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

Maria Farida Indrati: Feminine voice of reason


Those quick to pass judgment may think that Maria Farida Indrati, the only woman in the Constitutional Court, was also the only judge out of the nine-member panel to doubt the necessity of the pornography law because of her gender.

But on closer inspection, it turns out her objection to the Court’s recent decision to uphold the pornography law did not specifically defend women, but Indonesia’s pluralistic social reality in general. Coincidentally, she happens to be a woman.

Sitting behind a spacious desk at her office on the 13th floor of the Constitutional Court building, this 61-year-old small-framed judge spoke to The Jakarta Post about her views on the pornography law and her role as the only female judge in the highest legal institution in the country.

Last month, the Constitutional Court headed by Mahfud M.D. turned down a judicial review filed against the pornography law on the basis that the law provided exceptions for the arts, literature, traditional customs, sports and culture.

The court ruling however failed to address the legislation’s divisive nature. The tourist haven island-province of Bali, whose people have been one of the most vocal opponents of the law, refused to comply with it. Since its inception, the pornography law has drawn a huge outcry from women and human rights activists as well as artists.

Wearing a violet suit adorned with a golden flower brooch, Farida, as she is popularly called, said the law would obviously affect women the most.

“Because people see women differently. People think it is impolite for women to expose their skin, while a man walking topless on the street doesn’t cause the slightest stir,” she said.

Her objections to the pornography law are fourfold: The law is open to too many interpretations, the definition of pornography is ambiguous, the law is divisive and bound to be difficult to implement.

“The formulation of the law has drained the country of its energy because of its many pros and cons.”

Farida said a panel of judges was created to reach a verdict. For the pornography law, she headed a panel of three judges.

“All of the judges in that panel disagreed [with the plaintiff] except myself,” she said. From there, a plenary session of judges was held. “In the plenary session, all the judges agreed to reject the request citing the law did not ran counter to the Constitution. But the moment I looked at the first clause, I was certain this [the law] could not work,” she said.

The first clause defines pornography as “pictures, sketches, illustrations, photographs, articles, sounds, voices, moving pictures, animations, cartoons, conversations, body movements or other forms of messages through various communication mediums and/or public displays that contain obscenity or sexual exploitation that violates community norms”.

Other judges nevertheless respected her dissenting opinion, she said, treating her equally irrespective of her gender.

However, Farida acknowledged that a feminine presence in the panel of judges does help cool down the heated atmosphere during plenary sessions. “All of them are bapak-bapak [older men] with loud voices. I can speak sternly too, but am calmer.”

“When all of the bapak-bapak raise their voices, I just sit calmly. They soon realize I have turned silent and they are being too loud,” she said, smiling.

Farida said that being a Constitutional Court judge changed some parts of her life. Previously she used to help the government draft legislation, now she reviews the drafts. Sometimes, she confessed, when reviewing (a flawed) legislation, she would become agitated and wished she could go back to her old job of writing the legislation. “Because I know how hard the process of drafting legislation is,” she said.

Being a judge has also taken its toll on her social life. An amiable and social person at heart, Farida said she used to enjoy lively interaction with government officials, friends from academia, and students before her job as a judge became so demanding on her time.

“People leave me alone, now. When I used to teach, many people would want to talk to me. I had many friends; I used to talk in forums; departments would invite me to talk. I was more available to my students,” she said. “That’s something I miss.”

However, she said she understood that as a judge she should be more independent.

Farida still makes a point of keeping in touch with the important people in her life, namely her elementary school teacher, who made her believe in herself despite her ailment.

Sister Monika C.B., 72, now a nun at Panti Rapih in Yogyakarta, “was the one who always guided me and made me believe in myself”. Sister Monika, who was visiting Jakarta, even caught up with Farida at her office during the time of the interview.

The eldest of eight children, Farida — now a professor of Law in University of Indonesia, said she had never dreamt she would become a judge. “I wanted to be a piano teacher.”

Her childhood dream wasn’t so much driven by a love of music, but by the desire to pursue a career that would suit her ailment.

“I suffered from polio when I was little. I used to walk to and from school and people would imitate how I walked. I learned to play the piano, and thought that teaching just a few students piano would be nice.”
But her father, who worked as a journalist for the state news agency Antara in Surakarta, did not approve of

her career plans. He believed the music industry in Indonesia at that time — circa 1969 — was still in
its infancy.

So she pursued her studies at the University of Indonesia, where she became the top student in campus, then in Netherlands and the United States.

Only after she became an assistant to Prof. Hamid Attamimi, the founder of the Indonesian Constitution Science, did she know law was her path in life.

“I realized that I was good at this, and this is the path God has shown to me,” she said.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Fri, April 16 2010