Vic Toews got it wrong – Louise Arbour isn’t a disgrace, she’s just irrelevant

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When federal Treasury Board President and former Minister of Justice Vic Toews called outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour a “disgrace” in the House of Commons recently, he missed the mark. The real problem isn’t that Louise Arbour is a disgrace, it’s that she – and by extension the entire UN human rights bureaucracy – is irrelevant. One need only read Claire L’Heureux-Dube’s spirited defence of Ms. Arbour and her record, published in the Ottawa Citizen June 21, to understand just how irrelevant.

Ms. L’Heureux-Dube is the director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, a group that she claims “monitors acts of persecution and harassment” of lawyers and human rights advocates around the world. Like Ms. Arbour, she is also a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ms. L’Heureux-Dube praises Ms. Arbour for bringing a “new relevance to her office” by being a “timely intervenor” when innocent people and civilians are threatened by conflict. As evidence she draws our attention to Ms. Arbour’s statement in April calling on both sides of the political showdown in Zimbabwe to “restrain” their supporters.

A second example cited by Ms. L’Heureux-Dube of Ms. Arbour’s important work are her 2006 comments directed toward Israel and Hezbollah that “indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians” and that “bombardment of sites with alleged military significance” that results in civilian deaths is unjustifiable. Ms. L’Heureux-Dube is particularly proud of this statement because of its apparent impartiality and because, according to her, it successfully reminded all parties of “the possibility of personal criminal responsibility.”

The discerning observer will notice that the “timely” interventions cited by Ms. L’Heureux-Dube have one thing in common – they are all words. No tangible action, direct or indirect, was taken by either Louise Arbour or her office that resulted in the protection of a single innocent person or civilian.

How many lives were saved in Zimbabwe as a result of Ms. Arbour’s stern warnings? Answer: none.

How many rockets did Hezbollah hold back in response to Ms. Arbour’s earnest admonitions in 2006? How many has Hamas held back since? Answer: none.

How many women convicted of adultery were spared public execution in Iran as a result of any of Ms. Arbour’s strong statements? Answer: none.

How many churches and synagogues were allowed to be built in Saudi Arabia in response to any of Ms. Arbour’s heartfelt pleadings in support of minority rights? Answer: none.

How many female genital mutilations were prevented as a result of Ms. Arbour’s tireless efforts on behalf of women’s rights? Answer: none.

In fairness, no declaration of concern, nor statement of condemnation, nor expression of anger or outrage, could ever influence the behaviour of those individuals and regimes that engage in such heinous human rights abuses. As former general, now senator, Romeo Dallaire has noted, mere words did not save a single life in Rwanda, nor are they saving lives in Darfur today.

On the other hand, the impact of statements from officials like Ms. Arbour can deter the advancement of human rights. Consider her “even-handed” scolding of Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Ms. Arbour was simply wrong to imply that there was no difference between accidental civilian deaths resulting from attacks on military targets undertaken by Israel and those caused by the deliberate and indiscriminate missile attacks of Hezbollah on Israeli towns and cities. In so doing, she undermined the efforts of the international community to isolate and dismantle an international criminal organization that has brought untold suffering to innocent people over the years – the vast majority of whom are Lebanese, not Israeli.

Impartiality may be appropriate in some circumstances. Applied indiscriminately, however, the very same principle can have terrible consequences. Winston Churchill said it best when he refused “to remain impartial between the fire brigade and the fire”.

Ms. L’Heureux-Dube reaches new heights in obsequiousness in expressing her “deepest gratitude” to Ms. Arbour for her “unprecedented accomplishments” on the world stage.

Setting aside the thorny question of how much Ms. Arbour actually has accomplished, to the extent that she has, is it fair to characterize those accomplishments as “unprecedented”?

We just observed the 64th anniversary of D-Day Does the accomplishment of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who served in World War Two, including the tens of thousands who gave their lives, not count?

What of the Canadians who fought in Korea in the early 1950s, or the Balkans in the mid-90s, or who are currently fighting in Afghanistan? How does their work and sacrifice stack up against those of Ms. Arbour and her battalion of paper-shufflers and pencil-pushers? If Ms. L’Heureux-Dube is to be believed, there is no comparison at all. That in itself is a disgrace.

Neither Louise Arbour nor her devoted friend Claire L’Heureux-Dube occupies a seat on this country’s highest court anymore, both having stepped down voluntarily to pursue other interests.

Given the degree of intellectual rigour habitually demonstrated by the two, both on the bench and off, that’s something Canadians can truly be thankful for.

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