Louise Arbour: 'The West is very ambiguous about human rights'

The world is a pretty unsafe place for citizens; and that’s more often because of economic uncertainty than terrorism or political extremism, according to Louise Arbour. Can the West do anything about that? Is it good that we are concerned about democracy? And how do we assess international interventions in regional conflicts? MO* put these questions to the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

Louise Arbour is a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, a former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004-2008).

Since 2009 she has been president of the International Crisis Group, an international NGO that makes detailed analyses of current and impending conflicts, and that advises about how to handle and prevent such conflicts. Arbour approaches the complex world of safety and diplomacy with a healthy no-nonsense attitude. An armed conflict is a war, she states, and there’s no need to beat about the bush, when it comes to that.

We start our conversation with Next Year’s Wars, a speech she made at the end of December detailing the ten most likely conflicts for 2012: Syria, Iran/Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Central Asia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya/Somalia and Venezuela. This list of ten conflicts could just as easily have been a list of twenty-five, she has said herself. However, at the same time of Arbour’s speech, the American psychologist Steven Pinker published his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which he demonstrates that there have been fewer wars and less violence than ever before. So who’s right?

Louise Arbour: The Cold War is long over, just like the wars of decolonisation. So there are fewer international armed conflicts, there are fewer civil wars and fewer casualties in these armed conflicts. Still, we have to add the warning that this evolution is not irreversible. Furthermore, the sheer fact that there are fewer large-scale conflicts is completely irrelevant for the Syrian people, for instance. They want to know what is in store for them tomorrow and the years to come, and do not benefit from knowing that in 2012 there are fewer wars going on than in 1972.

Some observers fear that in Africa we are going to relapse into Cold War opportunism, now that the competition between the West and China puts concerns for human rights or good government to the background.

Louise Arbour: One has to be careful when it comes to proclamations about the impact of the larger economic presence of China in Africa. Let’s not pretend that the Western activities in Africa were all beneficial and altruistic, while China is an egocentrical power that is sucking Africa dry. The reality is that both governments and companies are motivated by self-interest – all governments. Moreover, China is rapidly growing aware of the fact that they are in the international limelight.

We shouldn’t exaggerate the influence – whether positive or negative – of external players in processes of change. The Arabic revolutions of the past year, for instance, were all internal movements stemming from society’s base. The Arabic Spring was not the result of international interference, nor was it caused by international themes, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many countries regional societies are increasingly capable of formulating and realising their own agendas.

So the big question is less and less whether the West is standing up sufficiently for human rights in the rest of the world. People take care of that themselves. Furthermore, we should realise that in the better part of the South, the West is considered very ambiguous when it comes to human rights. For instance, up to this day there is no Western country that has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Why not? Because it goes agains he ineress of Western countries to do so.

In the early days of the protests in Tunisia or Egypt, Europe did not react with statements about democracy or human rights either, but with proclamations about immigration. You did not hear European leaders boasting their solidarity with the brave people in the Middle East or Northern Africa; you heard them panicking about the barbarians showing up at the gates of Europe.

Libya was a turning point in the turbulent Arabic Spring. Was the Western interference an aid or a burden for that revolt?

Louise Arbour: In the case of Libya it was possible to have a resolution agreed upon by the United Nations Security Council in the shortest time possible, including the deferral of Gadaffi to the International Criminal Court, while in the case of Darfur a similar deferral took months and months before all pros and cons were weighed up. The Libyan approach also turned into military intervention in a matter of hours.

Several members of the Security Council afterwards described that last step as a betrayal of the intention and wording of the UN resolution. Still, it had been clear from day one to everyone involved that resolution 1973 was meant to realise a regime change in Libya. After all, how could you stop a leader who according to the resolution had murderous intentions towards his own people, if not by replacing him? However, the United States, France and Great Britain had communicated ambiguously about this aspect, while China, Russia and India acted conveniently naive. Therefore I find using the intervention in Libya today as an excuse to prevent all action in favour of Syria’s citizens, utterly immoral.

How credible is the West when it says that it wants to intervene to save the lives of the Syrian citizens?

Louise Arbour: That is always a problematical claim. The responsibility to protect principle is of the utmost importance, but if that principle is invoked as the sole reason to declare a war – and let’s be honest: Libya was a war, not an aseptic ‘military intervention’ – then that is very incredible. There are always several factors at play when taking a decision like that. So we need to have the courage to say that the regime change in Libya was necessary to protect the citizens, but that it was always a clear goal of the three Western permanent members of the Security Council.

In Libya we expected the chaos that inevitably ensues after the sudden disappearance of a long-time authoritarian ruler to remain rather limited. Whether that was right, is another question. In the case of Syria there is not even a similar optimistic scenario. Especially now that the revolt and the repression are increasingly turning sectarian, everyone is wondering out loud what to expect or to fear after Assad’s disappearance.

So under what circumstances is a military intervention in a conflict an acceptable step?

