Amid Covid-19, Rule of Law Expert Louise Arbour Stands Up for the Rights of the Underprivileged

  • Louise Arbour, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Rule of Law
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Madam Justice Louise Arbour, 2016 Tang Prize winner in Rule of Law, former special representative for International Migration for the UN, former president and CEO for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and former UN chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), believes that the promotion of human rights is an important chapter in the history of human civilization. However, “the rule of law” has also been used as an excuse for strengthening public security or even for persecuting people. As the coronavirus pandemic rages, she urged governments around the world to give top priority to the defense of human rights, especially those of the underprivileged who are made more vulnerable in the current situation.


In response to the Tang Prize Foundation’s invitation to offer her thoughts on the ongoing calamity, Madam Arbour voiced her keen observation and deep insights, while praising the “collective knowledge and wisdom” of the Tang Prize laureates, saying they were “more important than ever.” 


Madame Arbour asserted that this pandemic was “the evidence of the inadequacy of our mechanisms of international collaboration.” The fact that we are living “in an era of dramatic climate change and its foreseeable consequences” means that it will “be critical going forward to emphasize our inter-connectedness.” Referring to the sense of “domestic solidarity” many people displayed through the willingness to stay at home out of concern for other’s safety, she suggested that the same kind of mutual support be expanded “to our collective humanity, not just nationality,” because the threats we will be facing in the future are global in their nature, and this is the only way to avert another tragedy like Coivd-19.


From a global perspective, this crisis has not only demonstrated “the failure of short-termism in policy making” but can also be seen as a call “for a renewed investment in effective multilateralism,” in order to facilitate the establishment of international standards and rules. To achieve this goal, nonetheless, will be challenging, “as countries will tend to double down on closed borders and calls for self-sufficiency, particularly in food and essential medicines.”   


With regard to the worries about those exploiting this pandemic to justify their abuse of power, Madam Arbour warned us not to “concede an alleged superiority to autocratic regimes over democratic ones in cases of emergencies, so as to suggest that only authoritarianism can guarantee collective security.” 


She reminded us that “legal systems respectful of individual freedoms work mostly by compliance, not by coercion,” which has been shown “in a multitude of democratic countries where people have voluntarily sacrificed a large part of their individual liberties, including freedom of movement, for the collective good.” Moreover, what this compliance expects are “the transparency of leaders, their willingness to put scientific arguments ahead of ideological or partisan ones, and to rally broad support in public opinion, well informed by a professional and responsible press.”


In her capacity as the CEO of the ICG, Madam Arbour was the first to wake up the international community to the human rights crisis unfolding in countries such as Colombia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Reflecting on the serious outbreak of the coronavirus, she once again appealed to the world’s sense of justice, pointing out that “the pandemic has highlighted the gross discrepancies, in most countries, between the providers of essential services and their remuneration, and the discriminatory vulnerabilities of marginalized communities.”   


On the positive side, to recover from this disaster will provide us with many opportunities, and “redressing social injustices should be at the forefront,” she noted.


To conclude her letter, Madam Arbour made the following edifying remarks: “For most of us, never before in our lifetime have we had a clearer demonstration that no one is safe until all are safe. This should be a good starting point for the reconstruction of our economies, our health, and, I suggest, our international institutions, and for the vindication of the fundamental idea that the ultimate purpose of law in a free society is to liberate, not to retrain.”


Additional Information:


  1. The Tang Prize Citation: The 2016 Tang Prize in Rule of Law is award to Canadian jurist Louise Arbour “for her enduring contributions to international criminal justice and the protection of human rights, to promoting peace, justice, and security at home and abroad, and to working within the law to expand the frontiers of freedom for all.”


﹡For other Tang Prize laureates’ responses to Covid-19, please visit the Tang Prize website’s media section at


  1. The original text of Madam Arbour’s letter to the Tang Prize Foundation has also be made available in the news section of our website.