Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour is the President & CEO of the International Crisis Group. She is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Louise Arbour is the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. She is the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.


When should the international community intervene in a humanitarian crisis?

Well, the international community should intervene at all times where there’s a real grave risk of loss of human life or mass atrocities. The real difficult question is, “How should it intervene?” not so much whether it should. And currently we all have in mind military interventions but there are lots of other forms of interventions that are considerably less coercive or catastrophic in their possible consequences. Diplomacy – I think we have to reinvest considerably more in sort of preventative diplomacy engagement. Paying attention, early warnings, all of these kinds of preventative mechanisms I think have to be activated at all times.

What are examples of successful and not as successful interventions?

It’s always very difficult to determine what kind of impact you’ve had when you’ve prevented something from happening – it’s very speculative. But I think the forms of engagements that we see, particularly from increasingly regional organizations; in Africa for instance, the growth of the African Union and different mechanisms. Latin America has very strong, kind of regional, human rights protection regional mechanisms, all these I’m sure have had an impact. As I said, it’s very difficult to see how this kind of long term engagement — support, capacity building — has actually prevented something pretty immediate from occurring. The literature suggests that the reduction in the number of wars and in the number of casualties during wars in the last twenty years is largely due to the increased international engagement, including by organizations like International Crisis Group, all the humanitarian actors, just huge kind of protection by presence – you have to be out there, engaged and supportive.

Will the Libya intervention be replicated in other places like Syria?

I think the intervention in Libya, I mean the case was just so extraordinarily unique that it’s difficult to imagine, I think Syria’s a good example now. I mean, the difficulty of actually duplicating that kind of consensual intervention — you know, getting the approval of the Security Council for something as robust as a military intervention — I think in the short term anyway, it’s going to be very difficult to duplicate. And the reason for that, I think, is because of the difficulty to engage in a very robust protection of civilian exercise without, at the same time, envisaging regime change. I think Libya made very clear you couldn’t protect the population of Libya against someone described as having a murderous intent against his own people; so regime change in a sense was inevitable, and yet it was never articulated. In large part, I think because the proponents of intervention felt they wouldn’t get the Security Council approval, yet they were explicit about the regime change agenda. And this has now created tremendous accusations of betrayal and bad faith. Short term, Libya’s going to be very hard to duplicate. Longer term, precedents are always helpful.

What are your thoughts on the “Responsibility To Protect” doctrine and what does it mean for America in the United Nations?

Well I think, first of all, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect came out after the NATO intervention in Kosovo without a Security Council mandate. At that time, Kofi Annon was posing the question, “When is it legitimate for like-minded countries, (NATO in that case) to step up to come and protect civilians without having the Security Council approval?” And then the doctrine was a little dormant after 9/11, there were a lot of other international considerations, the war on terror was big on the agenda. Now it came back and it’s being discussed I think very extensively. In my mind, the great contribution, at least in terms of norms of the doctrine is that it replaced what used to be called the Right to Intervene; I think it’s a lot more useful to talk about a responsibility than a right. A right to intervene seems to suggest that those who hold the right, Western countries for the most part, can decide to exercise it or not. To say they have a responsibility calls on them at a moral, ethical, and political level much more forcefully so. At the same time, I think there’s tremendous reluctance on the part of particularly of China and Russia, the two critical players, in that because they have the veto as part of the P5 in the Security Council, tremendous reluctance to see that kind of intervention in the affairs of a sovereign country. So, the military intervention level of Responsibility to Protect is still going to need tremendous discussion and frameworks.

What do you see in the development of Egypt in the coming year, following the 2011 Revolution?

Well crystal balling is always a very difficult, dangerous enterprise. If we start from a human rights point of view, I think any opening of a democratic space is very good news for human rights, even those who may worry as to what kind of shape the country will take. For instance, we’ll have the same conversations about Afghanistan. Protection of the advancement of women’s rights, for instance, is this in peril? But it seems to me that first, if you can start the entrenchment of democratic values and democratic processes, then you have to put on top of this kind of majority voice a lot of minority protections and human rights values. It doesn’t come automatically but I think it’s a good gamble that it’s a better space for human rights advancement to work in a more democratic environment.

What is your take on the recent developments in Myanmar?

Yeah, Myanmar is quite an incredible story, and so far quite an incredible success story — maybe along with Tunisia — in the past year. These two have been probably the most startling successes. What’s very unique about Myanmar is, contrary to everything that’s happened in the Arab Spring, but at the same time in parallel, it all came from the top. This is not a revolution of the people, it’s a transformation of a regime that is self-motivated to transform. The big concerns, of course, is that it’s a very ambitious agenda to transform politically and economically; the economic side is probably even more challenging than the political one, which is not to understate the difficulty, but not just to open up a democratic space to the opposition to Ann San Suu Kyi, but also to try to make peace with all the ethnic groups – long standing conflicts. So politically very complicated, economically enormously challenging in Myanmar because of thirty years of internal mismanagement and very negative impact of sanctions. So it’s a country that is almost in shambles but is very aware of it. I think there’s enough international goodwill now to accompany that process.

What are some of the steps the international community can take to help this process to move forward?

Well, the main one is to remove sanctions; to sort of open up some. Put some oxygen into this economic reform. And the other one, and I think the neighboring countries will probably have an important role to play – South Korea, Japan, and in that broad neighborhood – to accompany a very difficult restructuring of the economy; starting with fluctuating their currency to avoid years of completely disconnected official exchange rates and domestic market exchange rates. It has to build the banking sector. The international organizations — the IMF and the World Bank — will have a critical role to play to avoid a kind of rush into an environment that is still very fragile.

What has prompted the opening of Myanmar by the military regime?

I think it’s probably a combination. You know, historians will have to take a look at what triggered this movement for change. I think, in large part, the discrepancy in the quality of life and the economic situation in Myanmar compared to the rest of the region was very dramatic. I think the authorities were conscious of their enormous dependency on China, the level of poverty and so on, compared to their neighbors. I’m sure a kind of economic agenda probably fed into also a general sense that stability and security for the country itself would come actually, not from a continued very repressive regime, but from the opening up of a democratic space. So far they’ve been proven right and they need to be accompanied and assisted.

What would you say is behind China’s recent engagement with developing countries in Africa?

Well, I think China’s international development agenda, if there is one, comes very much from trade, probably more from trade than from of aid or assistance that western countries have embraced in the last several decades. I don’t think China itself considers that it has any obligation – it certainly doesn’t have any legal obligation — to export any particular ideological, political, social system. These are trade arrangements, certainly viewed from the point of view of China. I don’t think they have any sense that they need to export as I said any particular human rights agenda for instance, which is very well-received I think from many countries who hated conditionalities that came with aid and pressure for them to open up, to become more democratic, more human rights friendly. Not all of this is malevolent though. I think there’s a danger of romanticizing the western contribution; for instance to the development of Africa, as if this was all altruistic and not in the pursuit of domestic self-interest and now contrasting that with a very sinister Chinese agenda. I think it’s a gross exaggeration to see it that way. However, just as I think western companies, for instance, in the private sector have just started to have corporate social responsibilities or shareholders who are putting pressure for them to have a footprint that was more human rights friendly. Just as this was happening, now we see China coming in as a competitor.