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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour: The U.S. War on Terror Is Constantly Being Used by Other Countries as Justification for Torture and Other Violations of International Human Rights

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“Torture, arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention in violation of right to counsel, incommunicado detention, any country that wants to equip itself either through legislation or just through its practices with these kind of tools uses the example of the United States,” Louise Arbour tells Democracy Now! “If I try to call to account any government, privately or publicly, for their human rights records, the first response is: First go and talk to the Americans about their human rights violations.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Carter Center here in Atlanta, Georgia, founded 25 years ago by President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. Today, we’ll spend the hour with Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She is chairing a two-day conference with President Carter for human rights defenders from around the world.

Louise Arbour is a former Supreme Court justice in Canada. She is perhaps best known as the chief prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

In 1999, she indicted Slobodan Milosevic for genocide and crimes against humanity when he was still the president of Yugoslavia. This marked the first time a sitting head of state was indicted by an international court.

In 2004, Louise Arbour was appointed U.N. high commissioner for human rights, replacing Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.

Louise Arbour joins me today from the Carter Center. We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. The state of human rights in the world today, can you talk about it?

LOUISE ARBOUR: You know, we will begin the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We’ll start celebrating it towards the end of this year. 2008 is the target date. And the Universal Declaration, by definition, is meant to express universal ideals, and I think this concept is very much under attack.

There are claims all over the world that the human rights agenda is a carrier of Western values. It’s manipulated in the pursuit of Western — read U.S. — interest. That’s one discourse. The discourse we hear, on the other hand, in America is that the human rights agenda has been hijacked by the bad guys, by those who don’t believe in human rights and who are trying, for instance, to hijack the Human Rights Council to totally undermine the human rights values. So we see this very, very severe, profound attack on the very concept of universality of rights.

AMY GOODMAN: You came into office soon after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Do you see the world as a more or less dangerous place today? This is more than, what, close to five years later.

LOUISE ARBOUR: I think it is a very unstable world. I think we see the emergence and the recurrence of conflict everywhere. We know, for instance, that the best predictor of whether conflict will erupt is whether there was conflict in the previous five years. So we’ve been extremely poor, I think, at managing post-military intervention in Iraq. We’re not even in that phase yet. But I think everywhere else we have an enormous challenge in managing stability, which I think is because we’re never addressing the very profound root causes of conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Which are?

LOUISE ARBOUR: I think, not to over simplify the issue, it’s clearly linked to the very severe inequalities in access to wealth or wealth distribution between states and within states. And I think this exacerbates — and that’s easily manipulated then by political agenda that prey on people’s faith or religious beliefs, values. But at the end of the day we have a very unjust, very unfair world and very few institutions that permit a peaceful forum to address these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Arbour, in our last segment you’ll be joined by two human rights defenders. There’s a gathering of defenders from around the world here at the Carter Center, grassroots activists who face persecution for what they do. How can they be protected?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, in fact, I think it’s the biggest dilemma that I see — I’ve been coming to the Carter Center for a few years now, since I’ve been in office, to meet with human rights defenders. And, you know, we develop different themes. This year, what is very obvious to me is that we have to reinvent a way to offer international support and protection to human rights defenders, because, for instance, more traditional roots — for instance, financial support and so on — is very often further endangering them and undermining their message in their own countries. It’s very easy then for governments who are being called upon by these human rights defenders to dismiss them and marginalize them by portraying them, again, as puppets of foreign interest — again, read Western or U.S. interest. So to reach out to them, I think, we need to completely reinvent this kind of solidarity with people on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of human rights records, how would you assess President Bush’s human rights record?

LOUISE ARBOUR: I can’t make that kind of global judgment. The United States, I think, has a very long tradition of commitment to human rights values. It goes back to the involvement of the United States in the very creation of the Universal Declaration and a very long history of involvement. The rhetoric, I think, has never changed. There’s always a commitment to freedom and liberty and democracy.

