Skip navigation

Wednesday July 7, 2010


Tamar Oppenheimer, a Canadian who rose to become one of the highest-ranking United Nations officials, passed away June 9 in Vienna.

A member of the Order of Canada and closely connected with the Law Faculty at McGill University in Montreal, Oppenheimer held several important UN posts over a career that spanned five decades, including that of assistant secretary-general. She was one of only a few women to reach that level.

Born Tamar Shine in England in 1925, she emigrated with her family to Canada as a child and became a Canadian citizen. She started work at the UN in New York in June, 1946 - it was then located at Hunter College - after graduating with a BA from McGill.

Her first job title was "delegates' aide," and was really that of a glorified receptionist. "I didn't tell my parents what it actually was," Oppenheimer would later recall, "because I knew they wouldn't be pleased." In the late 1940s, she met and married Hans Oppenheimer, a broker in maritime insurance.

While still working at the UN, she earned a masters degree in public international law from Columbia University in 1953. During her years at UN headquarters, she served as deputy to John Humphrey, the distinguished Canadian diplomat and scholar who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She subsequently played a pivotal role in creating training programs for human rights workers, some of which are still in use today.

Working in several capacities, including staff development, crime prevention and habitat, Oppenheimer was assigned to Vienna as head of the narcotic drugs division, and became deputy to the director-general of the UN office there. She ended her UN career as secretary-general of the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, held in Vienna in 1987. In 1991, she was awarded the Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of Austria, with Star.

"It's so satisfactory to work for the UN," she once said. "Whatever you do, you're helping to encourage people in member states to carry on in their own area of activity."

Beyond her UN responsibilities, Oppenheimer was supportive of the Hope '87 organization, backed as well by the Austrian government, to develop aid projects in Africa, Asia and Europe. She was generous in her backing for the Toronto-based Tafelmusik orchestra.

After retirement, she continued to remain an active human rights advocate, and in 2006 endowed the Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law at McGill. It is intended to equip future lawyers and civil servants with the skills to lead the implementation of treaty obligations.

"During the time I worked with Tamar Oppenheimer," said her UN colleague P.K. Bailey, "I admired her astuteness and profound knowledge of the UN system and understanding of how it worked."

Back to top