27 November 2019

'I was 20 in 1945': UNAI Hosts its Sixth J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation

The sixth United Nations Academic Impact J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation was held on 20 November 2019 at United Nations Headquarters in New York. During this year’s lecture, entitled “I was 20 in 1945”, international human rights pioneer Peter Weiss shared his decades of work in international human rights law, and his reflections on what the emergence of the United Nations meant to the world at the time when the Organization came into being.

Opening the lecture, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications Melissa Fleming introduced Mr. Peter Weiss on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, “whose creation he witnessed against the backdrop of human and economic ruination and whose subsequent history has been intimately intertwined with his own professional life”.

A refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, Mr. Weiss came to the United States in 1941, where he was drafted into the U.S. army and later pursued studies and a career in law. The year 1945 witnessed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and marked the beginning of Mr. Weiss’ lifelong commitment to work for a nuclear weapon free world. It also marked the beginning of the United Nations and its principal mission to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. According to Mr. Weiss, 1945 was a year in which “a gigantic hand flipped the world from horror to hope, from war to peace, from dictatorship to democracy, from death camps to refugee camps, from racism to human rights”.

Mr. Weiss went on to share his engagement with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as an international trademark lawyer; the pamphlet he produced titled “Let’s Join the Human Race”; and the founding of the International Development Placement Association (IDPA). He also worked intensively on decolonization and human rights issues in Africa with his wife of 63 years, Cora Weiss.

In 1980, the Filártiga case established for the United States the principal of universal jurisdiction and was regarded as the most cited human rights case in the world for a quarter of a century. Also in 1980, which was described as “a good year for human rights” by Mr. Weiss, he and his colleagues played a role in obtaining from the International Court of Justice a landmark ruling to abolish nuclear weapons under international law.

Mr. Weiss concluded his remarks with a positive note that “the ark of history bends toward justice”. He urged the audience to "give it time to complete its trajectory" and reminded them that “the United Nation is there to lead the charge”.

On behalf of the global academic community, Professor S. Sitaraman of Amity University in India shared his reflections on Mr. Weiss’ keynote speech, lauding his fights for human rights, justice, equality and no discrimination across national borders.

Ms. Susan Adams, widow of J. Michael Adams, thanked the guests for attending the event in honor of her late husband. She encouraged the students to take the opportunity to make a change after the lecture, and to recognize that through educational opportunities, social and professional interactions, they can make a difference.

The audience, comprised of United Nations staff members, scholars and university students engaged with the panel in a Q&A session, exchanging their views on decolonization, link between corporations and human rights violations, immigrants and the role of young people in addressing the current challenges.

This year’s J. Michael Adams Lecture and Conversation marked the commencement of the 9th year of United Nations Academic Impact, whose work centers around the idea of “intellectual social responsibility”. The J. Michael Adams lecture series was inaugurated in 2014 in remembrance of educator, author and advocate of global citizenship J. Michael Adams. Dr. Adams served as President of Fairleigh Dickinson University from 1999 until his death in 2012, during which time he inspired a new vision and mission dedicated to preparing world citizens through global education.

Click here to watch the event on demand.