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January 27, 2009

South African judge to teach human rights

[img id="77201" align="alignleft"] Albie Sachs, a human rights activist and judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, spoke Tuesday on his nation’s struggle for equality through what he called “the strange alchemy of life and law,” an interpretation of the law that relies on legal logic and life experiences.

Sachs, who lost an arm in a car bombing by South African security agents in 1988, will teach a course at the University based on his new book. Sachs is the Human Rights Program’s first Richard and Ann Pozen Visiting Professor.

At the talk, Sachs discussed a few of his best-known cases, including Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie, which legalized same-sex marriages, and his role in giving verdicts that attempt to preserve human dignity.

Sachs discussed children’s rights, one of the first issues he tacked as a young South African in 1994.

He described a case where a single mother with three children was accused of a crime and sentenced to jail. When the case came to the Constitutional Court, Sachs and his colleagues saw an opportunity and a responsibility, “to look at the rights of the child,” Sachs said.  Because she showed she had “the capacity to be a decent member of society,” he said, the court decided she would only receive counseling and community service, but no jail time, to ensure her children’s right to their mother’s care.

Last year Sachs visited the U of C for a conference on torture.  “I almost couldn’t participate because someone was discussing the cost-benefit analysis of torture,” Sachs said, calling tortue ”something that rips out the heart of people’s souls.”  Sachs said it would be impossible to have a conference in a country with a history of torture.

In 1991, Sachs took part in a gay pride parade having just returned to South Africa from exile in Mozambique and England. In the 2005 case of Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie, Sachs continued to act on his belief that “separate but equal rights means not good enough.” In the end, despite some protests against the decision, “No walls came tumbling down and our society is still carrying on,” Sachs said.