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Louise Arbour: a colleague we have failed

Law Times, Canada, By William M. Trudell, Publication Date: Monday, 22 September 2008

This profession - and all of us in it - have failed to protect, honour, and defend one of our most accomplished and distinguished members. We have let Louise Arbour down by our silence when she needed and deserved voices of support.

On July 1, Arbour stepped down as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an enormously prestigious and important international position.

The gratitude and praise which greeted her at the end of her term was shamefully muted. Arbour was a courageous champion of human rights, and a bold critic of the erosion of those basic tenets in our world.

She was never timid. She was never chained to a desk, was involved, hands on, outspoken, and challenging. She breathed life into the enormous portfolio that she was asked to take on.

Apparently she made mistakes. She warned Israel that it was not immune from human rights violations, and she criticized the U.S. bluntly and directly for its Guantanamo shame and detainee torture. She infuriated both nations, and was symbolically burned at the stake by critics who cruelly branded her anti-Semitic, and of course, anti-American.

The venomous attacks on her were over-the-top. They displayed an insecurity and cruelness by some unquestioning supporters of Israel and U.S. policy, who do not permit criticism.

Her two main sins that unleashed the pro-Israel bloggers, journalists, and some media outlets themselves, were these: During the height of the Israel-Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, Arbour issued a statement calling for the protection of civilians: "International law demands accountability . . . the scale of the killings in the region could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control."

Immediately criticized as an anti-Semite in some quarters, she was condemned for implying that Israel targeted civilians. That's not what she said. Nevertheless, the unfair and irreparable anti-Semitic label had been affixed.

More over, this year it was reported that Arbour supported a new Arab Charter of Human Rights introduced at the UN.

One of its articles called for the condemnation and elimination of all "forms of racism, Zionism and foreign occupation and domination . . ." therein, apparently, equating Zionism with racism and calling for its elimination. She was criticized and it was suggested that she supported the elimination of Israel.

This of course is a preposterous suggestion. There were many aspects of human rights in the charter that her office would support, and other aspects she took issue with.

More over, her office issued clarifications: "Throughout the development of the Arab Charter, my office shared concerns with the drafters about the incompatibility of some of the provisions with international norms and standards. These concerns included the approach to the death penalty for children and the rights of women and non-citizens.

More over, to the extent that it equates Zionism with racism, we reiterated that the Arab Charter is not in conformity with General Assembly Resolution 48/86, which rejects that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination."

But the dye had been cast again, unfairly.

And then, she dared to take on the U.S. She criticized the Bush administration's abusive Guantanamo experiment, and questioned the use of torture and secret renditions.

Arbour, without armour, stepped into these dark corners with a light long before it became fashionable to do so.

She paid a heavy price.

I remember watching a CBC television interview with her in the months leading up to the end of her term.

It was sad witnessing what I thought was a brief moment of disappointment at the lack of gratitude that she was experiencing for the job she did . . . from her own country.

I sensed that she was not looking to be praised, just for some acknowledgement for the task she undertook and perhaps the courage she displayed.

At the close of her tenure she finally did get a nod. The praise was faint. This is what was said officially from then minister of foreign affairs Maxime Bernier, on March 7:

"On behalf of the government of Canada, I thank Louise Arbour for her four years of service to the international community as high commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations.

"Madame Arbour's career in Canada and abroad has been devoted to expanding the concepts of human rights and fundamental justice.

As high commissioner, she championed causes that had languished at the margins of human rights work of the United Nations. She was steadfast in the pursuit of her vision of an independent high commissioner who acts in new and energetic ways to increase the presence of her office around the world.

"Her appointment reflected the proud tradition of Canadian support for the United Nations and its work, a tradition that our government intends to strengthen in the future."

But these comments were rendered meaningless by the president of the treasury board and former minister of justice Vic Toews, who on June 17, in Parliament, described Louise Arbour as a disgrace.

When asked to retract, he reiterated that her remarks, "with respect to the state of Israel and the people of Israel are in fact a disgrace and I stand by those words."

It was shocking to hear a member of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government display this unseemly attack on this remarkably distinguished Canadian woman, academic, justice of the Court of Appeal, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals, justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a member of the Order of Canada.

But politics seems to trump courage, decency, and principled honesty. Surely, you can criticize Arbour without trashing her reputation, unless of course it is more important not to risk offending the American government and some insecure pro-Israel voters.

Nevertheless, there is a question that must be asked. Where are Louise Arbour's friends? Her colleagues on the benches of our courts (other than former Supreme Court justice Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, who defended her), the academics, the politicians, and especially members of this profession have been silent.

Are we too afraid to offend the powerful? Too cautious to step up and state that her treatment is absolutely unacceptable?

In a world of ethnic cleansing, kidnapped children in uniform, desecration of women and the young, torture of prisoners, and millions in refugee camps, Louise Arbour stood up and pointed fingers where she believed it was necessary.

She openly criticized, yet also quietly engaged in diplomatic discussions. She reminded the world that humanity is fragile, and the rule of law and respect for the dignity of every human being must trump political niceties.

She is truly a remarkable woman, indeed a Canadian icon . . . a member of this profession, who we seem to have shamefully abandoned.

William Trudell is a Toronto lawyer and chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers.

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