Louise Arbour, former Supreme Court Justice and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has spent her career taking on the world’s most notorious human rights violators. And yet, one of her most formidable challenges is domestic. In May, Arbor published the results of its year-long investigation into the Canadian Armed Forces, sparked by a series of allegations of sexual misconduct, some involving the organization’s top brass. The report was unequivocally damning: the military culture is lacking; their outdated schools. “I was told that almost every female cadet has experienced one or more incidents of sexual misconduct ‘or worse,’” she wrote. Now the federal government is tasked with implementing Arbor’s 48 recommendations, which include turning sexual misconduct cases over to civilian courts. Progress is slow and Arbor is patient, up to a point.
His is the second investigation into the military’s handling of sexual misconduct cases in seven years. How is this report different?
Judge Marie Deschamps’ report was quite shocking in exposing how ingrained sexual misconduct was in military culture. But looking at the remediation that would come from a criminal justice response was outside of her mandate. When I arrived, there was a lot of concern that the change hadn’t been implemented, even coming from the auditor general. My report discusses two issues: the continued prevalence of sexual misconduct and allegations against high-ranking members of the Armed Forces. I was trying to see how people with these character flaws manage to progress through the ranks.
His most talked about recommendation is that the military turn over allegations of sexual misconduct to civilian courts, where conviction rates in such cases are famously low. What reasonable expectation of justice can victims have even if that change is made?
I’m not suggesting for one minute that the civilian system is perfect, but the military system has features that are even more problematic. The main one is the duty to inform. It’s hard enough for any criminal sexual assault victim to come forward, but to have to tell his chain of command in an environment where nothing but a slap on the wrist is going to happen? There are also informal retaliation, such as being ostracized by colleagues. Many corrective measures have been implemented over the years in the civil system, including the establishment of specialized courts for sexual crimes and attempts to displace myths and stereotypes. In the civil sphere, people report crimes because the system will react positively. In the army the opposite is true.
You said that one impediment to progress is the assumption that misogyny is the root of the problems in the military. But isn’t misogyny the key issue?
Oh no doubt. Women have always served in military support positions, such as nursing, but only fully integrated into combat when ordered by the courts. It is not enough to think that, over time, this culture will begin to dissipate. The military has to accept that they cannot fix everything on their own. It has uniformity in its DNA. So if they still think they can change things with PowerPoints and internal anti-misconduct initiatives, it’s not going to happen.
How do you rehabilitate an organization whose members inflict and allow abuse within their own ranks? It is a snake that eats its own tail.
The military could use outside partners like the Canadian Human Rights Commission. It could also bring in experts from the civilian corporate sector or send cadets to civilian universities, where diversity is years ahead of what we will ever see in military universities. If you just recruit white guys who like guns but don’t like women or anyone who doesn’t look like women, you will perpetuate that culture.
He has spent much time on conflicts that the international community initially showed little urgency to address, such as Darfur and Rwanda. How do you deal with human rights abuses that are met with politicking and platitudes?
When I accused Slobodan Milošević of war crimes, I thought: This is the beginning of a new era. When I was the high commissioner for human rights, there was also a lot of momentum. But I began to understand that “impulse” was a Western-driven concept and tone deaf. The Western position – that our values were good – fell apart when we were asked to do something that was difficult for us, like take care of the rights of migrants. I realized that what I thought would be steady, linear progress on these big ideas was, in fact, cyclical. I think we are now at a low point in the cycle.
You said that the Canadian military favors appearance of implementation over substance. It could be argued that the federal government has similar limitations.
That’s true. I don’t think there is anything in my report that is ideologically unacceptable to the government, but it is not a priority. There is no price to pay for doing nothing, until seven years later, when you appoint another judge.
Well, the price of inaction is not paid by the military or the government. Victims pay for it.
Exactly, and they have been very brave to come forward. But until there is widespread public and political mobilization, it is hard to expect rapid implementation. I always hated the expression “being the voice of the victims”. They have voices; what they need is a megaphone.
Mary Fisk, one of her former top advisers, said people in her inner circle occasionally felt frustrated that she didn’t speak more openly about certain issues.
Mary is a good friend; I’m sure she was struggling to say something negative. (I’m kidding). Others were frustrated because I am very results oriented. The culture of naming and shaming that prevails in NGOs, that is their weapon. I don’t know if this is how I can be more efficient. You might look good banging your fist on the table, but what is that going to accomplish?
I just don’t think any person with a heart can see the kinds of horrors that happen and not want to be more forceful about making things better.
I’m sure, because of that, they would want to be very strategic and think: well, okay, after I hit my fist, how can I outwit these people? How can I force them to do something I know they don’t want to do?
I’m sure polite diplomacy can only go so far with despots. Eventually, you have to show your teeth.
It depends on the tools you have. I didn’t always have the ability to do something concrete. Issuing an indictment is a good way to go, especially after being written off as “this little woman.” You wait and wait, and when you’re ready: boom.
What makes you immune to the paralysis that can come from witnessing so much tragedy?
Well, what is the alternative? Give up completely. I am going to Africa now because I am on the board of directors of the Mastercard Foundation. On the way back, I stop in Geneva, where I am a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. I don’t cry over the fate of the world when I’m packing. I am often moved, but I am always looking for solutions. I think with any luck the phone won’t ring and I’ll be sitting on my dock with my 110 pound dog, Snoro. Then something else comes up, and there I go again.
This article appears in print in the August 2022 issue of maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here.