“This is not an African problem.”

On March 28th, South African judge, activist and human rights lawyer, Judge Edwin Cameron gave an inspiring talk at Allard Hall infront of a packed audience as part of the Walter S. Owen Lecturship. Third year law student, Nic Healey provides his perspective on the lecture. 
By Nic Healey
“This is not an African problem.” When he spoke about his upcoming lecture in honour of Walter S. Owen, Justice Cameron thought a different, single word would best represent his message. But I will come back to that. 
What most struck me in his words was that, although they were about South Africa, they were directed thoroughly to Canada. Coming from a jurisdiction so often referenced in terms of its extremes, of injustice, of inequality and of violence, it is understandable that a South African’s knowledge could be dismissed and insulated by a North American audience.

Any such notion was dispelled, however, when Justice Cameron made clear to our packed forum that, to understand what he had to say, we had to understand that our countries are linked. We are linked by our histories, the colonial suffering we inflict, and the work we face moving forward. In short, he did not come to the Peter A. Allard School of Law to discuss “an African problem.”
Edwin Cameron is a daring judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body equivalent to the Supreme Court of Canada. He made his career, attaining both notoriety and renown, first in legal practice defending against the worst inflictions of apartheid as an openly gay man and then as a judge carrying the same spirit of justice. His time on the bench has been far from complacent.

One of the main reasons is Gugu Dlamini, a woman who was murdered for making public that she was HIV positive. Upon learning of this loss, Justice Cameron fought back in the way he could. First, he has never allowed Gugu Dlamini to be forgotten. Second, he told the world he is also living with HIV. This act placed him in public conflict with South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who would keep Justice Cameron off the Constitutional Court for the remainder of his term.
Speaking to our law school, Justice Cameron would not allow any of the complacency he could so easily have enjoyed as a white man with educational privilege. It is an unusual and refreshing attitude from a judge, and one he makes clear is indebted to his experience with HIV. Justice Cameron calls HIV/AIDS an “epidemic of muteness” that he is compelled to disrupt. To his surprise, he remains the only public official in all of Africa that he knows of to say openly that they live with HIV.
He was quite hopeful to learn that law schools in Canada are coming under the accusation of producing activist lawyers, more fondly “Social Justice Warriors.” In his lecture, Justice Cameron reminded us vividly that it is the constant task of lawyers to question what is law. That was a particularly acute question for South African apartheid, often deployed as a theoretical test of when unjust laws cease to be law. His reminder, though, was that the question must be asked wherever there is injustice in law. Make no mistake, Justice Cameron will tell you of the injustice in Canadian law.
That is why Justice Cameron chose the word “shameful” to describe his lecture. He applies it actively and purposively to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions known as Cuerrier and Mabior. It was in those cases that our judiciary invented a means to criminalise HIV exposure even absent a risk of transmission. He makes clear that, at a time when the court was easing restrictions on sex work and drug equipment, reinforcing the need to account for colonial history in criminal proceedings, and striking down the effects of minimum sentencing, with the best available scientific evidence before them, the only reason that accounts for the decision in Mabior is HIV stigma.
This is hardly the only injustice to which he spoke. It obviously held a special place in the lecture, though, bolstered by remarks from the BC Centre of Excellence in HIV/AIDS’ Dr. Julio Montaner. Dr. Montaner affirmed the judge’s speech, saying how the medical community once thought antiretroviral therapy changed everything until it didn’t change anything because stigma kept treatment from the people who need it. He described our legal framework as counterproductive over-criminalisation that prosecutes people with HIV for having love lives despite not presenting a risk of transmission. A particularly special moment followed in which Justice Cameron thanked Dr. Montaner for the medications that saved his life.
We can often ask to be educated by the minds who visit Allard Hall. It requires a truly great advocate, however, to impart the hope and enthusiasm to law students that Justice Cameron did. He applauded scepticism towards law as a South African virtue, and encouraged it in our young people. He said that the natural consequence of injustice is that law must function to counteract privilege and inequality. In doing so, he told us we must be “joyous and vocal.” Of this task, tackling injustice in order to reaffirm our conception of humanity, he said that this is what our countries have in common.
Our gratitude to Justice Cameron, and everyone who made his visit possible, is immense. His time with us will be remembered, and will inspire our students to act, long after he so quickly had to return home.
The lecture is available for viewing on the Allard School of Law's YouTube channel.