Contrary to the aspirations elsewhere in the world, the United States has never spoken as forcefully as I would like it to see on economic and social rights. It’s a great champion of civil liberties, civil and political rights, less so of economic and social rights, and not enough of equality, in my view.

But I think the current U.S. place in the world is perceived as so adversarial to many aspirations, particularly in the Arab world, that I think it jeopardizes the capacity of the United States to carry the message that I don’t doubt the U.S. is still very committed to.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a Supreme Court justice in Canada. Can you talk about, for example, extraordinary renditions, this extraordinary term for kidnapping?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Yeah. Well, it won’t surprise you that I believe in the law. I think the greatest regulator of international affairs should be more the legal framework than political expediency, which I think has dominated — is perceived as the dominant drive of international relations. I think extraordinary renditions are a total bypass of the legal framework by which people’s rights to be protected against illegal activities is completely undermined.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement you made to mark Human Rights Day in December of 2005, you criticized the U.S.-led war on terror as undermining international safeguards against torture. You wrote, “The absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is under attack. The principle once believed to be unassailable, the inherent right to physical integrity and dignity of person, is becoming a casualty of the so-called war on terrorism.”

Well, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, John Bolton, criticized your remark, saying, “I think it’s inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we’re engaged in in the war on terror with nothing more as evidence than what she reads in the newspapers.” Your response?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, I said at the time, and I continue to believe, that one of the most difficult issues regarding this whole thing about extraordinary renditions, the use of torture, and so on, is the amount of secrecy that surrounds these activities. In democracies, I think we have a right to find out what our governments are doing on our behalf. And when everything is covered by this sort of intense level of secrecy, the public debate is totally curtailed. So, to say that I can rely only on what I read in the newspaper is to state the obvious. That’s all that the governments are making public. So I think it doesn’t — it’s not suitable or suitable argument to say that’s all we have to rely on.

Furthermore, I think, as the United Nations human rights high commissioner, not only I have the right, it is actually my mandate to ensure the safeguard — I’m the guardian of the Convention Against Torture. If I see it eroded, either the norms being eroded or violations of the convention, I think it’s my obligation to speak up.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re an international civil servant, also former Canadian Supreme Court justice. Maher Arar, a name that still in the United States is hardly known, but in Canada it’s a household name, sent by extraordinary rendition to Syria, where he was tortured, interrogated, held for more than 10 months, eventually — inexplicably, no charges brought against him — returned to Canada a broken man. Ultimately, Stephen Harper, the conservative Bush ally, prime minister, held a news conference. Maher Arar has been awarded $10 million. The prime minister castigated the Bush administration. They keep him on a no-fly list, have not apologized. Your thoughts?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, the Maher Arar case, I wish we would see more of cases handled this way. Canada held a public inquiry. Again, the government of Canada, correctly so, tried to argue in court on a lot of issues that parts of this public inquiry should be withheld from the public domain. So this issue, the question of protecting national security interest in the probing of what happened to this Canadian citizen of Syrian origins, this was all debated in courts. I think that’s exactly the way to go. There are many countries, I think, where several activities took place. The appropriate response, it seems to me, is to lift this veil of secrecy and have the matter aired publicly. And the implication of the United States in this event, I would have hoped would be the subject of the same kind of public scrutiny.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Louise Arbour. She is the U.N. high commissioner on human rights. We’re here in Atlanta at the Carter Center, where a two-day conference is taking place with human rights defenders from around the world. In our last segment, we’ll be joined by two of them: one woman from Kenya, another from Malaysia. We’ll be back with Louise Arbour in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Carter Center, founded by President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter. We are here for the human rights defenders’ two-day conference that’s taking place — human rights defenders around the world. U.N. Human Rights — High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour is here with Jimmy Carter chairing this conference, and she joins us here at the Carter Center.

