Louise Arbour speaks onstage at the Center for Reproductive Rights 2014 Gala.
Louise Arbour speaks onstage at the Center for Reproductive Rights 2014 Gala.
Image: Getty Images / Neilson Barnard

What are you going to talk about at your Lunch with the FT, two New Yorkers ask me over dinner on the eve of this encounter. “Evil,” I reply. A brief silence ensues. Evil is rightly a word seldom sanctioned by editors. But as I arrive outside a bustling Italian restaurant in the Upper East Side, I know my lunch date will not demur. She after all has had more experience prosecuting evil than just about anyone else alive.

Louise Arbour has arrived moments before me. It’s been raining all morning. She has just caught the bus from her office in the UN headquarters. She shakes off the rain and seems, well, happy to wait. No airs, no graces — she could be just another UN functionary. She is also barely five foot tall. It is easy to see how the hardmen of the Balkans so underestimated her when she was chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

“One former head of state in the region who had not been invited by the tribunal came to see me,” she chuckles. “He did not speak English. When he saw me he shook my hand and said something which I didn’t understand but the people who did burst out laughing.

“So I waited for the interpreter, who was laughing. ‘He said: “Oh my God. How come you’re so scary? You’re so tiny and little and you don’t look scary at all.” ’ I didn’t fit his image of power.”

Western officials have over the years made the same misjudgment. But there is no chance of anonymity at Mediterraneo. Her flat is upstairs. She repairs here regularly after trips as the UN’s special representative for international migration. With its pastel murals on the walls and shelves lined with bottles of Chianti and liqueurs, it is the antithesis to the blandness of global summitry.

We have to toast the memory of our matchmaker, I say. She smiles and orders a crisp Pinot Grigio. She is due that evening to fly to Marrakesh for a conference. “The only thing that can really be screwed up is my packing. So if I arrive in Marrakesh with no underwear, it will be blamed on the fact that you made me drink!”

The waiter delivers two brimming goblets. We cast our minds back to London in June. I was at a conference talking to Kofi Annan, whom I had come to know after he was UN secretary-general. He introduced me to Arbour and said I had to invite her to Lunch. It was the last time we saw him. He died in August after a short illness. We recall his love of telling jokes to break the ice at dinners. “The great convener,” she says.

I thump a telephone directory-sized folder on the table. “I spent all morning following orders and reading this,” I say. (In an email Arbour had urged me to read “the numerous opinions” she had delivered as a judge on Canada’s Supreme Court. They would “vastly enrich our conversation”. I had been starting to panic when I read: “just kidding”.)

Briefly Arbour looks appalled on my behalf, until I explain I, too, was kidding. My folder was of clippings from 1996-99, when she was chief prosecutor for the Yugoslav and Rwandan war crimes tribunals. I had spent the morning reviving memories of the atrocities I covered as a young correspondent. Then, it was impossible to believe the perpetrators might be put on trial, and even after the carnage ended, justice was not a priority for the west.

Then Arbour appeared on the scene.

I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a historian. I’m a lawyer ... I don’t hate perpetrators. I’m not in the hate business. I just want to convict them

She opts for two starters, grilled calamari and beef carpaccio — prepared specially, she requests, as a roulade. I go for a tomato and mozzarella salad and challenge the waiter to recommend the best of his two mushroom pastas — with portobello mushrooms or home-made fettuccine with imported porcini. As the waiter and I debate their merits, the special rep intervenes: she has eaten her way up and down the menu; the porcini it is.

As the waiter trots away, I reflect that it is vintage Arbour — the timely intervention. As with so many bureaucracies, if you work for the UN and you want to achieve anything beyond clocking up your per diems, you have to know how and when to leverage your influence. When she arrived at The Hague in 1996, fresh from the Toronto Court of Appeal, she swiftly appreciated she had to move fast if she was to achieve anything. Her predecessor Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, had had a quick-fire start, indicting 75 people — but only seven small-fry were in custody, not least because Nato powers had opted to focus on peace rather than justice and were not arresting suspects. She made her move at a Nato conference on the future of Yugoslavia in London. She declared she was not merely asking western powers to arrest the suspects — it was in their mandate to do so. She then changed the tribunal’s strategy and started issuing sealed indictments.

“I went to Nato headquarters in Sarajevo and said to the Nato general: ‘I know how much you want to help me. Well, I have good news for you. You know the chief of police of Prijedor with whom you have weekly meetings. Here’s the indictment. He doesn’t know. Take your time. Suit yourself. Pick him up.’ ” With that, the course of post-Nuremberg war crimes trials changed.

Our starters have arrived and are lying untouched. I take a deep breath and ask if after her immersion in atrocities she has reached any conclusions about man’s potential for evil. I remember talking to Serb gunners on the hills over Sarajevo after they’d shelled the city below us, and also talking to genocidaires in Rwanda, and despairing of humanity. Arbour does not seek to make an overarching moral point. She takes refuge in the law, just as trauma doctors seek refuge in medicine — and journalists in the pursuit of a story.

“I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a historian. I’m a lawyer. I remember stepping out of a helicopter [in Kosovo], where we had uncovered a mass grave. The first thing I saw were little plastic flags, orange and yellow. Someone whispered, ‘The orange ones are shell casings and the yellow bomb fragments.’ This is the way I saw things: What have we got? What evidence do we have? And any evidence the site was tampered with?

“It’s the same thing with perpetrators. I don’t hate them. I’m not in the hate business. I just want to convict them.”

For her, the Holy Grail was to go beyond the foot soldiers and probe the chain of command. “In organised crime, with any luck, you pick up small fish and end up with a plea bargain. In these crimes, that didn’t work. What kind of deal do you make with someone complicit in genocide?”

