U.N. Human Rights Chief to Leave Post

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, seen here speaking in Mexico City, reportedly is planning to step down in June.
Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, seen here speaking in Mexico City, reportedly is planning to step down in June. (By Eduardo Verdugo -- Associated Press)
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By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 29 -- Louise Arbour, the top U.N. human rights official, will step down on June 30, according to sources close to her, ending a four-year term that has been highlighted by confrontation with the Bush administration over the Iraq war, the death penalty and U.S. efforts against terrorism.

Arbour, 61, declined to confirm whether she will leave the post of U.N. high commissioner for human rights. But in an interview Friday, she said the U.S.-led counterterrorism struggle has set back the cause of human rights by "decades" and has exacerbated a "profound divide" between the United States, its Western allies and the developing world. "The war on terror has inflicted a very serious setback for the international human rights agenda," she said.

Kristen Silverberg, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said it is "wrongheaded to suggest" that the campaign against terrorism is the critical human rights issue of the times. "We would like to see the high commissioner focus more of her attention and criticism on totalitarian and abusive governments," she said.

Arbour, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor who secured the indictment of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, said that bedrock principles once taken for granted -- including the prohibition against torture -- have been eroded, and that what she considers Washington's excesses have undercut her efforts to crusade for human rights, particularly in places where political repression is greatest.

Human rights advocates largely praised Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, as a tough, principled lawyer who has offered the United Nations' most forceful critique of the United States' use of harsh interrogation techniques and the transfer of suspects to countries where they stand a chance of being tortured. They note that she has done more to expand the presence of U.N. rights monitors around the world, making reports on abuses from Baghdad to Katmandu routine.

But she has also been a lightning rod for American conservatives, including the former U.S. envoy to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, who scolded her in 2005 for using Human Rights Day to criticize U.S. anti-terrorism tactics instead of highlighting rights abuses by countries such as Burma, Cuba and Zimbabwe. Even supporters say she has trod lightly over abuses by some of the most powerful U.N. members, including China and Russia, leaving the United Nations increasingly silent on some of the world's most pressing human rights issues.

Silverberg said the Bush administration was disappointed that Arbour had not spoken more critically of human rights abuses in Iran during a recent trip there, and accused her of making a "modestly approving statement about progress in human rights in Cuba, which is ludicrous." She also faulted Arbour for speaking "favorably" about an Arab declaration on human rights that was biased against Israel. "We would like to see a much stronger approach," she said.

Arbour acknowledged that she has taken a more diplomatic approach to promoting human rights in places such as China and Russia, saying she has chosen a strategy of private engagement "that is likely to yield some positive results" over one that "would make me and a lot of others feel good." She said that as a U.N. official she is constrained by the reality of the organization's power centers, including China, Russia and the Group of 77, a bloc of more than 130 developing countries. In that context, she said, "naming and shaming is a loser's game."

Arbour's departure, first reported Wednesday by Reuters, comes at a time when critics are questioning the United Nations' reputation as a moral authority. A new U.N. Human Rights Council, established by member governments two years ago to reinvigorate the organization's human rights efforts, has ended up undermining them. The council, which includes some of the world's worst human rights abusers, has scaled back scrutiny of abuses in countries such as Belarus and Cuba. It has devoted most of its energy to castigating Israel. The United States has declined to join the council, although it provides financial support.

Arbour took issue with congressional critics, particularly Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who implied that Arbour is responsible for the council's failing and in a statement Thursday said she has a record of "condemning democracies and defending tyrants."

Arbour said the statement revealed "ignorance" of the United Nations' inner workings. "There is nothing I could have done" to ensure continued scrutiny of Cuba and Belarus, she said. "The Human Rights Council speaks for itself."

Arbour has told friends that she is leaving to spend more time with her family and to avoid a bitter political battle over a major anti-racism summit next year in Durban, South Africa. The United States, along with Israel and Canada, has announced it will boycott the event, saying it believes it will be a forum for unwarranted criticism of Israel.

Arbour's influence in the United Nations has diminished since the departure of Secretary General Kofi Annan, who made human rights a major priority of his tenure and frequently relied on her counsel on a range of issues. She has often seemed out of step with his successor, Ban Ki-moon, who views public diplomacy on human rights as grandstanding.

Ban has also been more sympathetic to U.S. counterterrorism policies, and has faced resistance from Arbour over his plans to expand the United Nations' role in Iraq and his efforts to avoid the debate on the death penalty.

"She is not his style," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Now, does he recognize that the post needs someone who is not his style? Big question. I think it will be essential that the next high commissioner be someone who insists on his or her independence and on his or her public voice."

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