“I shall not pretend that my life has been a triumph. I cannot even lay claim to the loser’s glory in coming through bloodied but unbowed. The case is that I have been blessed with luck in my career and satisfaction in work. I hope that I have not spoiled my good fortune. If I have, I ask forgiveness from the Lord; if I have not, I give him praise.” (Dr Mohamed Shahabuddeen)
Indeed, the life of Dr Shahabuddeen has been nothing less than extraordinary, and as a son of indentured labourers, his was no clear cut path to greatness. He was born in 1931, in abject poverty, prevalent at the time, at Plantation Vreed-en-Hoop, West Coast Demerara, but spent most of his young life, growing up on the Essequibo Coast. For most of his life, he was literally a student, not only of the law, but related disciplines. In fact, his student days did not end until 1986, by which time, he had acquired five university degrees, including two doctorates. These include, a Bachelor of Laws, Masters of Laws, Doctor of Philosophy, Bachelor of Science in Economics and a Doctors of Laws degree, all without having been enrolled as a full-time student, at any university!
In my view, though he wore many caps in his life, I believe he was more of an academic than anything else. His academia overwhelmed every endeavour in which he persevered. Naturally, private practice of law in the Magistrate’s Court along the Essequibo Coast, was soon found to be most unfulfilling. A brief stint on the bench as a magistrate on the Essequibo Coast, again, was not challenging to a person of such academic pedigree. In a conversation with Sir Shridath Ramphal, he told me that as Attorney General, he was visiting the Essequibo Coast, where he met Dr Shahabuddeen, for the first time. They had lunch. Based upon their discussions, he quickly realized that Dr Shahabuddeen, was being wasted in the Magistrate’s Court in Essequibo. Right there, he offered him the position of Crown Counsel. We were not yet independent. Dr Shahabuddeen accepted.
By 1962, he rose to the rank of Solicitor General in the Attorney General’s chambers. In that office, he served until 1973, when he was appointed Attorney General. He served as Attorney General until 1987. No one has held that office for a longer period than Dr Shahabuddeen in independent Guyana. In 1966, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and in 1970, Senior Counsel.
It was during this period, perhaps, more than any other in Guyana’s independent history, that the rule of law, the Constitution and the constitutional rights of the citizenry were under siege. It was this period that birthed the doctrine of party paramountcy, the 1980 Constitution, rigged elections and the widespread violation of human and political rights and freedoms. It was during this period that appeals to the Privy Council were abolished and the ruling party’s flag was flown in the compound of our Appeal Court. Functioning as legal advisor to the government of the day and acting as their defender in the courts against these rampant constitutional violations and disregard for the rule of law, would be a nightmare for any Attorney General.
From the most critical perspective, I am compelled to concede that Dr Shahabuddeen rose to the occasion and, I daresay, acquitted himself with distinction against these monumental challenges. His academic groundings came to fore and were converted into legal forensic brilliance in his submissions and presentations in the courts. As a practitioner myself, I have read many of them and I am always overwhelmed by their dazzling brilliance. Some are still in both handwritten and typed written form at the Attorney General’s chambers. When I was there, I got the privilege to carefully read and digest them. It was an amazing learning experience for me.
In the days when they was no internet, Dr Shahabuddeen introduced into our local jurisprudence, the rich and profound juridical writings and postulations adumbrated in judgments from the Supreme Court of India and judgments from the courts of newly independent African States. A review of the local Law Reports of that period, would disclose that as Solicitor General and then Attorney General, Dr Shahabuddeen appeared himself and presented detailed legal submissions in writing. At that time in the profession, written submissions were an exception, not the norm, as they are today. In almost every reported case in which he appeared, he was the recipient of high commendations from the Bench. To be able to proffer forensic legal arguments, supported by a legion of judicial and legal authorities from around the world, to defend some of the most flagrant legal and constitutional transgressions committed at the time by the state and the government, was an exemplification of the pure genius of the man, but defend them he did, with unparalleled scholarship.
No one can dispute that he was the architect of the 1980 Constitution. No one can dispute, that in crafting that document, he carried out his instructions most faithfully and exhibited a level of legal artistry that would outdo most who are specially trained in the science of legal drafting, which he was not. In the end, he delivered to his boss a document that may have even exceeded his boss’s expectations. From the perspective of the authoritarian, the 1980 Constitution remains a masterpiece. Again, another exhibition of Dr Shahabuddeen’s brilliance. Indeed, he received great acclaim for that constitution.
However, I would be in remiss if I do not share the other view. Speaking from another perspective, Dr Cheddi Jagan once remarked that “all of the gold coins found after the Jonestown tragedy would not have been enough to pay Shahab for his dubious legislative masterpiece, nor constitute the price for which he re-sold his own people into legal bondage, turning back the clock on true independence.”
Dr Shahabuddeen’s election to the International Court of Justice in 1987, made him the first from the Commonwealth Caribbean to be accorded this signal honour. Indeed, it was a fitting recognition of his personal stature as a legal luminary, par excellence. It was also a manifestation of the high esteem in which he was held in the international community. He served as a judge on the ICJ from 1988-1997. During that period, he was an international arbitrator as well as legal consultant to a number of international legal organisations. It was during this period of his life that he got the international stage to exhibit his academic and legal prowess.
This he did, with great distinction. He has rendered more written Opinions (in 23 matters), than any other judge in the history of the ICJ. He wrote Opinions on every major legal dispute that came before the court during his tenure. He was never intimidated by the majority’s Opinion. He demonstrated his intellectual depth and independence of thought by disseminating several dissenting Opinions. His Opinions at the ICJ are so revered, that they have been consolidated under the rubric ‘Precedent In The World Court.’ It was rated in a Dutch Law Review, by Judge P H Kooijmanas of the ICJ, as one the most striking writings of the last millennium on international law.
Dr Shahabuddeen also served as a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (June 1997-November, 2005). He also served as a judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (November 1997-November, 2005). On these two tribunals he delivered a total of 81 individual judicial Opinions, again, more than any other judge. He was appointed judge of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1998.
As expected from a person of Dr Shahabuddeen’s intellect and academic proclivities, he is the author of dozens of academic articles and papers published in international magazines and legal journals across the globe. He delivered lectures at dozens of universities, across Europe, North America and elsewhere. But his major academic works remain the four books which he authored namely, The Legal System of Guyana (1973), Constitutional Development in Guyana 1621-1978 (1978), Nationalisation of Guyana Bauxite (1981), From Plantocracy to Nationalisation (1983).
Dr Shahabuddeen was also a member of several international organisations, too numerous to mention. He was the recipient of three national awards, namely, the Cacique Crown of Honour (1970), the Order of Roraima (1980) and the Order of Excellence (1988). He also served as the First Deputy Prime Minister and Vice President of Guyana. He died at age eighty-six. I last met him in 2013, when he visited me at the Attorney Generals chambers, where I had the honour of presenting him with a complete set of the Nandlall’s Edition, Laws of Guyana. May his soul rest in peace. To his family I extend sincere condolences.
Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP