Louise Arbour at UCSB’s Campbell Hall

Former UN Human Rights Commissioner Discusses the International Criminal Justice System

Louise Arbour, retired chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, walked onstage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in casual slacks and a blouse, hair slightly disheveled. If you ran into her in the supermarket, your first guess would probably not be that she has done more in the past 15 years to advance the cause of international criminal justice than any other single person has since the establishment of the Nuremburg Principles at the end of WWII.

Arbour’s prosecutorial work for the United Nations took place in the 1990s, prior to which she served as a Canadian Supreme Court justice. In 2008, Arbour completed a four-year stint as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “When she came to The Hague, the jail was empty,” said an activist with Human Rights Watch, whose Santa Barbara chapter cosponsored her appearance. “When she left, it was full.”

Former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour spoke during her Campbell Hall appearance in favor of the independent judiciary model for war crimes.
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour spoke during her Campbell Hall appearance in favor of the independent judiciary model for war crimes.

Arbour began her talk last Sunday by announcing that she wanted to bring clarity to the “tedious and repetitive debate about the tension between justice and peace.” She offered two separate models for international criminal justice systems. The first, to which she said the UN currently subscribes, prioritizes peace over justice: “If war ends, so the logic goes, so will war crimes.” This approach, she said, places war crimes prosecution “in the tool box of peace negotiators.”

The model she favors is an independent war crimes judiciary. “A firewall between prosecutors and the Security Council is needed,” Arbour declared. This carries its own set of problems, she readily admitted, one of which is the danger of retaliation, such as what happened in Darfur, against people who accuse leaders of war crimes. Arbour’s defense was that the people in such instances are already being victimized. “The worst we could do is to cower away,” she said, “and consider [the Darfur indictments] misguided because [they] contributed to suffering of people who in any case were already suffering.”

To minimize civilian casualties and maximize successful indictments, prosecutors should exercise discretion in the timing of indictments, Arbour said, though this increases the risk that they will become political players. They would have to work with strict parameters and oversight mechanisms. But unlike politicians, prosecutors “would not contemplate not doing it,” she said. “I wonder who the Darfur victims would prefer to have speaking for them in peace talks.”

One hundred and twenty nations are members of the International Criminal Court; Arbour said that for the U.S. to join their ranks would be the most significant gesture possible to move international justice forward.

To submit a comment on this article, email or visit our Facebook page. To submit information to a reporter, email

Be succinct, constructive, and relevant to the story. Leaving a comment means you agree to our Discussion Guidelines. We like civilized discourse. We don't like spam, lying, profanity, harassment or personal attacks.

comments powered by Disqus
event calendar sponsored by:

Volunteers in Policing Is Looking for 10 Good Men and Women

An eye-opening volunteer program at Santa Barbara Police Department.

Alvarado and Ford File for School Board

Mark M. Alvarado and Kate Ford registered to run for the Santa Barbara Unified school board.

Thousands Received DACA Relief After Lawsuits Filed

Renewal applications have totaled 117,446 since program suspension was overturned.

Bank Robbery Suspect Kills Self in Bathroom

[Update] The suspect in the Goleta Rabobank robbery has been identified as Keith David Goodwin, believed to ...

News-Press’ Found to Owe Union and Employees $2.2 Million

National Labor Relations Board puts money amount on employee losses since 2006.