Seen and Heard: Louise Arbour on the International Peace Agenda

Jenna Simpson 

Last Thursday, the School of Public Policy and Governance launched the David Peterson Leadership Lecture Series with an event at the Isabel Bader Theatre featuring the Honourable Louise Arbour.

Arbour is a former justice of the Superior Court of Ontario, the Court of Appeal of Ontario, and the Supreme Court of Canada; Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She holds 39 honorary degrees and is Companion to the Order of Canada. Arbour is currently the President & CEO of the International Crisis Group, an independent NGO dedicated to ending armed conflict.

Arbour’s talk focused on international conflict issues, emphasizing the role of institutions, people, and ideas for restoring peace and security.

Regarding institutions, Arbour argued that both the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) suffer from a crisis of legitimacy, as evidenced by the UNSC’s handling of the conflict in Syria and African leaders threatening to withdraw from the Rome Statute (which establishes the ICC’s jurisdiction). Arbour noted that the UNSC’s decision to refer the conflict in Libya to the ICC, but not provide the Court with “political, financial, or rhetorical support,” has ultimately damaged the ICC as an effective instrument for security. The fact that three members of the UNSC — The United States, Russia, and China — are not signatories to the Rome Statute further undermines the ICC’s legitimacy.

With respect to our leaders, Arbour argued that “we deserve better” and “our expectations of our leaders are not high enough.” While it might be difficult to try to find all the qualities of a leader like Nelson Mandela in one person — “intellectual power, moral fibre, and the capacity to join the two” and articulate the message of peace persuasively — Arbour said it is important to remember that selecting leaders is a communal endeavour.

Arbour also discussed the “poverty of ideas” in the field of international conflict. The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which allows the international community to intervene to protect civilian populations affected by conflict when a government is unable or unwilling to do so, has failed to deliver on its promise. As in the case of the ICC, its early champions are not “coming to its defence and rebuilding it.” The UNSC didn’t engage R2P to justify intervention in Libya when the first opportunity to use it arose, which then became an excuse to avoid it when the dire conflict in Syria arose.

Despite what she called “a very tough year in the area of conflict prevention,” Arbour also recognized some brights spots: major regime change in Myanmar; peace talks in Colombia; and nuclear settlement talks in Iran. Nevertheless, Arbour warned of the dangers when “optimists become cheerleaders,” and encouraged a self-critical perspective.

On a more personal note, Arbour’s response to the question of what she had to sacrifice for her career was inspiring. “I made no sacrifices — I had so many opportunities!” she said. We should all be so lucky, and have the courage to follow Arbour’s example and embrace the opportunities that come.

Jenna Simpson is an MPP 2014 candidate. Jenna holds a law degree and a Master of Arts in criminology and gender studies from the University of Toronto and has an extensive background in equality and human rights, gender and Aboriginal issues, and criminal justice policy.

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