Former Canadian supreme court justice to lead on UN migration efforts

By on 14/03/2017 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Louise Arbour, former supreme court justice, Canada (Image Couresy Flickr/UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre)

The United Nations chief has appointed Louise Arbour, a former supreme court justice from Canada, as special representative for international migration.

Arbour, who has described migration as “one of the defining issues of our times”, will lead on the follow-up to the September 2016 UN Summit on Refugees, where all UN member states pledged to protect the rights of refugees and migrants and share responsibility for large, international movements of people.

Over the next 18 months, she will coordinate UN efforts to create a global agreement on a set of guiding principles to handle mass migration. Arbour’s remit does not include refugees – they are covered by other UN conventions – but it does include economic migrants, seasonal workers and human trafficking.

“Migration is everything else,” she said in an interview on CBC Radio, meaning all movements of people beside refugees. “It’s human mobility in the largest possible sense.”

Arbour said she wants to see public discourse move from the “so-called burdens and the negative aspects [that] have been severely over-emphasised” to a “consciousness of the positive aspects of migration”. Part of her work will comprise research into the drivers and potential benefits of migration, in order to influence public opinion.

She also made it clear that she will not prejudge the approach to migration of Donald Trump’s administration. Under president Barack Obama, the US signed up to the New York declaration for refugees and migrants – adopted at the September UN summit – but on taking office, Trump immediately suspended a Syrian refugee programme and announced plans to deport vast numbers of undocumented immigrants.

Arbour was a Supreme Court of Canada justice between 1999 and 2004 and has previously held senior positions at the UN, including that of high commissioner for human rights and chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, congratulated Arbour, praising her commitment to peace, justice and human rights.

“We commend the leadership of António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, in establishing this important post,” she said. “Canada looks forward to working with Ms Arbour as we contribute to international cooperation and as we help address the complex challenges, and harness the benefits, of international migration.”

Arbour succeeds Peter Sutherland, an Irishman and ex-chair of Goldman Sachs, who was appointed in 2009.

When António Guterres was sworn in as the ninth UN secretary-general in December last year – completing an unbroken line of men, who’ve held the job since its foundation – he promised to reach gender parity within the UN’s senior leadership within five years. He immediately appointed Nigerian environment minister Amina Mohammed as his deputy, Brazilian diplomat Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti as chef de cabinet, and Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea as special adviser on policy.

Guterres, who served as the UN’s high commissioner for refugees between 2005 and 2015, also pledged to do everything he can to ensure that governments around the world meet their responsibilities on refugee protection.

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See also:

EC claims headway in tackling African migration

EU migration crisis has exposed ‘structural issues’ in Sweden’s housing market, says OECD

António Guterres: what do we know about the new UN chief?


About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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