Louise Arbour has served as president and CEO of the International Crisis Group since July 2009. Previously, she acted as United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 2004 to 2008. In 1999, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1996, she was appointed by the Security Council of the United Nations as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.
As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council’s David Speedie spoke with Louise Arbour, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously she was United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
DAVID SPEEDIE: What do you believe is morally distinct about the age we live in?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think what is morally distinct is our consciousness of the disconnect between our values, our aspirations, our capabilities, and our deliverables. We are still, I think, very conscious of how much we are falling short of our aspirations.
DAVID SPEEDIE: In this regard, do you think things are getting better or worse as history unfolds in terms of this consciousness or awareness?
LOUISE ARBOUR: When we ask the question of whether things are getting better or worse, I think we need to be extremely specific about what things we’re talking about. If you think of the Millennium Development Goals, for instance, we can take enormous pride about the progress in the alleviation of poverty. Unfortunately, the dividends of this kind of progress are not shared equally. They are shared, actually, very unequally between genders, between parts of the world.
So are things getting better or worse? They’re getting a lot better for some, not better at all for many, and considerably worse, I think, for those who can appreciate the difference and realize that they are not part of that progress.
DAVID SPEEDIE: In that kind of situation, what issue or idea concerns you the most? From your vantage point at International Crisis Group, for example, where do you see conflicts emanating?
LOUISE ARBOUR: Certainly from my own background, rooted in law and legal systems and now working on conflict, I think at the root of conflict is our inability to seriously address inequalities, inequalities within states, between people within their own states, inequalities between states, extremely inequitable and unequal distribution of the wealth of the planet. I think at the root it’s still this issue, which was, of course, at the core of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and so on. I think we have still fallen short, considerably, of addressing that.
DAVID SPEEDIE: How would you define global ethics?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think global ethics is largely aspirational. Again I refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document, frankly, that is still largely aspirational—what Roosevelt referred to as “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want,” security and development. I think this universal aspiration—and that, I believe, is truly universal—I have yet to meet a single person who would voluntarily abdicate the series of rights and protections that are encompassed in the Declaration.
But I think the inability of our institutions, for the most part, and individuals, largely, to deliver on these aspirations is still the moral and ethical challenge of our generation.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Following on that, do you have a sense of what might be the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet? What is, perhaps, a common motif of the biggest ethical questions of our time? Is it pluralism, living with differences? You spoke a little bit earlier about responsibilities and accountability and the equity question.
LOUISE ARBOUR: Again, I believe that we have achieved very high levels of universal norms enunciation, in legal instruments, in our literature. I think the normative environment is very impressive. The disconnect is between the norms and their enforcement.
Whether we talk about our aspiration for environmental protection, new technological discoveries and medical ethics—I’m not all that concerned about the articulation of appropriate norms of nuclear nonproliferation. It’s when it comes to enforceability and deliverables that I think we are—and I think we’re very conscious of how much we continue to fall short. The tendency is to refine the norms and to abdicate the much more challenging aspect of the enforcement.
DAVID SPEEDIE: And that may lead into the next question: What should our priorities be from a moral point of view?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think we have to return to a kind of humanist vision of world politics. Again, our institutions are enormously inadequate. If we compare the progress we’ve made in technology, in communication technology, for instance, our political institutions have fallen so far behind. They are very stale. The world is dominated by powers that leave no room for emerging powers.
We haven’t seen any new radical ideas. We still live in a world that is much more deferential to states than to the people that these states are supposed to represent. I think we have yet to build communities that genuinely reflect their own population.
Again, when we think of technology—for instance, social networks, all this communication technology—we still have countries where over 90 percent of women are illiterate. Our deliverables, again, are so disconnected. And this comes again to this question of inequalities.
DAVID SPEEDIE: It’s a post-Westphalian state idea of developing communities beyond established state borders that address the issues of equity and representation and so on.
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think it’s very much in the field of international institutions and fundamental principles. We don’t even acknowledge the extent to which state sovereignty has been, to a large extent, eroded voluntarily by the need for states to cooperate. But we still have these notions that are, I think, to some extent, not delivering and are very passé. We have yet to come up with a much more radical vision of how this interconnected world is supposed to operate.
We still have a United Nations, whose charter starts with “We the people.” But at the end of the day, it’s “We the states,” and in a fashion where the big powers, the Security Council, no longer have the legitimacy and the representativeness that should be required of the body that is the guardian of international peace and security.
DAVID SPEEDIE: That leads to the interesting thought that in a rapidly changing world, where you say new paradigms may have to be produced, as it were, there are still establishment-type communities, such as businesses, policymakers, religious groups, as well as individuals. How do they respond, in that volatile environment, to today’s problems? If they don’t respond, what might we expect from the future?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think a lot of them, in a normative or rhetorical way, embrace a lot of very positive values. I think the rhetoric of most religions is one that carries forward a lot of very positive rhetoric. Again, in the reality of things, there is, first of all, very little accountability for the actual leaders in the corporate world, in religious organizations—frankly, even in civil society, the growth of nonprofit organizations. At the end, I think we have satisfied ourselves with much more rhetoric than actual enforceable progress.
DAVID SPEEDIE: If you could somehow exercise some sort of direction, what would you like to see happen in the next 100 years? How do we get there?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I’m afraid I don’t have the imagination to project into 100 years. I have enough trouble trying to figure out how we could improve our plight and the plight of others in the next week, month, years. I think this very long-term vision is difficult to encompass, particularly when we look at issues which will very dramatically change the world in which we operate—population growth and so on.
