Although William Schabas has mocked calls by eminent jurists for him to step down from the UN’s Gaza inquiry on account of bias — refusing to provide any legal response, instead telling an Arab newspaper that “even if Spider-Man were appointed to head the commission they would attack him — when he himself was once in the dock, Schabas tried to evade conviction by accusing all members of the tribunal with bias.
In 1974, when Schabas was a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Toronto, and a leader in the radical SDS group, he was charged and convicted with violating human rights and freedoms by physically obstructing a visiting Harvard professor from speaking on campus.
Schabas was found guilty on four charges and suspended from the university for four years, later reduced to two.
Interviewed about the episode in 2003, Schabas was “unrepentant about the incident,” reported Toronto Star literary critic Philip Marchand (“Monsters deserve to have their say, too,” Toronto Star, Feb. 1, 2003.)
“Human rights takes the view that speech that promotes hate should be prohibited by law,” said Schabas. “My view hasn’t changed one iota on that.”
Schabas’ actions marked a turning point in Canadian academic culture, according to Marchand, setting a negative precedent for “political correctness and ideological bullying,” and putting an end to “a genuinely adventurous spirit on university campuses.” The episode paved the way to “a pervasive culture of belligerent complaint allied to whining self-righteousness.”
What is particularly ironic, however, is that, according to a decision of the Ontario Divisional Court (Re Schabas et al. and Caput of the University of Toronto et al.), Schabas tried to disqualify the entire panel hearing his case by arguing that they were biased.
The court rejected Schabas’ claims, finding “no evidence whatsoever to support a reasonable apprehension” of bias.
Yes, of course, Schabas was only a doctoral student, and no one should be held to account for all their university indiscretions.
But there is simply no justification for Schabas to continue to refuse to give a legal response to the very genuine allegations of bias, or the reasonable apprehension thereof, on his part.
Writing about Schabas in The Times of London, former British judge David Pannick noted that a person should not sit in a judicial or quasi-judicial role if “the fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased”.
The appearance of bias is sufficient to disqualify a person, wrote Lord Pannick.
Similarly, international law professor Irwin Cotler, the Canadian human activist and former justice minister and attorney-general, has underscored how Schabas “pronounced Israel presumptively guilty on the very matter he is now charged with investigating.”
If Schabas is, as we assume, today repentant of his illegal activity, and now a true believer in the rule of law, he should step down.