Louise Arbour: Strictly morally speaking you have to admit that in Syria the limit was already exceeded in early February. Libya had seen about 250 casualties when NATO intervened. In Syria we are talking about many thousands of victims. How much more bodies are you willing to count before the moral prerequisites are met? The only problem is, however, that war is not a matter of purely moral indignation. We not only have to consider the scenario in which we do not intervene, we also have to estimate the costs if we do intervene. And since the chances of a large-scale regional war are very real, it is clear that diplomatic means are much better than military ones. Those means have not been exhausted in Syria and were hardly used in Libya. In the latter case, we immediately jumped to military action, claiming an impending genocide in Benghazi, which according to some would take on Rwandan proportions. A considerable exaggeration, in my view.

‘I find using the intervention in Libya today as an excuse to prevent all action in favour of Syria’s citizens, utterly immoral.’
The emerging countries are getting more and more assertive in the geopolitical game. Turkey and Brazil, for instance, are trying to avoid the escalating conflict between the West and Iran.

Louise Arbour: And they are succeeding in having results to show for it. The United States weren’t very happy about it, and so there has been no follow up on the matter, but a lot has indeed been moving in that respect. The role played by the BRICS and the other emerging countries, is a real source of hope, because it reflects the actual, contemporary balance of power in the world.

Is it possible for the United States to adapt to a truly multilateral and multipolar world?

Louise Arbour: It is much too early to write off the US as the true super power in the world. Washington is still the place were the real decisions are made. At a certain time there were twenty special envoys in Sudan, but each time real pressure had to be exerted or when matters got completely stuck, everyone knew that only the American envoy could solve the problem.

I also have the feeling that Washington reacted very wisely during the first days of the so-called Arabic Spring. That was a particularly difficult exercise in balance. On the one hand, the US did not want to drop an old ally, because that would concern its existing allies. On the other hand, they did not want to annex a spontaneous revolution by the people, because that was certain to have the opposite result. At the same time, the US was trying to stay an important player in the region, even if it was impossible to see where all this would end.

Reactions might have been wise in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, but there was almost a complete silence about the governmental violence and the intervention of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. That must have cast a dark shadow over the way the West reacted?

Louise Arbour: Yes it did, but the definitive scenario for Bahrain has not been written yet. Will the monarchies in the Gulf come out of this revolt completely unscathed? I would be surprised. 2011 was a surprise, because we had always supposed that the region was stable, that the regimes had to be supported because they were secular, and that change was only possible when there’s strong leadership. All that turned out to be false last year. So 2012 could again hold a lot of surprises. The possibility that we will get another series of revolts after the developments and bloodshed in Libya and Syria has probably shrunk, but the likelihood that nothing more will happen in the Arabic world is even smaller.

Does Europe need to play an active role or are we spectators in a process others are shaping?

Louise Arbour: We definitely shouldn’t impose our own agenda on people who are in the middle of emancipating and empowering themselves. But that does not mean that we should be deaf to the pleas for help or support. So we should not come out with women’s rights, for instance, just because that’s important to us. But if Arabic women signal that they need our voice or support, then we cannot remain neutral. It is important that they keep taking charge of the revolution they have started themselves.

In Afghanistan the West also likes showing off the support it gives to those who ask for democracy, but that does not prevent our armies from pursuing their very own agenda over there.

Louise Arbour: We have exported a formal democracy to Afghanistan, but if the elections are thoroughly counterfeited, we close both eyes. The result is an institutional apparatus that has little or no legitimacy. That’s not helpful to anyone. Not to the defenders of democracy, nor to the women and minorities who have made progress under the current constitution.

Elections are often seen as a precondition for democracy and stability, but in many countries elections lead instead to violence and instability.

Louise Arbour: That is true, but it does not mean that the only solution is to cancel elections. The problem is that we have exported the technique of elections and pretend that is democracy, whereas elections are only a very small part of the broad and complex process of democracy.

The fact that we focus all of our attention on the executive branch of government – the administration, the president, the prime minister – legitimizes de facto the culture of authoritarian leadership against which we are fulminating. The recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo were a repetition of the scenario we have seen in Afghanistan: all signals were against it, but we insisted on the elections taking place. And afterwards we accepted and confirmed the results that were a true betrayal of the people who were queuing for hours to vote, believing that they could in this way help shape their own country and future. Therefore we particularly need to invest in the faith of people in their own voice, and that means constructing a healthier political environment.

International politics is often a matter of striking a balance between different important, but also opposing principles. One example is the difficult balance between the right to nations’ self-determination and the immunity of national territory.

Louise Arbour: Self-determination is a fundamental right, but it does not automatically involve the right to a domestic territory, but it does imply participation to the government of one’s life and to the development of one’s cultural, economic, social, political and religious interests. Self-determination only turns into the right to separation if the existing state violates the right to participation in a completely unacceptable and systematic way, by occupation, subjugation or colonisation.

For example, the International Crisis Group has never supported the Tamil Tigers’ demands for an independent state in Sri Lanka, but we keep applying pressure, even after the civil war has ended, on the government in Colombo to meet the Tamils’ claims for being heard more and for being able to better guide their own political future. In general you can say that separatist movements have been referred to the background.

In the meanwhile, the front stage is occupied by the war on terrorism. Does that focus on safety come at the expense of the fundamental right to dissidence and resistance?

Louise Arbour: When you ask African women what safety means for them, their answers do not concern terrorism or international jihadism, but the daily struggle to find enough to eat for their children. For the large majority of people economic uncertainty is a much bigger concern than international terrorism.

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