Louise Arbour on International Conflict Earns Standing Ovation at First Big Thinking Lecture

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Vanessa Hawk

Image: Mélanie Béchard


In the first lecture of the Big Thinking speaker series, Farquhar Auditorium filled to hear Louise Arbour speak about global conflicts and international security. Arbour was met with a standing ovation at the end of her speech and several audience members jumped to the provided microphones asking further questions about violent conflicts and the role of international actors in an engaging Q&A period.

Arbour is the President and CEO of International Crisis Group and has earned a globally renowned legal career as the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2004 to 2008 and Chief Prosecutor before the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit organization that conducts on-the-ground research on the economic, political and social causes of conflict in order to prevent, mitigate and resolve violence. Arbour says this method is driven by the need to understand a conflict before a resolution can be attempted.  

Arbour began by commenting that impressive technological advances that produce Google Glass and vehicles that practically drive themselves have not crossed over to the field of conflict prevention and resolution, saying that “today’s international security is antiquated in the face of human ingenuity.”

In the same way that the International Crisis Group works to understand the context surrounding each conflict, Arbour avoided generalizations in her lecture and focused instead on examples in Syria, Mali and the South China Sea.

Arbour says the UN’s Security Council has put on a “disappointing performance” in international intervention. Established in 1946 after World War II, the five permanent members of the Security Council no longer represent the economies and populations of the global community. The USA, Great Britain, France, Russia and China each hold veto power, allowing few resolutions to pass and resulting in the international community being “impotent in Syria, overstretched in Africa and irrelevant in Asia,” according to Arbour.

The Security Council is divided between Russia and China advocating non-intervention and the western nations into a standoff that Arbour says “poisons every meeting” and has resulted in inaction.

The Syrian conflict is one of many that the International Crisis Group has documented. The conflict is one between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and multiple factions of the population, and counts over 80 000 dead (by conservative death tolls) and 8.6 million refugees in the two years since it began.

Similarly, tensions in Mali, the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea have escalated and been influenced by actions taken by external powers.

“[China and Japan] are at risk of being drawn into a conflict that neither wants,” says Arbour on the territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea that hold potential economic value and represent control over important shipping routes. 

As in the South China Sea, the international community has been unsuccessful in reacting to tensions on the Korean peninsula, such as when North Korea breached several international laws by launching a satellite and threatened nuclear warfare.

Despite the inherent pessimism that comes from the study of international conflicts, Arbour says she is hopeful for prospects offered by the proliferation and engagement of civil society.   

The Big Thinking speaker series at Congress 2013 is free and open to the public.