Former UN high commissioner interrogates global governance

Louise Arbour made history by indicting Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, the first sitting head of state to be tried for war crimes.

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Supreme Court of Canada justice, the Honourable Louise Arbour, visited SFU Harbour Centre last Thursday, September 25 to give a talk titled, “From Syria to Crimea, is Global Governance at a Loss?”

Presented by SFU and the School for International Studies, the talk discussed whether doctrines and institutions of global conflict management are in need of self-examination and reform.

The Peak sat down with Arbour before her talk to discuss her perceptions of the current state of international criminal justice, peacekeeping operations, and the international human rights system.

The Peak: How would you characterize the current state of global governance?

Louise Arbour: The toolbox of conflict prevention, conflict management, conflict resolution, seems to be pretty outdated. I think it’s kind of stuck. It’s very stale.

For instance if you compare the kind of progress that’s been made in technology, particularly communication technology in the last several decades, and you look at how the post-Second World War international institutions of global governance has basically just drifted, there’s not been much new thinking, new ideas, and no kind of institutional reform.

P: How do these problems manifest in Syria and Crimea?

Arbour: In Syria, we have been paralysed by the difficulty of understanding the real nature of the conflict. [It’s been] a very, very slow response. A response that was at the time much more rhetorical than real. We support the opposition, but basically we do nothing to really support [them].

Now Syria has morphed; I mean, the opposition has kind of exploded into all these subgroups that I think public opinion outside the region cannot even begin to understand, and I don’t think we have much trust that our leaders understand either.

P: Does this reflect a lack of institutional or political trust?

Arbour: I think it’s both. I think that we are, I hope, at the very low point of personal leadership. Frankly, again, I think that’s why, in his first election campaign, Obama came across as such a giant, both intellectually, morally, [and] politically. He was operating in sort of a desert of remarkable leadership.

I think this fatigue in personal leadership probably also represents fatigue in the fact that political institutions are not very attractive to people with talent, maybe because there is a lot of competition for enormous material rewards in the private sector. But also the political environment is so deteriorated that it must be that it’s not very attractive to people who would have these kinds of qualities.

P: What do you think might attribute to global governance being, as you put it, “stuck?”

Arbour: I think those who, either institutionally or politically, were or [presented] themselves to be ‘the leaders’ [. . .] have been very unsuccessful in keeping up with the times.

They held to their position of power, and to me we are in a transitional mode now where, maybe as a result of some benefits of the international development agenda efforts, developing countries are actually developing. And, they’re asserting some political claims; we see it on climate change. They’re essentially saying, ‘You got rich by polluting the planet, and now you want to tell us that we cannot use the same means to get rich ourselves.’ Well, you know that won’t go.

So I think those who had a leadership, be it political, economic, or institutional, since the Second World War, essentially have held onto their privileges without much vision as to how they should position themselves in a world where they won’t have this monopoly anymore.

P: How does this relate back to the issue of trust?

Arbour: I think a lot of developing countries, rightly or wrongly, are very suspicious about the purity of intentions of Western, rich countries purporting to advance universal values and ideals that just coincidentally seem to serve them very well. And I think that’s a huge part of the problem in the international human rights agenda.

The recipients of all this good advice don’t feel like they’ve benefitted all that much from it. There’s a lot of suspicion.

P: How do we take the next step toward reviving that trust?

Arbour: The diagnosis is considerably simpler than the remedy in this case. [. . .] What you have to do is accompany people at their own pace and in their own struggles, for freedom, for a decent life, but you can’t have this paternalistic, patronizing [method] which will necessarily backfire.

Inasmuch as we believe that these values are represented by the human rights agenda, [. . .] even if you sincerely believe that this should be supported, I think that we have to do a much more modest [job], and in some cases just accept that people are entitled to make different choices.