joffe to be part of a defense team representing Nelson Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) who had been charged with sabotage, a capital offense. While the defendants were found guilty, the court did not impose the death penalty, instead sentencing them to life imprisonment, which, under the circumstances, was a victory. (Mandela spent 18 years confined on Robben Island. He was released from prison in 1990.)
Over the next several years, Chaskalson established himself as one of the most successful barristers in South Africa. During this time, he met Columbia Law School Professor Jack Greenberg ’48,
who was then serving as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). The meeting was arranged by the Carnegie Corporation, which had a Commonwealth program that promoted human rights in South Africa. A staff member of that program had been a civil rights lawyer who worked with LDF representing Freedom Riders in Mississippi. Inspired by the work of the LDF and discouraged about the state of human rights in his country, Chaskalson asked Greenberg to help educate South African bar associations and law faculties about public interest law through lectures and meetings that continued to take place during the next several years. Greenberg brought several Columbia Law School faculty members along with him on those trips to South Africa, including international arbitration legend Hans Smit ’53 LL.B. Smit, who passed away earlier this year, was Dutch. He impressed Afrikaaner members of the white-settler ruling party by speaking to them in his native language, on which their language, Afrikaans, was based.
Chaskalson decided to leave his law practice in the late 1970s to help create the Legal Resources Centre, a law firm focused on ending apartheid through legal methods. With Chaskalson as director, it grew in size and influence, winning cases that undermined the foundation of the apartheid government. He took respite in Morningside Heights when Professor Greenberg invited him to spend a year at the Law School as a visiting professor in 1987. During that time, Chaskalson taught several courses and seminars, including Legal Responses to Apartheid.
In 1990, Mandela’s sentence was overturned and he was released from prison to once again lead the ANC. For the next three years, multi-party constitutional negotiations were held in an effort to draft a democratic constitution and demolish apartheid. Chaskalson worked as an adviser for the ANC in its negotiations with the National Party. He was a member of the ANC group that negotiated the transition to democracy with the then South African government and was the principal draftsman of the new South African constitution. In 1994, Mandela won the South African presidency in the country’s first multi-racial elections and appointed Chaskalson president of the newly created Constitutional Court. Five of the court’s 11 initially appointed justices were affiliated with the Legal Resources Centre, which Chaskalon helped found.
Chaskalson oversaw a court that went about the task of striking down the precedents of the old government and building the foundations for a new South Africa. In one of the Constitutional Court’s first cases, the justices unanimously held the death penalty unconstitutional.
“Retribution cannot be accorded the same weight under our Constitution as the right to life and dignity,” Chaskalson told The New York Times following the decision. “Everyone, including the most abominable of human beings, has a right to life.”
Over the next decade, Chaskalson would preside over a number of landmark equality cases, advancing the rights of people with HIV, same-sex couples, and women. He retired as chief justice of South Africa (head of the entire judiciary, not merely the Constitutional Court) in 2005, but did not step away from the world of human rights and social justice. In 1995, Chaskalson was named a commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a non-partisan organization dedicated to human rights issues. He would later serve as president of the ICJ for six years.
In 1999, Chaskalson was appointed to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, which aids in international dispute resolution. Two years later, he was named to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a U.N. judicial body that rules on war crimes committed in the region. In 2006, Chaskalson was chosen to lead the Eminent Jurists Panel, which spent three years analyzing the effects of terrorism and counterterrorism efforts on the rule of law and human rights.
Chaskalson again joined the faculty of Columbia Law School in 2004 as a visiting professor, co-teaching a course on comparative constitutionalism with the late Professor Louis Henkin. That October, he was on campus for a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid and the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 and Professor Greenberg, one of the lawyers who had argued Brown, were also in attendance.
“The great challenge facing [South Africa] now, similar, I believe, to a challenge facing the United States, is to create a society in which the basic needs of all our people are met, a society in which there is social justice, a society in which we can live together in harmony, showing respect and concern for each other,” Chaskalson told the crowd that night. “[H]opefully the time will come when we can say that at last the aspirations of our Constitution have been achieved.”
Chaskalson’s Legal Resources Centre continues to promote social justice initiatives throughout South Africa, and, for decades, Columbia Law School students interested in public interest law have been afforded the opportunity to work as human rights interns at the Centre. Greenberg observed that a brief biography of Chaskalson’s formidable accomplishments would be remiss if it did not also convey that he had a great sense of humor, and was lots of fun to travel with, dine with, and simply be with.
Chaskalson is survived by his wife, Dr. Lorraine Chaskalson; his two sons, Matthew and Jerome; and several grandchildren.