It has got to be one of the most thankless tasks on Earth. Whatever he or she does, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is going to upset someone, somewhere, somehow. During her 4-year term in the job, Louise Arbour, a former Canadian judge and UN prosecutor, has certainly done her share of feather-ruffling, including berating the Bush Administration over their conduct of the so-called "war on terror. Dubbed the "human shock absorber," after only one term, come June, Louise Arbour is calling it quits. George Negus spoke to her from the UN's Geneva headquarters just prior to the fracas in Tibet breaking out.
GEORGE NEGUS: Louise Arbour, thanks very much for talking to us. It is good to see you again.
LOUISE ARBOUR, UN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSIONER: Thank you.
GEORGE NEGUS: We just had a story on our program about Darfur, a terrible situation that the world is appalled at. What chance, literally in hell in this case human rights in a situation like Darfur and basic human rights like life itself are constantly at risk?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, I have to say I think this is the most discouraging field in which I have been engaged. When I came to this post on 1 July 2004, I went to the summit of the African Union to try to persuade the Government of Sudan to let me deploy eight human rights officers in Darfur. And four years later we now have a large human rights component inside the UN mission. And at the end of the day, we keep documenting the same pattern of attacks. Actually now I think what's particularly discouraging is we see a recurrence of the kinds of bombardments and attacks on villages, both from government side and from rebel groups. These populations that have been these displaced persons that have been in camps now for years are in terrible predicament, very exposed to attacks.
GEORGE NEGUS: So what do we do about it? I mean, nothing seems to be changing, the situation seems be getting worse. Governments are blaming rebels, rebels are blaming governments, and meanwhile the killing continues, the displacement continues. What the heck do we do about it?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, you know, the decision-maker in this case is the Security Council. I mean, when you look at what the international community can do when it mobilises itself, public opinion, worldwide public opinion is really important, but at the end of the day the only method of actual intervention is through the Security Council. The Security Council has made the decision to deploy, as you know, a hybrid force jointly with the African Union. The Government of Sudan has, in my opinion, been very slow to accommodate the requirements for the deployment of this force. Darfur, I think, is a classic case of protection by presence.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Now, when you have an internal, armed conflict, a rebellion, rebel forces, if this makes the government unwilling or unable to discharge its own responsibility to protect, I think, as it is now called in this emerging doctrine, then the international community has the duty to come to the assistance of these civilians in danger.
GEORGE NEGUS: But is this a classic example of the criticism of the UN generally, not your area of it in particular, but generally, that makes this sort of situation it appears to be insoluble, highlights the alleged ineffectuality of the UN?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, frankly, I don't, I don't think so. We have the world that we have. We have the political systems that we have. We have inherited principles of state sovereignty that are still, for a large part, very impenetrable. This is our world. The question is, how we make the best of it? The UN is, to some extent, a kind of last resort. It means there has been national failure, probably regional failure or a lack of capacity. By the time the whole world is engaged, as you can appreciate, there is a lot of discordance also in the vision of the necessity to intervene, the wisdom of intervention. All this, I think, has to be factored in. And the champions of intervention in one case may be very reluctant in another case because it comes a bit closer to their interest.
GEORGE NEGUS: Right.
LOUISE ARBOUR: This is our world. We have to make it work.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can I quote to you what, if you like, Louise Arbour to Louise Arbour, you said that, "US-led counter-terrorism, the terrorism struggle, has set back the cause of human rights by decades and has exacerbated a profound divide between the US, its Western allies and the developing world." You really mean that? You think that the war on terror has set back your cause and the human rights cause by decades, as you say?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Yeah, and I can tell you in what more specific ways. For one thing, it led to an erosion in the field of civil and political rights, where the gains, I thought, were extremely solid. For instance, the definition of torture, the applicability of the torture convention, the principle of non-refoulement, you don't send people back to the risk of facing torture. Until September 11, these principles, you know, were challenging to apply, but the normative framework was very clear and very solid. What we have seen in the war on terror is a direct attack on the norms themselves, on the legitimacy of the legal framework. But worse than that, before September 11 I think we were poised to make a lot of progress in the pursuit of economic and social rights, you know, what Roosevelt called the two freedoms, freedom from fear and freedom from want. And the freedom-from-want agenda was just about ready to take hold and develop, but I think that the war on terror has also frozen all the capacity and the goodwill to advance this agenda, because all the efforts and concentration had to go back to questions of arrest, detention, extrajudicial killings. So in that sense I think it is a tremendous setback.