But if had to choose one issue that I think would be profoundly transformative, again I would root it in the pursuit of equality, and particularly gender equality. I think if—and I hope it’s not going to take 100 years—women were allowed to take their proper place in their own governance, in the control of their own reproductive rights, to take their proper place on this planet—I think we have fallen short, in a sense, by not capitalizing on the contribution and talent of half of the population of the world. To me, this would be a short-, medium-, and long-term investment that would be truly transformative.
DAVID SPEEDIE: What does “moral leadership” mean to you?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think what it means is the requirement that people who occupy leadership positions understand that their contribution has to be rooted in, first of all, their concerns for others as opposed to their own personal advancement and their willingness to be guided, not just by narrow conventional rules, but by the profound question, on a daily basis, of what is the right thing to do and the courage to stand by that assessment.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, our distinguished founder, Andrew Carnegie, once famously put in the articles of incorporation of one of his institutions that when world peace is achieved, they could use resources for other things. A hundred years later, is world peace possible?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think it is inevitable that we will live with the duty of conflict management on a daily basis. Again, I want to come back to this idea of gender. I think women, certainly in our day and age, have much more capacity to understand that there is something noble about attending to your daily needs. You may not build cathedrals, but every day you feed your children, you clean your house. This is part of the human condition.
I think the management of conflict is a daily task—conflict within peoples, within families, within communities, and then within broader communities of people who have different cultural aspirations, different religious affiliations. To think that we would eradicate the tensions that come from the sense of belonging to communities, to different cultural groups, I think is extremely unrealistic. The question is to build the tools and the institutions for the peaceful management of conflict, not some idea that conflict altogether would disappear.
On that, I think we have made tremendous progress. We’re not quite there yet. But I think that’s the scheme where we have to manage human interaction.
DAVID SPEEDIE: I was associated with the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict about 20 years ago, along with Canadian politician Flora MacDonaldand Gareth Evans, at the time Australia’s foreign minister and now president emeritus of International Crisis Group. Related to that, there are three issues that I was hoping you could speak about:
- First of all, the absolute essential tool for conflict prevention—and the idea is prevention of conflict, not responding after the fact—was equitable development, development based on equitable principles. In a way, the good news and bad news is that—the bad news is that we were talking about this 15 years ago and we’re still plowing that field, as it were.
- Second of all, the role of women, pointing especially to African societies where women are essentially the breadwinners, as well as the spiritual and practical leaders of a family situation.
- Third, the idea of developing tools for conflict prevention—actually having practical, applicable tools to apply to a conflict situation.
All of these are, I think, absolutely essential. This distinguished international group came together almost 20 years ago now. What is needed, really, to reach the point where we see these things being in any way implementable or applicable in the situations where they are most needed?
Let’s take Africa, for example, a continent where I think there has been more positive reporting in certain situations, but there are still, obviously, grave humanitarian crises in Congo and elsewhere. Where do we have to go to reach the next plateau, as it were?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think, again, we have to accept that we will live with conflict. We cannot aspire to eradicating it. Conflict comes from competition for access to resources, particularly in a world in which the institutions are not geared to an equitable distribution of resources and of wealth. So we will have conflict. The question is how to appease conflict, resolve it, without recourse to deadly, violent interaction.
Again, we have to recognize that there will not come a point where we could say, “We’re there. We’ve accomplished that.” We will do that in the same way that we have to feed ourselves, we have to look after our health. We’re going to have to manage that. It’s a question, I think, of managing conflict on a regular basis.
But we still have not tackled some of the constraints within which these tools have their limitations—the concept of state sovereignty and the supremacy of states over the needs of the people that they are supposed to serve, protect, and represent.
If we looked at failed states, for instance—or alleged failed states—if they were corporations, they would be put in receivership. That’s not an option in international state-to-state affairs. What you see instead are partnerships—the United Nations, for instance, in a peacekeeping operation being in partnership with a government that has very little local, national legitimacy, credibility, that is at times extremely corrupt. But the barrier to going the full distance of putting a state, in a sense, metaphorically in receivership—this just is not an option.
So we have, I think, institutional limitations that are probably the greatest obstacles to reaching those most in need, because we still have constructs, political and institutional constructs, that are a very serious barrier to reaching into these communities.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, the thought occurs that, from your singular vantage point as head of Crisis Group, when we see a phenomenon that was called (in the opinion of some, rather rashly) the Arab Spring—Egypt, Tunisia, et cetera—and then the spring rapidly seems to be descending into winter in some of these cases, what is our moral obligation to stick by movements where, by all accounts, a not completely legitimate regime has been overthrown and then there are imperfections in what follows? Where do our moral responsibilities lie there, do you believe, since you have an organization that is very much on the ground and observing and reporting on these situations?
LOUISE ARBOUR: I think we have to take a step back, first of all, and not purport to impose our own system of values and so on. If we are true democrats, I think our first obligation is to defer to the people who have their own set of aspirations and values.
I feel very strongly about that, for instance, in reaching out to assist women. We have to be very attentive to what their call for assistance is, not what we think are the solutions that we should bring to them.
So I think this is probably a starting point. And we have to, I think, be guided by some very fundamental, old-fashioned principles of “do no harm.” Do we really want to interfere through means that will possibly be disproportionate and cause more harm, either in the short term or the longer term, than the objective we want to accomplish?
I think we have a series of guiding principles that allow us to pursue our desire to be moral citizens, but in a spirit of community and respect for the point of view of others.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Well put. Thank you.