Guantánamo, talk about not only this prison. This prison we know about. Hundreds of men are held there by the U.S. military. But there are also CIA black sites that President Bush has admitted to. There is Abu Ghraib. There’s Bagram. What does this mean to you? And what responsibility, what can you do as an international civil servant, high commissioner on human rights?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, it’s very ironic, in fact, for the U.N. human rights machinery to feel compelled to be involved in a country that has very high human rights standards, at least a legal protection for human rights. I think the choice of the site in Guantánamo Bay was the first marker that there was an attempt by the U.S. administration to manage the war on terror outside the legal framework. I mean, it was a deliberate attempt to shelter the actions of the administration from judicial scrutiny. From day one, this was my biggest concern.

I think Americans and people all over the world have every reason to have confidence in U.S. institutions when they are all engaged together. The system of governments has several branches, and in the field of human rights the judicial branch is probably the most important one. It’s the forum for protection, upholding of human rights law. So the signal that this entire war on terror would be fought outside the legal framework, I think, was extremely troublesome. Now, the more the U.S. courts asserted their jurisdiction over Guantánamo, I think the more we could feel confident, whatever the outcome of any particular litigation, that the entire United States governance system was fully engaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you tried to get access to the CIA black sites?

LOUISE ARBOUR: No, I don’t believe I would have been successful. And again, you see, the recognition has come quite late of the existence of practices or locations that for the longest time were unacknowledged. So it’s very difficult to engage with governments when the information is not available.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Louise Arbour. She is the U.N. high commissioner on human rights. I wanted to turn to the Middle East. We just completed an interview with President Carter. We’ll be running that on Monday on Democracy Now! We talked extensively about the Middle East, about Israel and Palestine. It’s been a subject here at the conference.

But I wanted to extend it beyond, to Lebanon. Last year, you came under criticism for saying Israel’s actions in its war with Lebanon could lead to the prosecution of Israeli military commanders for war crimes. This is a clip of what you said in an interview on CNN on January 2006.

LOUISE ARBOUR: It’s pretty apparent that the number, the scale of civilian casualties in this conflict raise very serious questions about breaches of the laws and customs of war in a way not only that is a breach of international humanitarian law, but that could engage international criminal law and could engage personal criminal responsibility all the way up the chain of command.

AMY GOODMAN: That was actually July 2006. Do you still hold this view?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, the reason I made these comments at the time is I really believe in international criminal justice and personal accountability. And part of its purposes is deterrence. And it’s a relatively novel idea in international affairs that there could be personal criminal accountability. And I think at the height of a conflict, it’s important to remind all belligerents that quite apart from the military objectives, the political objectives they’re pursuing, they should also keep an eye on the legal consequences, including for them personally, about their actions. So they should be very focused.

And in the case of the Lebanon war, I thought they should be particularly focused on their principle of proportionality, that you can’t just say, “Well, these are civilian casualties. They’re unintended. So, so be it.” There is a legal framework that may engage them personally. And I thought, and I still think, the time to remind commanders, both in the civilian and military field, of their personal exposure, potential personal exposure, is at the time that they’re called upon to make these decisions, not after the fact, but just to make sure that they understand the personal consequences to them, if they’re cavalier about their legal obligations.

AMY GOODMAN: You will soon return back to Geneva for the Human Rights Commission. I remember years ago testifying before the commission. I think it was in 1992. It was right after the Indonesian massacre in Timor, the Santa Cruz massacre, that I witnessed and survived. And at that time, the U.S. was an influential member of that body. But today it no longer is a member of — the new name, I think, is Human Rights Council.

LOUISE ARBOUR: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Why? And what difference does that make?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, I would have liked to see the United States a member. I think the United States is such an important actor on all international issues, including all human rights issues, that to have it sit in the margins of the council, I think, is not particularly helpful.