Even without the politics, the investigations were labyrinthine. But as more arrests and convictions unfolded, so it became clear that she and Goldstone had set an extraordinary precedent, climaxing with the indictment in 1999 of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader and main Balkan puppeteer. For the first time a sitting head of state had been indicted for international war crimes.

Was this the dawn of an era of moral universalism? Maybe not. When the court finally closed last year, there had been 90 Yugoslav convictions and 61 Rwandan. Not bad, but there were a lot of willing executioners who got away with it — and Milosevic died of a heart attack before the end of his trial.

But there was a sense that an age of impunity was over. In 2004, five years after Arbour had stepped down to sit on Canada’s Supreme Court, she suggested the world was on the brink of a “golden age of legalism”. A bit premature, I ask?

“It’s fair to say my crystal ball might have been a little foggier than I thought when I was looking through it ... So, yes, it looked like the rule of law was going to become the DNA of international interactions ... And then all kinds of forces came into play.”

Our dishes arrive. My pasta sauce is rich and creamy, and brimming with mushrooms, perfect for a damp late autumn day. I tuck in hungrily and ask this famous liberal warrior for the origin of her spirit of straight-talking.

She is not one for introspection, but she does hazard there may be something to having been educated by nuns after her parents separated when she was 10. Unsurprisingly, life as a Montreal convent girl fuelled her combative spirit. “I took up dressing in black, smoking and hoping to become an existentialist, and Simone de Beauvoir was a heroine ... ” Another impetus came in 1970 when the government passed a War Measures Act suspending civil liberties in response to kidnappings by French-speaking separatists.

I quote back at her a remark by a president of the tribunal, Antonio Cassese, who said of her once: “It takes a woman to be courageous.”

“That’s so Nino,” she says of the late Italian jurist. “He would say that but I don’t know what it means.” I allow her to take a forkful of roulade and suggest it could mean that in a world dominated by men it’s been easier for powerful men than women to get things done.

“Or not!” she says laughing again. “Or to get away with doing very little and get a huge amount of credit for a mediocre performance!”

There were times, she volunteers, when the stereotyping of women played to her strategic advantage. But more often being a woman trying to bend warlords and patriarchs to her will required boundless patience — and determination. What is her advice to the next generations of women? “Carpe diem,” she says. “Every time something like this [the #MeToo Movement] happens, we think: ‘This is it. This the time when the system will be forced to change.’ Then we start doubting. There’s an expression in French: un coup d’épée dans l’eau [hitting water with a sword]. I hope this is not it.”

She has to eat. I swap with her my favourite Tintin books. We reflect on how accurately King Ottokar’s Sceptre depicted the Balkan rifts.

It’s the day of the midterms. Across America, millions are voting in effectively a referendum on Donald Trump’s dyspeptic presidency. I am tempted by another glass of Pinot Grigio but resist with an eye to a busy evening watching the results.

Instead we order macchiatos and I cast our minds back to the 1990s, something of a high-water mark for the UN’s post-cold war ambitions, for all its patchy record in both the Balkans and Africa. What happened to the idealism? In a rare nod to the UN’s sensibilities, Arbour reminds me it is not just the UN at a low ebb.

“I think this mood you can sense inside the UN is reflected in a lot of national entities ... I thought all my life that progress was linear. Now it’s very clear at best it’s cyclical and it’s very hard to tell if we are at the bottom of the wave or are we going to have an upswing.”

Nearing the end of her third UN stint, she still, loyally, bats away my suggestion that its bureaucracy must be stifling. But she does not hold back when I ask her to wave a wand and reimagine the UN — which right now is pretty much where the world powers want it: subdued and subservient.

The secretariat is in hock to the idea of “servicing” the member states, the “shareholders”, she says, “and letting them make the decisions. Maybe we should be a little more rebellious vis-à-vis member states. What’s going to happen, are they going to fire us? ... Maybe it’s time to reoccupy the high ground, which is largely unoccupied at the present time.”

“People have often spoken to me about courage,” she says. “But the key is clarity. There is a pretty serious lack of clarity .... about where we want to go, the smart way to get there, appeasement and confrontation. I often tell governments, ‘You’re so afraid of the extreme rightwing that you’re doing their work for them by accommodating.’ ”

Her focus now is a global compact on “safe, orderly and regular” migration. I mention the “caravan” of migrants, anxieties over which were stoked by Trump ahead of today’s vote. She accepts that there are deep-felt concerns among voters. “Western democracy is quite eroded. People don’t feel they have a job that will end 30 years later with a good pension and a gold watch. I get that.”

But she despairs over the rhetoric and also Europe’s self-absorbed narrative. “Some people in Europe think that, given a choice, every African would move to Europe. That’s not true. People stay happily where they are until they run out of work or they fall in love.

“Humans are overwhelmingly sedentary and some are nomads, currently 3.4 per cent. Fifteen years ago it was 2.7 per cent. How much will it grow? It’s going to depend on climate change, on demographics, on economic inequalities. We need to deal with a challenging reality — but reality not fear.”

We turn — too late, she laughs — to our dogs. She shows me on her iPad a picture of Snoro (or “rascal”), her St Pierre. They will be reunited at her house “in the woods” outside Montreal at the end of the year, when she is to retire for the third time from the UN.

The first time, she assumed she would never have another job and “then Kofi called” about the human rights role. In 2008 she took a job in a law firm. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Then a few years ago, António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, called about migration. “I thought, either you check out and take up knitting or you go one more time full speed ahead.”

Now, at the age of 71, she is heading back to private practice and to see more of her children and grandchildren. She has her critics from past roles who accuse her of shooting from the hip. Her move will not be mourned by Israel or the Trump administration. But the UN will miss her zest. That evening I reread an email from an old friend who reported on the tribunals. “She is my hero,” he wrote. I had never heard him use that word before.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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