From Justice to Prevention
From Justice to Prevention
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2024
Interview / Global 6 minutes

From Justice to Prevention

Louise Arbour sat down with GlobalPost Passport for one of her first extended interviews since assuming her new position as the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG), an organization that provides policy advice on preventing and resolving war. What follows are highlights of that interview, conducted by Kira Kay of the Bureau for International Reporting.

Passport: You have long been involved in transitional justice, namely as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. How do you see this work complimenting the International Crisis Group's orientation towards conflict prevention and resolution?

Louise Arbour: The basic issues within transitional justice, the tensions between peace and justice, are very relevant in conflict situations. There is no doubt that severe human rights violations are a pretty good predictor of the potential flare-up of a conflict. Human rights violations are often a cause or consequence of conflict. But I'm also conscious that I have to look at things from a slightly broader perspective than a victim-protection angle that is at the heart of human rights work.

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about so-called "failed" states, countries like Somalia, Iraq and possibly Pakistan. But what about other countries that are facing less obvious but still significant crises, so-called "fragile" states. What's the difference?

I'm not sure there's a consensus of terminology. Various people use different expressions to describe what is essentially a spectrum of shortcomings. But it reaches a point where states that are barely functioning totally collapse, particularly when armed conflict is involved and the state is unwilling or unable to deliver even the most basic services. Fragility is somewhere along that spectrum before that state has ceased to function for all practical purposes.

Why should we care about fragile states?

To begin with, there's fundamental humanity - caring for each other. The United Nations speaks of people of the world working together in the spirit of brotherhood. It's not just rhetoric. For many though, they need a more practical reason to get involved. The answer here is that it's difficult to imagine the collapse of a state that would have no repercussions internationally, first on its immediate neighbors, then on entire regions, and eventually on all of us.

What does the failure of a small nation like Haiti mean to us, particularly in the Americas?

An incapacitated state helps the drug trade, for instance, which may shift over from Colombia. Also, the country is extraordinarily depleted. All the trees have been cut, so hurricanes and mudslides are catastrophic. Meanwhile, there are unconscionable numbers of children who are not in school. The mortality rates are 70 times what they are in U.S. Everywhere you look in Haiti, it's incomprehensible that it could be on the doorstep of North America. How can we tolerate that?  

Has the world learned any lessons from interventions in smaller places like East Timor, Bosnia and Haiti that might be applicable to larger countries?

It is important not to think we can walk in and say, we've fixed this before. We need to come to these situations aware that it's a learning experience each time and we have to be attentive to local needs. Having said that, smaller states offer a chance to be slightly more experimental because to some extent they are more manageable. You don't have the challenges of distance that you have in the Congo, for example.

Now, if we are talking about U.N. peacekeeping missions, we are learning. In 2000, the U.N. took a serious look at its peacekeeping operations in the so-called Brahimi report. The critical observation in that report is the importance of the mandate, which comes from the U.N. Security Council.  The mandate must be context-specific and well-resourced to meet the identified challenges. Unfortunately, the Security Council is not a body of technocrats, but a body of politicians, and at times it will not deliver the appropriate mandate or adequate resources.  

Passport: The United States has a short attention span, and nation-building seems to take longer than we expect. Are there benchmarks we could use to determine when to pull out of a country?

We've historically looked at security in a traditional and maybe too narrow way: demobilizing the belligerents, trying to reintegrate the ex-combatants - a military approach to security. But we need to look at are other indicators of real human security. Are girls returning to school? Are women safe in their communities? Is civil society occupying some space? Because that is the test - security of the people, not just whether warring factions have laid down their arms.

How do you create real human security?

You have to start constructing the institutions of the state. This can only happen with the right people - people who were not a cause of the conflict in the first place. Women for instance, and other civil society actors who can bring justice and accountability. We often talk about reconstructing, which is often constructing because in many countries there never was a credible functioning system. It's really building from scratch. And you don't do that in three years or five years.  

In East Timor, the president and other leaders have complained about aid money going to foreign consultants and report writing rather than building of local capacity that might alleviate poverty or violence. Is this an inherent problem in international interventions?

All over the world, it's often advanced that the international consultants or civil servants, like U.N. staff, take a large share of the expenditures that should be invested in the country. But by other standards like military operations, for instance, these consultancies are not expensive. They are not, from anything I've seen, severely overpaid by any measure. But by local standards these people are drawing international-level salaries. The discrepancy is dramatic between the internationals and the local staff - the drivers, the interpreters and so on - so it creates an "us and them" mentality that is sometimes difficult to accept for people who had high expectations that their independence, the peace deal or whatever they are emerging from would yield tremendous dividends regarding poverty.

East Timor has extensive oil and natural gas deposits. What role can natural resources play in fueling economic growth?

As quickly as possible you want to enable these countries to be self-sufficient, including the management of their natural resources. You need institutions that will prevent corruption and guarantee proper management that will benefit the local population in the long run. Countries with fewer natural resources have had to be more imaginative. Rwanda, for instance, is a very small country with little land and natural resource wealth, but it is developing rapidly into high tech areas by investing in human capital and education.

In Bosnia,  there's no doubt the Dayton Accord was remarkable. It got some uncompromising and brutal men to sit down and make an agreement. But is it now creating lingering problems in the country?

There are some who will say it was a mistake to entrench the kind of ethnic divisions that had been the root cause of the conflict. It might not have been desirable, but it was in retrospect, inevitable. I don't think there was another option that the parties would have embraced at the time. But now they have reached a point that two things have to happen. One is they have to take responsibility for themselves and the second is the Office of the High Representative has to let go by encouraging its own exit strategy, the sooner the better. Even if the Office of the High Representative left, it doesn't mean the international community - the European Union, United Nations - would vanish from the region. This is still a country that will receive an enormous amount of political attention from its neighbors.

There has been more post-conflict justice in Bosnia than in many other places in the world. From your perspective, has it led to a greater sense of stability today?

What has the tribunal done for the people of Bosnia? It must have contributed to curtailing the revisionism that otherwise takes root very rapidly. Not as well as it possibly could have because these tribunals have a lot of shortcomings, the principle one being that it's so far from the country. When I was on the tribunal from 1996 to 1999, if someone had told me that this would still be a concern in 2009, I would have believed it.  We just weren't looking that far into the future because we had so much to do on a day-to-day basis.

But in retrospect, if somebody had known from day one that we'd be 15 years into that enterprise, a lot more of us would have learned a language, held proceedings in the country. Not on the first day, since you can't have war crimes trial in a country where you don't have a peace accord. But it took us a long time to come closer to the communities. Now more local courts are holding war crimes trials to continue the work that was started internationally. I like to think the mere existence of these tribunals is contributing to preventing a resumption of the conflict.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.