Now, having said that, the U.S. mission in Geneva participates. I mean, nonmembers of the council have their right to speak. They don’t vote on the issues. And the U.S. has been attentive; on most issues, somebody is there. The ambassador — the U.S. ambassador often takes the opportunity to make statements. But I think we need the United States to be — to occupy its proper place in that very political body.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that it is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court and the significance of that and how important you think that court is?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, first, let’s make very clear: The United States is not a signatory to a lot of important international human rights treaties and conventions. Now, in a lot of cases, the U.S. would say, “Well, we don’t need to ratify these treaties. Our domestic laws are even superior in terms of their level of protection.” But, again, the signal that it sends, I think, is very problematic, when the U.S. is one of a handful — I think maybe just two countries —- that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for instance, CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. So I think we need -—

AMY GOODMAN: And the rationales?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, you’d have to ask the administration what the rationale is. I suspect that — in the same way that no Western country — no Western country — has ratified the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. In some cases, they’ll tell you — and I assume you’d hear that in the United States — “We don’t need to commit ourselves through international instruments. We have domestic protective frameworks that are perfectly adequate, if not superior.”

But this is the whole idea of universality and multilateralism, is everybody has to be brought to the table together. So the signal of disengagement by the United States is a license for others also to disengage.

And on the ICC, the International Criminal Court, the court now has well over a hundred countries having ratified and engaged in that forum. And the rationale advanced by the United States regarding its level of exposure to international prosecutions, I don’t think, is very convincing.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Arbour, I wanted to play another clip of you speaking. This was last November, where you denounced what you called Israel’s “massive violation of Palestinian rights.”

LOUISE ARBOUR: …to show the concern of the whole of the United Nations for civilians, that I think this speaks for itself, how exposed and vulnerable they are. There, the violations of human rights, I think, in these territories is massive, from economic and social rights to this vulnerability to this violence that is totally out of control.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Arbour, your thoughts today?

LOUISE ARBOUR: I think when we touch on the question of violations of human rights of Palestinians, the situation today is as dramatic as it was when I visited just about a year ago in November of last year. I think it’s really important to acknowledge right at the outset Israel’s security concerns. They cannot be dismissed as not important or not severe. So Israel has very serious security concerns.

Israel also is the occupying power in the Palestinian territories, and as a result of that it carries a whole bundle of legal responsibilities. It has the responsibility vis-à-vis the people who live under the occupation.

In my view, the situation last year — and I continue to believe it’s the case now — in the pursuit of its security interest, or so it asserts — and I’m prepared to take it at face value — Israel is imposing constraints on Palestinian civilian populations that lead to, in my opinion, a disproportionate infringement of their rights, in particular the restrictions of movement in the West Bank, the combination of the wall, security barrier, fence, whatever — and, of course, the choice of words is extremely political.

But the combination of that with the network of checkpoints and moving checkpoints is such that it has totally crippled the economy of the West Bank. It imposes extreme hardship on people’s access to health, to hospitals, to education, family visit. And the answer on the part of Israeli authorities is that, well, as a result, we haven’t had any suicide bombings.

And the question is, to what extent is it legitimate in the pursuit of a security interest to infringe almost absolutely on the freedom and rights of those that are under Israelis’ protection by law because of the occupation?

AMY GOODMAN: And what power do you have or does the international community have in dealing with an issue like this, when you’re talking about violations of international human rights?

LOUISE ARBOUR: I’m not sure that anybody has any power, except if you believe in the power of persuasion. Unfortunately, I think we are long past being able to have a rational dispassionate discourse on that issue. Whatever pronouncement is made by any public official, it is immediately, by frankly all parties immediately involved, it’s dissected in order to try to assume a bias. You have to be on one side or the other. There’s no constituency for a kind of a rational middle ground on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect do you think U.S. policy around extraordinary rendition, around torture, around the secret black sites, have on other countries who can also talk about pursuing the war on terror?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, there’s no doubt that it has served, or at least it’s used constantly, as a justification for measures that in my view are illegal and against international human rights law, but the war on terror has —- is used to justify equally -—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give examples?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, the same thing: recourse to torture, arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention in violation of, you know, right to counsel — incommunicado detention, essentially. Any country that wants to equip itself, either through legislation or just through its practices with these kinds of tools, uses the example of the United States.

The other consequence, of course, is, if I try to call to account any government, privately or publicly, for their human rights records, the first response is, “First go and talk to the Americans about their human rights violations. Then come and talk to us.” This is invariable, accusing me — and generically me, my office — of bias by being, quote, “soft on the U.S.” and very hard on others who have less means and less ability to comply with their obligations. So that’s the cultural landscape in the advancement of human rights in the context of the war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Louise Arbour, can you talk about Darfur right now? What are you doing about it? What needs to be done? How desperate is the situation?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, the situation, I think, has been extremely desperate for a very long time. I think currently the initiatives that are led by the secretary-general have dominated the agenda — that is, the attempt to deploy a hybrid African Union/United Nations force and to rekindle the peace talks, which now, I understand, will take place in Libya with the rebel factions that are still outside the peace process. So there have been lots of initiatives, I think, on the political side and on the peacekeeping side. The human rights and humanitarian sectors, I think, have been, in a sense, dormant, pending these political initiatives. I think both the humanitarian workers on the ground and human rights activists would say that in the meantime the situation, if anything, has deteriorated.

AMY GOODMAN: The indicting of Slobodan Milosevic, first time a sitting world leader indicted — you, at the time, the head of the tribunal on Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Talk about the significance of that.

LOUISE ARBOUR: I think the significance of that was to really capture the world’s attention on this new tool that the international community had equipped itself with, which is the law, international criminal law. These tribunals — the tribunal for Yugoslavia was the first one, as you know, since Nuremberg. It was created in 1993, I think, in a sense, in desperation by the Security Council. This is quite ironic also, when you think that the first international criminal initiative was in fact a product of the Security Council, not the treaty convention. And I’m not sure that those who launched that realized that potency of using the law, as opposed to the other traditional options, which is diplomacy or military intervention. All of a sudden there was a new tool.

I’m not sure if anybody seriously thought that it would be used. I suspect that they didn’t think it would be used at the height — well, not only to indict a sitting head of state, but at the height of a military conflict, which involved NATO. But it was, in my view, perfectly appropriate to bring the charges when the evidence was sufficient, regardless of the political climate at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Was there ever a discussion of indicting officials of NATO or the United States for the bombings in, for example, Kosovo and the level of mass civilian killing?

LOUISE ARBOUR: There were, of course, lots of claims, in particular on the part of Serbian groups calling on the tribunal to look at the behavior of NATO. There certainly, I think, was a legal infrastructure in place in NATO headquarters to try to be attentive to this requirement of proportionality. There was a lot of debate about the use of cluster bombs, for instance, whether this was inherently a violation of the principle of proportionality because it could randomly expose civilians to casualties. The same debate took place in Lebanon, and I personally certainly hope that we’ll move towards bans not just on landmines, as has been done, but on other kinds of weapons that by their nature inflict potentially disproportionate harm to civilian populations. So, yes, during the war there were issued raised, but they were of more of — I don’t want to dismiss this — a technical nature. But, you know, there was no question of extermination or persecution of civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: And the ongoing trials of Rwandans as a result of the genocide?

LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, the tribunal, the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda will wrap up, I think, its activities — I’m not sure what the framework is — within the next few years. It will be interesting what the longer-term judgment of history will be on the activities of the tribunal. In the end, it probably will have done all that was possible to do to prosecute the highest level of leadership, again with tools that were, in a sense, very experimental. That’s, this international criminal justice looks like domestic criminal justice, but it doesn’t have all the same tools. It really has to adapt itself.

I think the Rwanda tribunal will remain under the shadow of the fact that it prosecuted those responsible for the genocide. Its mandate is for not just the genocide, but war crimes, crimes against humanity in the year or — the full year of 1994. And there has been no indictments — up to now, in any event — against the RPF, the party that led to the present government in the face of a lot of allegations.

AMY GOODMAN: Louise Arbour, we’re going to break, and when we come back we’ll be joined by two human rights defenders who are at this conference here at the Carter Center. We’re talking to the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Stay with us.

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Live from the Carter Center: A Roundtable Discussion with Zainah Anwar of Malaysia, Kaari Betty Murungi of Kenya and Louise Arbour on the Role of Human Rights Defenders Around the Globe

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