Louise Arbour takes on UN migration gig at 'a very difficult time'

Louise Arbour's resume already lists some impressive, and daunting, titles, but the former Supreme Court of Canada justice is now preparing for what's shaping up to be one of her toughest gigs: the UN's point person on international migration.

Former Supreme Court justice says burdens posed by migrants 'severely overemphasized'

Louise Arbour smiles after having her star unveiled on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto last year. She has been appointed as UN special representative of the secretary-general for international migration. (Canadian Press)

Louise Arbour's curriculum vitae already lists some impressive — and daunting — titles, but the former Supreme Court of Canada justice is now preparing for what's shaping up to be one of the toughest gigs of her career: the UN's new point person on international migration.

"It's at a very difficult time. I think climate change and migration are currently the defining issues of the time," she said in an interview with Chris Hall, host of CBC Radio's The House. "Tough one, but a really good one to take on." 

The renowned jurist already has two stints with the United Nations behind her, first as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s and then as the high commissioner for human rights.

Last fall, the UN's General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a set of guiding principles to handle mass migration. As the new special representative, Arbour is tasked with crafting an international agreement to regulate it.

"There is an acknowledgment that human mobility is unstoppable. It has already been there. So to bring safety and order into it is ambitious, but it's a good framework for this project," she said.

The intergovernmental organization already has conventions to oversee refugees. Arbour's team will cover almost every other case where human movement is involved.

"People sort of forced to move to find a way of making a living. Then there's a whole range of economic migrants, some for shorter terms, there's seasonal workers, there's human trafficking, which is forced, criminal, illegal migration. So it's all these issues," she said.

"We're looking at an environment in which this, I think, requires a lot of strategic effort by member states to regulate something that will be an increasing phenomenon."

'Harness the benefits'

One of those member states could pose a problem for Arbour's team. U.S. President Donald Trump has temporarily halted that country's refugee program and pledged to deport illegal immigrants.

Arbour said she didn't want to pre-judge the U.S.'s migration approach so early on, but said part of her job will be to change the conversations people are having around migration.

"We are maybe currently in an environment where the kind of so-called burdens and the negative aspects have been severely overemphasized," she said.

"You know, move away from a discourse that over-emphasizes the so-called burden of migration and brings to the surface how countries, a country like Canada is a good example of that, have been able to harness the benefits."