Louise Arbour Biography

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Born February 10, 1947, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; daughter of Ruth Laberge (a retail store owner); partner for 27 years, Larry Taman; children: Emilie, Patrick, Catherine. Education: College Regina Assumpta, Montreal, BA, 1967; University of Montreal, LL.L, 1970.

Addresses: Work— Commission/Sub-Commission Team (1503 Procedure), Support Services Branch, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Office at Geneva, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland; fax: + 41 22 917 9011; e-mail: 1503ohchr.org.


Articler, City of Montreal, 1970; law clerk, Supreme Court of Canada, 1971-72; research officer, Law Reform Commission, 1972; lecturer, York University, 1974; assistant professor, York University, 1975; associate professor, York University, 1977-87; associate professor and associate dean, Osgoode Hall School of Law, York University, 1987; high court justice, Supreme Court of Ontario, 1987-90; member, Court of Appeal for Ontario, 1990-96; chief prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunals, 1996-99; judge, Supreme Court of Canada, 1999-2004; high commissioner for human rights, United Nations, 2004—.

Awards: Achievement Award, Women's Law Association, 1996; G. Arthur Martin Award, Criminal Lawyers' Association, Toronto, 1998; Medal of Honour,

Louise Arbour
International Association of Prosecutors, 1999; Médaille du mérite, Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal, 1999; Prix de la Fondation Louise Weiss, Paris, 1999; Second Annual Service to Humanity Award, Pennsylvania Bar Foundation, 2000; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal, Roosevelt Study Centre, the Netherlands, 2000; Women of Distinction Award, Toronto Hadassah-Wizo, 2000; Peace Award, World Federalists of Canada, 2000; Lord Reading Law Society's Human Rights Award, 2000; Wolfgang Freidman Memorial Award, Columbia Law School, 2001; EIDUL-ADHA Award, Association of Progressive Muslims of Ontario, 2001; Médaille du Barreau, Quebec, 2001; National Achievement Award, Jewish Women International of Canada, 2001; Stefan A. Riesenfeld Symposium Award, Berkeley Journal of International Law, 2002; Person of the Year, McGill Center for Research and Teaching on Women, 2002; Justice in the World International Prize, International Association of Judges, 2002; Médaille de la Faculté de droit, University of Montreal, 2003; Hall of Fame, International Women's Forum, 2003.


Louise Arbour had made it to the pinnacle of any lawyer's dream career: she had a seat on the Su preme Court of Canada. Less than five years into her tenure serving as one of the highest-ranking justices in the country, Arbour stepped down. Instead, she became the fourth person named to the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was not the first time that Arbour stood in the international spotlight. In 1996, she was chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal, responsible for bringing to justice major players in the human rights tragedies of both Rwanda and Kosovo. A distinguished career as a lawyer and professor combined with her renowned tenacity and charm have garnered her a reputation as someone who can get the job done while also maintaining civil relationships with her opponents.

Arbour was born on February 10, 1947, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother, Ruth Laberge, raised Arbour and her brother, Patrick, on her own. While Arbour attended College Regina Assumpta, a strict all-girls Roman Catholic school, her mother ran a store in downtown Montreal. Arbour explained to Allan Thompson of the Toronto Star the impact that the school had on her development, "In a sense I was probably manipulated to achieve exactly what it is designed to achieve, which is to get you to be a rebel to a point." She attended the school for ten years and received her bachelor's degree from there in 1967.

After graduation she went directly to the University of Montreal where she studied law at the Faculty of Law. She earned her degree, an LL.L, in 1970. During that same year, she later recounted, occurred one of the most influential events in her life and one which directed her in her future career. That year, the Canadian government passed the War Measures Act, which immediately suspended many civil liberties guaranteed by the state in response to kidnappings carried out by French separatists. She told the Toronto Star 's Thompson, "In many, many respects this had a very dramatic influence on my outlook on public issues, on the issue of power, abuse of power, the need for information and an element of skepticism towards authority."

After graduating from law school, Arbour held a few minor legal positions before taking a position as a lecturer on criminal procedure for the Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. She had passed the Quebec Bar in 1971 and in 1974 began her long and distinguished career with York University. In 1977, she passed the Ontario Bar. She quickly moved to the position of Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor. In 1987, she was named Associate Dean but only held the position for six months.

In December of 1987, Arbour was appointed as a High Court Justice for the Supreme Court of Ontario. Three years later she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. In 1995, while still serving on the Court of Appeal, Arbour was named as the sole commissioner to make inquiries into the allegations of abuse at the Prison for Women in Kingston. Her reports, which found institutionalized abuse rampant in the prison, served to help the Canadian government make significant changes in their correctional system, particularly with regard to female inmates.

Perhaps as a result of her effective investigations into prison abuse in Canada, she was asked to join the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The appointment, which she accepted, was made by a resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations. Arbour was named to the four-year position of chief prosecutor for what would become known as the War Crimes Tribunal. Her tireless work brought about indictments against former Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and others as well as convictions against 60 people charged with participating in the 1994 massacre in Rwanda.

Unfortunately for the tribunal, Arbour left before her four-year term was finished. In 1999, citing exhaustion, a desire to return to Canada, as well as a desire to accept an appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, Arbour left the position of chief prosecutor. James Stewart, who worked with Arbour in The Hague described her energy to the Toronto Star 's Thompson, "It is as if there is a kind of dynamo there, firing off energy. She wasn't going to take anything from anybody. And yet she was not in any way abrasive. She could disarm through charm."

On September 15, 1999, Arbour took her seat on the highest court in Canada. She served the court for five years, and was part of the deciding vote, which reestablished the right of federal prisoners to vote. Eventually, she was offered another appointment that she found she could not refuse. In 2002, she had been offered the position of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She turned the job down. The position was eventually filled by Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was subsequently killed in a 2003 bombing while on a mission in Baghdad, Iraq. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, approached Arbour again with the appointment. This time she did not refuse.

For any lawyer, having a seat on the Supreme Court would mark the highest point of one's career. Arbour was not so satisfied and found the possibility of becoming the world's representative for the protection of human rights irresistible. With years of experience working to bring to justice those who would transgress basic human rights, Arbour stepped into this new position boldly on July 1, 2004. She was the fourth person to hold the position, which was established in 1993.

Throughout her career, Arbour has distinguished herself as hardworking. She holds more than 25 honorary degrees from universities around the world. She is fluent in both English and French. Besides court appointments she also wrote extensively on subjects such as criminal procedure, human rights, civil liberties, and gender issues. She was editor for Criminal Reports, Canadian Human Rights Reporter, and Osgoode Hall Law Journal. Until her first appointment in 1987, she had served as the vice-president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Arbour has three children with Larry Taman, her partner of 27 years.



Toronto Star, June 13, 2004, p. A7; July 5, 2004, p. A1.


"CBC News:Arbour to take UN human rights post," CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2004/02/20/arbour_UN040219 (August 12, 2004).

"Louise Arbour High Commissioner," Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/english/about/hc/arbour.htm (August 12, 2004).

"Louise Arbour seeking global justice," Press Republican, http://www.pressrepublican.com/Archive/2004/07_2004/07092004pb.htm (August 12, 2004).

"Louise Arbour starts work as new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights," United Nations, http://www.un.org (August 12, 2004).

—Eve M. B. Hermann

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