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Johannesburg - Arthur Chaskalson, who died on Saturday after a hard battle with leukaemia, was one of a small group of human rights lawyers who stood up for the suppressed during the four decades of increasingly dictatorial Nationalist rule. He had a soft manner of speaking but had a reputation as a formidable opponent in court, with a deep revulsion of apartheid’s mechanisms and its laws.
His exceptional abilities as a lawyer and his unflinching commitment to human rights and the cause of justice saw him rise to South Africa’s highest legal office and resulted in his acknowledgement internationally through a remarkable array of awards and positions.
He first came to the broad public attention when he was a member of the legal team that defended Nelson Mandela and his fellow accused in the Rivonia trial of 1963-1964. He was subsequently defence counsel in several other major political trials.
Chaskalson had a considerable hand in the 1990s in guiding South Africa’s transition to an all-race democracy under the rule of law and in shaping the constitution. He did so as an adviser to the ANC on constitutional matters. He did so, moreover, as a member of the technical committee on constitutional issues which the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum appointed in May 1993, and as a key adviser on the adoption of the interim constitution that year.
He was of similar help to Namibia. Between 1989 and 1990 he advised its Constituent Assembly on the drafting of the country’s constitution.
The esteem in which he was held as a human rights advocate, a constitutional expert and a man of impeccable integrity was borne out by his appointment in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela as the first president of the Constitutional Court, a title which changed to chief justice in 2001, and in which capacity he served till his retirement in 2005.
Shortly before his retirement, then president Thabo Mbeki, in his State of the Nation speech, spoke of him as a “great son of our people” and a “giant among the architects of our democracy”. Mbeki paid tribute to him for everything he had done “as a South African, a lawyer and a judge to shepherd us towards the construction of a South Africa that truly belongs to all who live in it”.
He was credited with transforming the judiciary during his term on the Bench and attuning it to the country’s new constitution and its human rights ethos.
Chaskalson was born in Joburg in 1931 and graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a BCom in 1952 and an LLB cum laude in 1954. He was a keen sportsman and was a member of the university’s football team. He was selected for the Combined South African Universities football team in 1952.
He served Wits for many years as a board member of its faculty of law and its Centre for Applied Legal Studies, and as an honorary professor of law.
He was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in 1956 and took silk in 1971. He was a member of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1967 to 1971 and from 1973 to 1984, and its chairman in 1976 and again in 1982. He was a member and later convener of the National Bar Examination Board (1979-1991), and the vice-chairman of the General Council of the Bar of South Africa from 1982 to 1987.
He gave up a successful legal practice to become a human rights lawyer. He helped to establish the Legal Resources Centre in Joburg, a non-profit organisation that sought to pursue justice for all citizens and enforce human rights. He served as the centre’s director from 1978 till 1993 and was the lead counsel in several court challenges to apartheid laws.
His international standing was borne out by his appointment in 1995 as a commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, and by his selection in 1999 as one of South Africa’s four members on the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2001 he was appointed by the UN as a judge for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. From 1983 to 1993 he also served as vice-chairman of the International Legal Aid Division of the International Bar Association.
The enormous regard he enjoyed internationally was underscored by several awards and appointments. In 1990 he received the Human Rights Award of the Foundation for Freedom and Human Rights in Berne, Switzerland. He was an honorary member of the Bar Association of the City of New York in 1985, and of the Boston Bar Association in 1991. He was a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York and a Distinguished Global Fellow at New York University School of Law. He was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Science.
He served as the president of the International Commission of Jurists from 2004 to 2008. He was the chairman of a committee of senior judges appointed by the UN Environmental Programme to promote and develop judicial education on environmental law in all parts of the world. He was also the chairman of the Eminent Jurists Panel appointed by the International Commission of Jurists to enquire into the impact of terrorism and counter-terrorism on the rule of law.
South African honours included the Premier Group Award for prestigious service by a member of the faculty of law at Wits University, the Claude Harris Leon Foundation Award for community service and the Wits Alumni Honour Award for exceptional community service. In 2004 he was the co-recipient with then chief justice Pius Langa of the Peter Gruber Justice Prize, and in 2007 he was the co-recipient with Wangari Maathai of Kenya of the 2007 Nelson Mandela Award for Human Rights and Health.
He was also awarded the state’s Order of the Counsellor of the Baobab in Gold for Exceptional Service in Law, Constitutional, Jurisprudence and Human Rights, and awards for his human rights work from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.
He received honorary doctorates from the University of Natal, the University of the Witwatersrand, Rhodes University, the University of Amsterdam, Port Elizabeth University, the University of South Africa, and the universities of the Western Cape, Pretoria and Stellenbosch.
He was married to Dr Lorraine Chaskalson, with whom he had two sons, Matthew and Jerome.
He was to be buried at noon on Monday in the Jewish section of Westpark cemetery in Joburg.