Campus & Community

UN’s High Commissioner discusses global human rights

6 min read

Says her role is the public advocacy, promotion, and protection of international human rights standards

Michael Ignatieff, Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice, hosted an informal, public conversation with the UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

The day before she visited Harvard, Louise Arbour, the United Nation’s High Commissioner on Human Rights, was criticized by the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. Arbour had just issued a statement on terrorists and torturers, in which she said that the “absolute ban on torture, a cornerstone of the international human rights edifice, is under attack. The principle once believed to be unassailable … is becoming a casualty of the so-called war on terror.” To which Bolton responded that it was “inappropriate and illegitimate for an international civil servant to second-guess the conduct that we’re engaged in in the war on terror.” The next day, Dec. 8, Arbour visited the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) to have an informal, public conversation with Michael Ignatieff, Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice.

Ignatieff referred to her exchange with Bolton in his first question for Arbour, which was whether she regarded herself as an activist, or as an official. “Now that I’ve been put in my place [by Bolton] … I’m not sure where to begin,” she joked, before continuing: “I believe that part of my function is public advocacy and promotion and protection of international human rights standards in a very vocal fashion. But, and yesterday’s example is a good example, there are terrible constraints to operating within an international civil service.”

She went on to describe the UN bureaucracy within which her office operates and lamented, “I’ve come to appreciate in very clear terms that the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights is not an NGO [nongovernmental agency].” Arbour added, “This has some shortcomings for someone who has the instincts of a human rights activist, but it has some advantages, too. We have access to member states [of the UN], collectively and individually, as very different interlocutors than NGOs can be.”

Ignatieff followed up with a question about how she saw her role as the manager of the UN’s portfolio for human rights. Arbour took the opportunity to defend the historical role of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, a body that has been in existence for approximately six decades, but which some nations, including the United States, feel has lost its effectiveness. “It has been said that the Commission on Human Rights is a largely discredited body,” said Arbour, “which I think is true at this particular point in its history. But it’s a very unfair comment if it’s meant to reflect on its entire 60-year history. The commission produced the International Declaration of Human Rights and every single major international human rights instrument. In my opinion, its 60 years of normative work is unmatched, unparalleled by any other organization.”

But, she conceded, “The commission has been incapable of reinventing itself from a normative body to a body that should see the implementation of rights. Implementation doesn’t take place in workshops or seminars … they take place on the ground and they require very courageous scrutiny of performances by member states.”

According to Bolton, the United States would like to see the commission abolished and replaced by “an effective new Human Rights Council.”

Lost ground

Ignatieff moved the conversation to the question of torture, which led Arbour to declare that human rights advances have recently been obstructed. “Before Sept. 11, we were poised for major breakthroughs in economic, social, and cultural rights because the gains in civil and political rights were established,” she said. “One of the casualties in the human rights field of terrorism and counterterrorism initiatives is that it has once again reversed the paradigm … in real life, day-to-day we’re trying to salvage and protect our civil and political rights once again.”

Referring explicitly to torture, and to her public statement of the previous day, Arbour first took pains to remind the audience that her office was interested in human rights – and torture – globally, and that her statement wasn’t directly addressed to the United States. “I am preoccupied with torture all over the world,” she said. “There are places where torture is still used, not just in the name of the war on terror, but in day-to-day law enforcement practices. The statement I made on human rights – we chose the topic of torture months ago … it was sheer good luck that it coincided with the visit of the Secretary of State [Condoleezza Rice] in Europe just at the time when Europe is preoccupied with these issues.”

Economic migration

Ignatieff asked Arbour to identify an issue that she considers an emerging human rights challenge. Her reply: economic migration. “This, again, is a reflection of how much we are invested in civil and political rights,” she said, “and how little in social and economic rights.” She said that the world has made great progress in the protection of refugees, who are, for the most part, victims in the civil and political rights spheres. “But, as the masses of the south move to the borders of this country, and to Europe … this is more rooted in economic and social rights than classic refugee cases.”

Arbour went on to talk about the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1990, but which is “totally unratified by the countries of the North [i.e., Europe and the United States], who show no interest,” said Arbour. “I’m afraid that we have started on the wrong foot … maybe we need to start from scratch.” Progress in this area is difficult, she says, in part because the countries of the North ridicule concepts of a right to development on the part of developing countries. “I don’t think we’ll be able to [make progress] in migration except to persuade a more humane or acceptable integration policy on the part of the developed world.”


For his final question, Ignatieff asked Arbour to describe a successful human rights mission. Arbour said that last January she had visited Nepal and met with the king. “He assured me of his internal commitment to multiparty democracy and to restraint by constitutional monarchs. … I thought at last here was an interlocutor who might be amenable to engaging in a peace process,” she recounted. “For two days, I felt that the commission had been a large success. Then, two days after I left the country, he overthrew the government and put everybody in jail.” For the next few months, she said, she felt it was an absolute disaster. But then, she said, “we managed to get an agreement from his majesty’s government that the High Commissioner of Human Rights should be entitled to open an office in Nepal with a full mandate including a monitoring mandate.” This is her office’s second-largest presence on the ground. “My optimism might be resuscitated,” she said.