Louise Arbour: Woman of justice

Having worked as the chief prosecutor for two international criminal tribunals, as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights and now assuming the post of the president of the conflict prevention organization International Crisis Group, 63-year-old Canadian judge Louise Arbour says that conflict is part of human life.

JP/R. Berto Wedhatama
JP/R. Berto Wedhatama

“Conflict, I think, is part of human life. The real issue is conflict resolution; how to handle conflict. You cannot avoid conflict. The key is how you can respond to it; how you anticipate it; how you manage it; and how you resolve it,” she said recently.

Arbour who took up the position as president of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in July 2009 after ending her four-year term as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights a year before, was recently in Indonesia, one of ICG’s bases for Southeast Asia.

Arbour was in the region to meet with her colleagues and look at the situation in the region. Arbour last visited Indonesia in 2007 as high commissioner. On Indonesia, she said the country had established a point of leadership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Domestically, the country has managed to achieve and maintain stability post-1998 reform era.

“Looking at the current situation in Indonesia, there is cause to be optimistic that Indonesia is much better equipped today to deal with these kinds of challenges than it has been in recent history,” she said.

Coming from her, the comment can be considered a compliment for the country. Arbour is famous for her frank — and for some, controversial — comments. In 2006, at the height of the Israel — Lebanon war she issued a statement that, “The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control”. These words were seen by many as directed toward Israel, and were rejected by Israel’s ambassador to Canada.

Now, working in a civil society organization, Arbour said the organization had tremendous freedom to work, which was different to her work in the UN organization. International Crisis Group publishes more than 80 reports and briefing papers annually, as well as the monthly CrisisWatch bulletin assessing the current state of play in some 70 countries or areas of actual or potential conflict.

“There’s a very big difference in the scope and authority of the two positions. The high commissioner for human rights is a high-ranking official in the United Nations with a very large staff. But at the same time, inside the United Nations, as a UN official you are constrained by what member states are prepared to allow or not allow. The political framework of the United Nations is that the shareholders are the 192 states. At times, they are very much in conflict. At other times, they are firm in preventing a certain course of action. So, in a sense, it’s a role that has considerable influence, but not a lot of power,” she said.

She said as high commissioner her only mandate was human rights. “Not conflict resolution. Not political consideration. You just have to be an advocate for human rights protection and promotion,” she said.

Meanwhile, in ICG it was a little more complex, she said. “We’re still guided by human rights principles but we are driven by something that is also pragmatic, which is, at the end of the day, if you’re doing conflict management or conflict prevention or conflict resolution, you have to balance the purity of the principle and the likelihood of obtaining the right result. There is always tension between the desirable and the feasible,” she said.

She said the question was to find a point where there was a chance to achieve a result. “So it’s principles and pragmatism coming together,” she said.

“As a civil society organization, or a nongovernmental organization, we have tremendous freedom to work where we choose to work, assuming again we’re welcome by the government, we can’t impose our presence.

“I think over the years, the ICG has developed enough credibility that most governments understand that, even though we might not agree with everything they say we will always represent their point of view accurately. Even if we disagree with it, our analyses are not biased. We don’t work for anyone, we don’t represent any country,” she said.

Arbour’s first brush with human rights issues, she said, was as a lawyer in Canada. In 1992, Canada passed a new constitution that guaranteed all the fundamental human rights and civil liberties.

“To me, it profoundly changed the nature of Canadian society, of political discourse. My first interest was criminal law. But slowly I became more interested in human rights issues,” she said.

“My first opportunity internationally was sort of a mixture of the two,” she said. In 1996, then UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed her as chief prosecutor of war crimes before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

In 1999, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. She took the post as high commissioner in 2004.

Arbour said she believes strongly in the universality of human rights. She disagrees with the notion of cultural relativism of human rights, which was championed by Southeast Asian leaders in the 1990s, such as former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and former Malaysia prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

“I think in all the work I’ve done all my life, I’ve never met one single person on earth that, given the choice, would renounce any of the rights that are guaranteed, the right to life, to health, to freedom, to be free from torture. Everybody wants that,” she said.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Tue, May 18 2010

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