The House

Louise Arbour says military alone 'not the answer' to Syrian refugee crisis

Canada can and should be doing more to bring in a larger number of Syrian refugees than the government's current target, says former Supreme Court justice and United Nations high commissioner on human rights Louise Arbour.

Former top court justice and UN human rights commissioner says Canada needs to do more

Louise Arbour: Bureaucratic hurdles for refugees are "unconscionable"

7 years ago
Duration 0:32
Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour

Canada can and should be doing more to bring in a larger number of Syrian refugees than the government's current target, says former Supreme Court justice and United Nations high commissioner on human rights Louise Arbour.

"I think these numbers, frankly — 10,000 over the next four years — are so out of proportion of what Canada should be doing," she said in an interview on CBC Radio's The House.

Arbour suggested a figure of 9,000 refugees a year, saying it is unfair for Syria's neighbouring countries to "overwhelmingly" bear the responsibility of resettling Syrians fleeing from a civil war that has killed over 300,000 people since civil war broke out in 2011.

"Bureaucracy's not an answer. Lots of things are doable," Arbour told host Chris Hall, referring to an unsuccessful refugee application for Mohammed Kurdi, uncle of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurd, which was returned as incomplete, according to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

"To say a petition was denied because somebody didn't have a UN refugee designation — seriously? To put bureaucratic hurdles when this level of human suffering is unfolding I think is unconscionable."

Louise Arbour: Bill C-51 is an "appalling" piece of legislation

7 years ago
Duration 0:33
Former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour says the scope of Bill C-51 - and the widespread sharing of personal information - is a scary prospect. She says there should be more protest for this "appalling" bill.

Arbour cautioned against placing too much of an emphasis on a military response to the crisis in Syria, pointing to Libya as an example of what not to do.

"I think Canada can look at its own record," she said. "In Afghanistan, Canada had a multifaceted approach to the conflict. Then we moved to Libya. Canada was out there with others, bombing, then walked away.

"Look at Libya today — an absolute disaster. And I'm very concerned that is what's happening now with the military position Canada is taking, that it's taken very much in isolation," Arbour said.

"The military option is certainly not an answer in and of itself," she added, because of the "enormously complex" nature of the conflict in Syria.

"By bombing ISIS, we are in a sense aligning with [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad. Well, he was supposed to be the problem! So you really wonder who in Ottawa has the full understanding of the impact of our actions."

Arbour called for a rebalancing of Canada's international commitments, criticizing what she called a "footprint that has been overwhelmingly militaristic."

"When you're a country the size of Canada, this is not the United States," she said. "You cannot play alone. When you ask others to do something that is hard for them, occasionally you have to do something that is hard for you.

"That's the way it works. Canada has not been in that game, as far as I can see, for the last decade."

'Politics of fear' and Bill C-51

Arbour had equally strong words for the government's controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, which was passed into law in June.

"You hear Canadians say, 'I don't care all that much, I don't have anything to hide,'" Arbour said of the law that will result in more personal information being shared between government departments under the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act.

"Privacy is not there to protect bad people who have done bad things," said Arbour, whose daughter Emilie Taman is the NDP candidate for Ottawa-Vanier.

"It's there to protect the scope for people to have their own spiritual, personal, intellectual, political life without that being exposed to the public if they don't want to."

Arbour expects constitutional challenges to the legislation, and said she found the position of the Liberal Party — which voted for the bill but vowed to repeal or amend parts of it — to be "enormously disappointing."

"I think it was very hard to mobilize against something where people didn't feel immediately threatened," she said. "And of course the politics of fear, as usual, worked. The Liberals expressed some misgivings but weren't prepared to go the distance and oppose it."

'Picking fights with the courts'

The former Supreme Court justice also discussed what she termed an "acrimonious" relationship between the Supreme Court and the federal government.

The Conservatives have spent more than $4.7 million fighting 15 losing court cases with the country's highest court, including more than $1 million on tough-on-crime measures. 

"What I would like to see would be for the government to waive its solicitor-client privilege with its own lawyers and release the opinions that it received on the constitutionality of some of [their] legislation," she said.

"I'd be very interested to know what kind of advice the government was getting about the constitutionality of these laws," she added.

"I'm concerned the government is picking fights with the courts that, if it had a better understanding of the role of the court and the scope of constitutional protection in this country, it shouldn't be."


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