Arbour exits bruising UN posting

UN Watch in the the News

Graeme Hamilton, National Post
June 21, 2008

MONTREAL — As United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour has made her share of enemies during the past four years. But with her term expiring on June 30, the former Supreme Court of Canada judge surely never expected that the most ferocious parting shot would come from back home.

On Tuesday, Vic Toews, Conservative MP and Treasury Board President, called Ms. Arbour “a disgrace” in the House of Commons. He later elaborated that “the comments that Louise Arbour has made in respect of the state of Israel and the people of Israel are, in fact, a disgrace, and I stand by those words.”

Far from dressing down Mr. Toews, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesman noted that the government congratulates Ms. Arbour on her “career” but added that it “hasn’t always agreed with the positions she has taken.”

As Ms. Arbour has noted, getting under people’s skins is part of the role of the high commissioner, which she assumed in 2004. “It would be extremely problematic to do this kind of work and make only friends,” she told CBC in March. But what is striking about her tenure is the degree to which her enemies are found not just in repressive dictatorships but in modern democracies. Critics accuse her of focusing too much on Israel and the United States, leaving the impression that they are abusers on a par with terrorists and tyrants.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based monitoring group UN Watch, has taken exception to much that Ms. Arbour has done in the Middle East. (Although even he thinks Mr. Toews went too far: “That’s not the kind of language we would use.”)

“There is no question that in her statements she has applied a double standard,” he said. “Israel, of course, has to be held accountable… The problem was that she made no distinction between a terrorist group that every time they hit civilians it’s a victory, as opposed to Israel, which is trying to defend itself from terrorist groups, and every time a civilian is killed as collateral damage, that’s a tragedy.”

Ms. Arbour angered supporters of Israel when during the 2006 war in Lebanon, she said Israeli commanders were courting possible war-crimes prosecution. “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,” she said. Later, during a visit to Israel, she implied that Israel was more deserving of blame because the terrorist rockets were rarely lethal, whereas the Israelis displayed “recklessness” and “catastrophic” civilian casualties were foreseeable.

Mr. Neuer said such statements play into Hezbollah’s hands. “The effect was really to encourage extremists,” he said. “I’m sure her intentions are pure, but I think it’s part of an ideology that does see America and Israel as part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

The high commissioner’s criticism of what she calls the “so-called war on terror” did not win her friends in Washington. Her 2005 Human Rights Day address was titled “On Terrorists and Torturers,” and though she never named the United States, it was clearly in her sights. “Pursuing security objectives at all costs may create a world in which we are neither safe nor free,” she said. “This will certainly be the case if the only choice is between the terrorists and the torturers.”

Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian ambassador who now heads a democracy project at Princeton University, said Ms. Arbour was unfairly maligned. He said it is to be expected that she would be more outspoken about rights abuses in democracies because they have a culture of public debate. Elsewhere she had to tread more carefully. “You have to acknowledge partial progress in difficult situations. It’s not to flatter dictators. She’s trying to make human rights universal in a world where obviously they’re not, so she celebrates partial victories, and hopes for more.”

William Schabas, director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, saluted Ms. Arbour for her fearlessness and lamented that she declined to stay on for a second term. “It takes political courage,” he said of the job, disputing the notion that she gave a disproportionate amount of attention to the United States and Israel. “Unless you’re going to fall victim to one of the great flaws of international human rights, which is selectivity, you can’t just criticize Zimbabwe all the time. You’ve got to criticize Russia and the United States and China. And when you do that, you get big hitters at the United Nations angry at you.”


The UN’s top human rights official has a thankless job, caught between repressive regimes that seek to limit the UN’s ability to criticize them, and democratic powers equally averse to suggestions they may occasionally violate individual rights. Louise Arbour has had plenty of critics.

Some examples:

  • In February, 2008, she praised Cuba for showing “unprecedented positive engagement” with the UN on human rights after it invited a UN official to visit and pledged to sign agreements on civil, political and other rights. Critics note that, in practice, the country still gives short shrift to most human rights. At the same conference she criticized the United States for its use of waterboarding in questioning terrorist suspects, noting “I would have no problems with describing this practice as falling under the prohibition of torture.”
  • In January, 2008, she lauded a new Arab human rights charter, calling it “an important step forward,” then backtracking when it was pointed out the charter equated Zionism and racism. – A November, 2007, report on the UN and anti-semitism by the monitoring group UN Watch noted that, despite an extensive search and requests to Arbour’s office, “Other than one passing reference in a 2005 speech to attacks on synagogues, churches and mosques, we were unable to find any public statement, reference, or action by Ms. Arbour against anti-Semitism.” A spokesman responded that Arbour had “continuously condemned the multiple forms of intolerance and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.”
  • In September, 2007, Arbour attended a conference in Iran sponsored by the Non-Aligned Movement. She was criticized for failing to condemn Iran’s human rights record or the President’s calls for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” – When Britain’s University and College Union sought to organize an academic boycott of Israel — an effort condemned by academics around the world — Arbour did not join the criticism, declaring instead that “public debate, particularly coming from informed communities, is from a human rights perspective a good thing,” even if people disagreed with the outcome.
  • When a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, prompting death threats from Muslims, Arbour responded sympathetically, telling the Organization of the Islamic Conference, “I find alarming any behaviours that disregard the beliefs of others.” Critics said Arbour should have showed equal concern for the newspaper’s right to free speech.

Copyright 2008, National Post
Original URL:


Share on facebook
Share on twitter