GENEVA — Canada’s Conservative government pressed former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour to leave a top U.N. human rights post because she criticized the U.S. treatment of detainees in the war on terror and openly targeted abuses by Canadian and U.S. allies, diplomatic sources said.
Mrs. Arbour said in announcing her resignation March 7 that she “was not quitting because of this pressure.” But diplomats said otherwise.
Sources close to the government said the office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued direct instructions to offer no praise for Mrs. Arbour, who completes her four-year term as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in June.
Mrs. Arbour announced her resignation in an appearance before the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council. Afterward, the Canadian diplomat who was present barely acknowledged Mrs. Arbour’s presence and issued a statement that other diplomats called remarkable for its blandness.
“Canada is and will continue to be a strong supporter of [the Human Rights Council] mandate and your office’s work for the promotion and protection of human rights.”
Canada’s backhanded public rebuke outraged some human rights advocates.
“I can’t understand how any Canadian can behave like that, especially when she announced her intention to retire,” said Peter Splinter, Amnesty International’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva and a former Canadian diplomat.
Within hours of what diplomats viewed as an embarrassing performance from the Canadian delegation in Geneva, Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier relented and praised Mrs. Arbour for her efforts in championing human rights.
Mr. Bernier issued a statement from Ottawa praising Mrs. Arbour for “expanding the concepts of human rights and fundamental justice.”
Relations between Mr. Harper’s government and Mrs. Arbour were strained, senior U.N. and Western diplomatic sources said.
The ascendancy of human rights issues in global diplomacy has made the high commissioner’s job one of the most politically sensitive and thankless in the U.N. system.
Mrs. Arbour was especially critical of the U.S. detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In August, she submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case on the status of Guantanamo detainees.
“She did not win any hearts by that action,” said a senior official close to Washington.
Manfred Nowak of Austria, an independent U.N. reporter on human rights, said Mrs. Arbour will be missed.
“I hope her successor will be as much dedicated to human rights and as much outspoken because what we certainly would not need is a very weak individual whose main ambition is to please governments,” he said.