Use privilege of education to change the world, Arbour urges

Thursday, June 11, 2009

  • President Alaistair Summerlee bestows an honorary degree upon Louise Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Hum

    President Alaistair Summerlee bestows an honorary degree upon Louise Arbour, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Hum

Written by Greg Beneteau

Students should be aware how fortunate they are to receive an education in Canada and use their gifts to help the world’s most vulnerable, an internationally respected human rights figure told graduating students.

Louise Arbour, who completed a four-year term as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last June, gave the University of Guelph’s convocation address Wednesday after receiving an honorary doctor of laws.

A former professor at Osgoode Law School, Arbour served as former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal and worked to bring war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to justice. In 1999, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Arbour stepped down from the bench in 2004 after receiving the UN Human Rights appointment. She was appointed a Companion to the Order of Canada in 2007.

Noting that her degree “looks backwards” at her long career, Arbour said graduates should take their degree as recognition of their future potential.

“It’s a call to action, an invitation to contribute, maybe even a mortgage on your conscience,” she said.

Recalling the 60th anniversary of the drafting of the UN Declaration of Human Rights last year, Arbour called upon students to address disparities in wealth and human rights throughout the world and reject fear-based arguments that would compromise human rights in the name of security.

While most students in Canada will be able to make a living, support a family and engage in various pursuits throughout their lives, many people in the world don't have this opportunity despite being guaranteed equal rights, Arbour pointed out.

The extreme poverty faced by millions throughout the world "betrays the promise" of the Declaration of Human Rights and undermines security even worse than armed conflict, she claimed.

Development and security can only be achieved by respecting human rights, Arbour said, rejecting the post-9/11 era as a "climate of fear" that led to "severely misguided" responses.

“We have been told for a long time that we are in a perpetual state of war, the war on drugs, the war on terror, as a result of which we may have developed a siege mentality and a willingness to surrender considerable freedom in the pursuit of an elusive desire for increased security.”

The former judge was at times irreverent in her humour, musing that honorary degree recipients are recognized for what they’ve already accomplished and thus have little in common with the graduating class.

“I am indeed very honoured to find myself graduating with you, and I am conscious that I’ve earned this degree in ways that probably appear to you considerably less strenuous than what you’ve been put through in the last few years,” she joked.

The daughter of middle-class Montreal family, Arbour also confessed she had no rags-to-riches tales that would give people hope in the current economic climate.

"I wish I could share with you demonstration that, just by looking at me, you could see that no matter how bad things look today... they'll all work out in the end, but I have no such stories," she said,

"Actually, things weren't that bad in the old days, but they weren't that great either."

Arbour was one of eight honorary degree recipients at U of G's summer convocation. The others were actor Christopher Plummer, internet pioneer Tim Bray, chief operating officer of Royal Bank of Canada Barbara Stymiest, United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, MP Jean Augustine, technology educator Jack MacDonald and refugee activist Marangu Njogu.

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