UNITED NATIONS — United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has asked a prominent Canadian judge to assume the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Forward has learned.
Louise Arbour, a justice on the Supreme Court of Canada and former chief prosecutor on the United Nations international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, would fill the position left vacant since the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq last August, according to two sources.
A spokesman for the Canadian Supreme Court said Arbour “understands she is on the short list but she has made no decision and hopes to be in a position to do so shortly.”
A U.N. diplomat said that the remaining obstacle was Arbour’s desire to return to her Supreme Court perch after her U.N. service.
Jewish communal groups have been especially sensitive about who fills the position because Vieira’s predecessor, former Irish president Mary Robinson, was seen as a harsh critic of Israel.
“Louise Arbour is very well-regarded, she is an eminent jurist and will make Canada proud,” said Frank Dimant, executive vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada.
A Jewish activist pointed out, however, that Arbour had been involved in some controversial rulings. In the case of a suspected Hungarian World War II criminal, Imre Finta, she wrote an opinion arguing that he was merely following orders, setting a precedent that critics say effectively prevented the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Canadian courts.
In a case involving the defacing of Jewish graves by neo-Nazis, she voted in favor of a strict application of the law that eventually spared the perpetrators.
The Montreal-born Arbour was appointed to the Canadian Supreme Court in 1999, following her stint at the war crime tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The high point of her tenure came when she announced the indictment of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity.
Before that, Arbour was a judge on the Ontario provincial court of appeals, where she wrote the majority opinion reaffirming the acquittal of Finta, a Canadian citizen who in 1944 was a member of the Hungarian gendarmerie in charge of a brickyard from which Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz.
Her appointment takes place a month before the annual U.N. human rights conference in Geneva and follows an exhaustive search.
Human rights groups had expressed dismay about the length of the process, claiming it was weakening the position and the human rights agenda on the international stage.
Observers say the unusual length of the process can be explained by the usual horse-trading surrounding high-profile U.N. positions, but also by a series of rejections.
A U.N. official and a Jewish communal source told the Forward that Arbour initially had rejected the offer. The same sources said South African Justice Richard Goldstone had been approached about the post but declined.
A flurry of names then circulated in diplomatic circles and an official announcement was postponed on several occasions.
Annan reportedly conveyed his decision to Secretary of State Colin Powell during a visit to Washington two weeks ago to discuss the situation in Iraq.