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.