President of Israeli Supreme Court Speaks Out on Human Rights and Proportionality

9 June 2009

Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel and Visiting Professor of Law at Yale University delivered the FLJS Annual Lecture in Law and Society at Rhodes House, Oxford on 4 June. The lecture, organized by FLJS in association with the Law Faculty and the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University, outlined his theory of proportionality as a means to reaching the appropriate balance between securing public goods and the safeguarding of human rights.

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.

Barak's lecture came in the wake of Barack Obama's Cairo address calling for a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Professor Barak, who is regarded by some legal scholars as the world's greatest living jurist, addressed the appropriate balance between security and the safeguarding of human rights.

Recounting cases in which he adjudicated on family unification, the construction of the separation fence, and authorized torture, Barak argued for a broad level of judicial discretion, while cautioning against the excessive use of executive power in response to threats to national security: “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 is renowned for championing an activist judiciary and the rule of law, and in 2006 he was awarded the Gruber Justice Prize.

The lecture was followed by a workshop on 5 June in which a leading group of academics discussed the issues raised in the Annual Lecture.

An audio podcast and video extract of Professor Barak's lecture are available from the links on the right, with further video extracts available in the Resources section.

A transcript of the lecture and workshop programme can be downloaded from the Downloads box on the right.