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Defenders for Human Rights
Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour Crimes Against Humanity

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GRADE LEVELS = 9 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Six 60 minute class periods

“‘Those who say it cannot be done, should get out of the way of those doing it.’ That’s how it felt. We just had so very little time to reflect, and record… I think it’s been done by others, but for us it was just… ‘Go away. Get it done.’”

Louise Arbour’s helicopter landed by the site of a mass grave in Croatia.

Her gaze travelled across the land as it was opened to reveal unthinkable horror – the aftermath of genocide.

Orange flags marked the shell casings. Yellow flags, the bone fragments.

Her eyes raked over the visible bone parts. She blinked, and Louise turned to an investigator.

“Have we got it? Is this one of our sites? Have we got the evidence?” she asked.

Louise has to be detached. She’s been the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal, putting war criminals on trial, and a justice in the Supreme Court of Ontario. She’s seen hundreds of difficult cases.

“The reality is that you’re just drawn by what you have to do,” says Louise. “What’s behind it sometimes just passes you by. You bury it somewhere really, really deep, where it doesn’t feel too bad.”

Louise hasn’t always needed this approach. A student at a convent-run Catholic Boarding school for ten years, she didn’t see much further than her own backyard until she started law school at 20.

Louise’s awareness increased, she says, when she then moved to Ontario and was exposed to a different world of social justice issues.

“I think it’s only when I stepped out of it that I realized what a narrow, comfortable view of the world it was to be raised in a very monolithic, religious, cultural, linguistic environment that is constantly self-reinforcing but never tested itself against anything else,” she says.

In a way, Louise says, she became focused on marginalized groups around the world because she was exposed to a more “heterogeneous” environment – one that she says ultimately felt comfortable.

Her law training became vital – not only in the direction of her career, but also in how she focused her impulse to help.

“It’s a set of skills, and it’s also a way of thinking,” she says. “It’s almost like acquiring another language. It’s a way of reasoning, of approaching issues.”

The practice of law matched the ways she wanted to help – to investigate, to question, to advocate. Making that connection, she says, is the key to “doing something.”

“In my case it was law, but it could be in the health field, it could be in environmental studies, it could be in the arts. The ways to contribute are infinite. The desire to contribute, either you have it or you don’t care.”

Her upbringing did give Louise an important strength – she didn’t doubt her natural abilities.

“I never questioned the capacity of women to do anything, because until I was 20 years old, that’s basically all I saw,” she says. “I saw very competent, well-educated, religious women, but that didn’t take away all their capacities. That, I think, stayed with me all my life.”

Louise has no patience for abuse of power, a trait she says she’s carried with her throughout her work. She focuses her attention on the forgotten, the downtrodden, and the despised.

“I have an intuitive, very profound concern for those who just never had a break. Never. Somebody has to care. … We’re only as good as what we can deliver to those who are perceived as the worst of us.”

Before joining the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands, Louise spent a year investigating the power structure and treatment of inmates at a women’s prison in Ontario. Again, she followed the path of marginalization – from prisoners, to female prisoners, to female prisoners living with issues of mental health.

These women were “just at the bottom of the pile.” Louise is proud of the momentum her report gave to people who worked in the field.

Her work at The Hague was a logical step for a person who believes "people who abuse the privilege of leadership have to be answerable," but it wasn't an easy one.

Faced with war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, she entered a very different world, with no time to adapt.

In those countries, “it was happening. People were being killed.”

Louise went from comfortable to uncomfortable, from understanding to trying to understand. For Louise, it was professionally “amazing.”

“All of a sudden, we’re arriving in Croatia, or Bosnia, or Rwanda. You don’t speak the language. You don’t have a network of informants. In your own mind, you expect you will perform on the same standards as you would at home, but you have tremendous challenges.”

Her willingness to embrace challenges, and jump off in an entirely new direction, she says, has guided her path in life. That willingness, she jokes, doesn’t exactly make her a good role model. “I don’t hold a job very long.”

From teaching in her newly-learned second language English, to becoming a trial judge having never worked in court (“I sort of vaguely figured out that the judge must be the one that sits at the top of the bench”), to bringing genocide charges against former Bosnian president Slobodan Milošević, Louise has always felt somewhere south of prepared.

“Every single job that I’ve had in my entire life, I was completely unqualified for,” Louise says. “It may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s a way of saying I did a lot of things, which were hard. Each one of them was hard.”

Louise knows that difficult work was important, but she also recognizes that, when it comes down to it, she is always just one part of a very large operation.

“I think of it as a chain. You know, we’re each one a link, and all that’s expected of you is not to be that weak one that’s going to make it all fall apart. If you can at least do that much, you’ve made your contribution,” Louise says.

“I didn’t invent anything. It’s just out there.”

“A feeling of injustice can be very real, even if it’s subjectively a matter that’s not very serious, or not demonstrable. It’s an extremely intense, profound personal affront.”
“The key is, you need to get the skills that will then match your desire to do something for others…”
“A lot of issues don’t need to be resolved; they just need to disappear. They’re not resolvable as such, they just need to be defused as opposed to accelerated. I think of justice as a peaceful environment.”