Honourable Madam Justice Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioners for Human Rights

Re: Honourable Madam Justice Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioners for Human Rights

To: To Whom it May Concern

From: The Honourable Madam Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé (Québec), Charles B. Davison (Edmonton), James Tate (Vancouver), Steven Kelliher (Victoria), Gail Davidson (Vancouver), on behalf of LRWC

Date: 2008-06-19

The floor of the House of Commons this past Tuesday was the scene of an unwarranted public attack by the former federal justice minister and current Treasury Board President, Vic Toews. The target was the Honourable Madam Justice Louise Arbour, who happens to be the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and a Canadian. Mr. Toews called Ms. Arbour a “disgrace”.

When pressed later during the proceedings to withdraw his comments, he refused, and referred to Ms. Arbour’s previous statements concerning the need to protect civilians in the context of Mid-East conflicts as the basis for his insulting behaviour.

Mr. Toews’ statement should be universally condemned as being both false and damaging to the important work being done by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Honourable Minister should apologize for his statement.

Lawyers Rights Watch Canada is a non-partisan organization of legal professionals who monitor acts of persecution and harassment aimed at lawyers and human rights defenders around the world. In such a capacity, we, like many other human rights organizations around the world, have had an opportunity to study closely the words and actions of Louise Arbour, as Chief Prosecutor in the Hague; as a Supreme Court Justice in Canada; and most recently, as Human Rights High Commissioner in the United Nations. We have come to have the highest respect for Ms. Arbour who has been nothing if not even-handed, objective, and consistent in her dedication to the protection of and respect for the human rights and liberties for all persons in all countries and under all forms of government.

She has tirelessly advocated for the respect of human rights on a broad range of issues including such things as human trafficking, torture, women, people with disabilities, press freedom, extra judicial executions, and the current food crisis. This is but a small sample of the issues that Ms. Arbour has raised to the forefront of global consciousness.

Ms. Arbour has also brought new relevance to her office and by extension to the United Nations as a whole, as a timely intervenor when the security of innocent people and civilians is in jeopardy due to looming conflict. A typical example is found in her April 27, 2008 statement with respect to violence in Zimbabwe. In her characteristic neutral fashion, Ms. Arbour called upon the political leadership on both sides to restrain their supporters and renounce the use of threats, intimidation and violence against opponents.

Similarly, in relation to her comments concerning the Middle East situation – and others – Ms. Arbour has deliberately refused to “take sides”. Her actions and words aimed at alerting the rest of the world to the plight of civilians who suffer as a result of armed conflict were not unduly or unfairly directed at only one side or party to the strife. Consider the following statement made in July of 2006 at the height of the cross-border violence in Israel and Lebanon:

“Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians. Similarly the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable.”

There were shoes that fit this statement on all sides of the conflict. Ms. Arbour forcefully reminded all parties of the possibility of personal criminal responsibility.

Minister Toews’ statement should also be condemned because it undermines the very important work done by Ms. Arbour’s office at such a critical time. A report released today by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders warns that human rights defenders around the world are facing increasing state efforts to stifle their actions and to clamp down on dissent. Those investigating human rights abuses during conflict are increasingly under threat, including lawyers, judges, women’s rights activists and others.

As the former Minister of Justice, Mr. Toews of all people, should recognize the fundamental importance of the rule of law. Respect for, and enforcement of human rights is a key pillar of the rule of law and effective democracy. In calling Ms. Arbour a “disgrace” Mr. Toews has taken what appears to be a personal view and has turned it into a public attack by a senior representative of the federal government.

It may well be that the Canadian government doesn’t always agree with the positions of the High Commissioner. However Mr. Toews’ comments have the effect of tarring the entire corpus of Ms. Arbour’s work with a single smearing brush, – a brush that has the imprimatur of a senior federal minister. The comment unjustifiably erodes the credibility of both Ms. Arbour and her office. It undermines one of the more effective instruments available in today’s world for bringing scrutiny to human rights violations and attacks on human rights defenders.

The real disgrace here is Minister Toews’ insulting and demeaning attack against such an important voice directed at the defence of innocent people who are victims of state authored or state sanctioned violations of international norms and human rights.

The Prime Minister and his party should immediately and clearly distance themselves from such sentiments and Mr. Toews should apologize.

In the meantime, we express our deepest gratitude to Ms. Arbour for her commitment and personal sacrifice. We are proud as Canadians, and as human rights advocates, of her unprecedented accomplishments on the world stage.