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Arbour remains optimistic about humanity’s fate

Thursday, August 18, 2016 @ 8:00 PM | By Geoff Kirbyson


When Louise Arbour was notified that she had been selected as the 2016 winner of the Tang Prize for rule of law, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

After all, it’s not every day you win an award you didn’t apply for and that wasn’t even remotely on your radar.

“It took me entirely by surprise,” says the jurist in residence at the Montreal offices of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. “I had never heard of it.”

She also didn’t know who had nominated her or who was on the jury but once she did a little research and discovered that the Tang, which is organized by the Academia Sinica, Taiwan‘s top research institution, and is aiming to be the Asian version of the Nobel Prize, she was honoured to be selected. She also hopes she can leverage it to bring more attention to her work for the rule of law around the world.

(True story: When the Tang people tracked her down recently, she was on her way to Hong Kong. “It made it more surreal to receive something from Taiwan when you’re in China,” she says).

The Tang Prize is an international award founded in 2012 that celebrates achievements in four categories — sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology and the rule of law.

The rule of law prize is awarded to people or institutions who have made significant contributions through the advancement of legal theory or practice, or the realization of the rule of law in contemporary societies through the influences or inspiration of their work.

Despite the seemingly endless string of negative news surrounding international conflicts, terrorism, human rights violations and the rule of law, Arbour says she’s not discouraged.

“I’m very realistic about the immense amount of work that needs to be done to bring a decent life for millions of people around the world and to provide an environment for them where they can be fulfilled as human beings,” she says, giving a nod to the heavy lifting done by non-government organizations, humanitarians and philanthropists.

“Humanity is very high maintenance. It’s not like building a cathedral where you start and 200 years later you’re done. It doesn’t work that way. Every day, you have to start again. We have to educate the next generation. It’s an ongoing high-maintenance process. To be a part of it, you have to be energetic and optimistic.”

Arbour joined BLG nearly two years ago following a distinguished career as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 1999-2004, as well as the Ontario Court of Appeal. She has also held a number of other senior positions, including high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations.

When she first got involved with international tribunals with the UN’s Security Council in 1996, she believed the work was very “ambitious” as it created a criminal justice model to try to bring peace and accountability to the former Yugoslavia, and to Rwanda.

Today, she believes a sense of fatigue has set in, both in leadership and doctrines, as well as a sense that they’re not delivering fast enough and aren’t visible enough.

“Inside the UN, concepts of good governance and rule of law are currently being advocated. Whether they’re taking root, that’s the big challenge ahead,” she says.

Talking about good governance and the rule of law is less threatening in many political systems than the advocacy of democracy, she says.

“The danger is there are some authoritarian leaders in Africa and the Middle East who like the rule of law because they think it’s rule by law. They advance their authoritarian agenda using the rule of law as a vehicle of control,” she says.

Many regimes have also embraced the appearance of democracy by having ‘elections’ where the supreme ruler takes a whopping 90 per cent of the popular vote.

“They don’t even have the formalities of electoral democracy; there’s no judicial review, no free press. The law can be a very useful tool of sanitized oppression. That’s not what we want to be advocating,” she says.

While there is much that Canadians and Canadian lawyers can still do in safeguarding the rule of law internationally, Arbour says many of them don’t realize what a big role they’ve already played. She says the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Supreme Court of Canada have a significant impact around the world.

“There are thousands of lawyers who have contributed to the development of a very sophisticated human rights system in Canada, which is celebrated elsewhere,” she says.

“Canadians come from all kinds of communities. The world understands we believe in pluralism. The world thinks we can make it work and they’re watching.”

Arbour is emphatic that Canadians need to strive to maintain the gains made within our borders, such as with women in the workplace, First Nations, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities, and not let anything slip.

“With the help of the legal system and constitutional guarantees, they have found their proper place in a decent society. We have to understand we have to be good citizens at home and in the world, with financial contributions, legal expertise and electing the right people to take the right decisions regarding our place in the world,” she says.

Arbour is keeping a keen eye on the U.S. election campaign and believes that Donald Trump and his style of campaigning has done “tremendous” damage to U.S. interests around the world by espousing policies of hatred, fear and intolerance. She cautions, though, that Trump and the Brexit vote in the U.K. represent a large proportion of people who feel left behind by the governing elite, and that has made them extremely angry.

“We have to realize, these are not millions of idiots. There are a lot of people who feel they’ve been left out, [because of] the growing inequality between countries and within countries. [Trump’s] absolutely despicable rhetoric hides a profound sense of anger and despair that has to be addressed and turned into a more positive force,” she says.