GEORGE NEGUS: Could I ask you a question much closer to home, where we're concerned. Last year we had an intervention action, for the want of a simple way of putting a very complicated event. And the way the government of the day decided to apply their power was to send in the troops and the cops, as it were. How did you react as a UN human rights commissioner to what the previous government did here in Australia?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, I can't go back to a particular event, but I can tell you first in very general terms, I think it's certainly the use of military forces in law-enforcement has to be a very exceptional measure, but in the case of the interface of state law-enforcement agents with Indigenous communities, I think it's particularly aggravated because there's a background both in Australia and in a lot of other parts of the world there is a history of distrust, of neglect and of, sometimes, overreach in these kinds of situations. Now, the state has a primary responsibility to provide security, and I think it has to have the courage to live up to that responsibility.
GEORGE NEGUS: Since the intervention we've had a change of government, and whilst the current government is going ahead with that intervention for at least a year, they say, and then they will review the situation, we have taken one step that hasn't been taken by previous governments, we have said sorry to the Indigenous people of this country. Again, how did you react to that? Because in Canada, where you come from, there's no sorry been said but your people have got compensation. Our guys have got an apology but no compensation.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Looking at it from outside Australia, it got enormous coverage. It was really quite a moment, I think, of courage, of dignity, a very important step forward for Australians collectively.
GEORGE NEGUS: And what about the tricky issue of compensation? Where would you stand on that? I mean, the Canadian Government have done it, we haven't at this point, anyway.
LOUISE ARBOUR: From a rights perspective, it's trite to say there is no such thing as a right without a remedy. We have exactly the same debate or the international community has been challenged to have the same debate regarding colonialism, slavery. Now, how far back does the need to repair the harm caused by gross human violations? Now, you will not be surprised that I am an advocate of, the most extensive remedy available should be extended, so compensation, reparations of all forms, I think are necessary, not only to heal, but really to restore the right in its entirety and not make it a rhetorical right.
GEORGE NEGUS: Given the old adage of did she jump or was she pushed, why are you quitting what a lot of people would regard as probably the most thankless task in the world?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, first of all I'm not quitting. I had a 4-year appointment. It is theoretically it could be renewed once and I have made the decision that I can't make another 4-year commitment. It's very hard work, I think I've done everything I could in four years. I think it's time for somebody else to take it on.
GEORGE NEGUS: So what about the suggestions that you have been under a lot of pressure and that pressure is making you less effective than you might like to be?
LOUISE ARBOUR: No, in fact to the extent that there have been criticism of me personally and of my office and the work we're trying to do, these would be very good reasons and very tempting to make me decide to stay on and face these criticisms head on. But the reality is, it is endemic, it is in the nature of the job. Human rights work deals with issues that are very much at the centre of the relationship between governments and their own people, so to try to do that from an international perspective I think inevitably generates a lot of criticisms.
GEORGE NEGUS: I'd have to ask you, what is next for Louise Arbour? I would imagine, given what you have been through for the last four years, just about anything would be an anti-climax.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, first, my mandate ends on 30 June. As you know, in Canada July and August is the two most beautiful months of the year. So what is next for me is a wonderful Canadian holiday. If there is anything after that I'll let you know.
GEORGE NEGUS: Thank you very much. Well, you have certainly earned that holiday. It is good to talk to you again.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Thank you. Good to talk to you too.
GEORGE NEGUS: All the best.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Thanks.
Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights not so shy, but as we've heard, soon to be retiring. Earlier today, we contacted her office about Tibet. A spokesman indicated that "stuff" was going on the diplomatic front re that current crisis, but she wouldn't comment for fear of undermining those efforts.