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Former UN human rights czar Louise Arbour tapped to review military sex misconduct

The facade of the headquarters of the Department of National Defence is pictured in Ottawa, on April 3, 2013. Canada's top military and civilian defence officials have apologized not responding sooner to questions about systemic racism in the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government is tapping former Supreme Court justice and United Nations high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour to lead what it is billing as an independent review of the military’s handling of sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Arbour’s appointment Thursday, nearly three months after the government and Canadian Armed Forces were rocked by allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour by the military’s very top commanders.

One of Arbour’s primary tasks will be to help establish an independent system through which victims and others can report incidents of sexual misconduct. However, she will also review all aspects of the military’s approach to preventing and punishing such behaviour.

That includes everything from how it screens, recruits and trains service members to the way reports are handled, victims are supported and perpetrators are investigated and punished.

“This system needs to be focused on those who have experienced misconduct, be responsive to their needs, and be outside of the chain of command and the Department of National Defence,” Sajjan said, according to prepared remarks.

“Any less cannot be accepted. Any less will not be accepted. Madame Arbour and her team will provide significant direction on how we must evolve to support affected people and how we can ensure that every incident is handled appropriately.”

The former Supreme Court justice will not be looking at individual cases, a number of which are currently under active military police investigation, but will instead make recommendations on how the military can do better.

Arbour, whose appointment was one of a number of new initiatives announced by Sajjan, will send recommendations over the next year or so to the minister, who will pick which to direct the military or Department of National Defence to implement.

Arbour’s appointment is likely to be welcomed as the 74-year-old has earned a reputation over the years of speaking truth to power, including during her four-year tenure as the United Nations’ top human rights official.

The government, meanwhile, says it is committed to acting upon Arbour’s recommendations, which will be made throughout the course of her tenure, and that her final report will be made public once it is complete.

There could nonetheless be some concerns from victims and others given ongoing questions about how the Liberal government handled an allegation of sexual misconduct against then-chief of the defence staff general Jonathan Vance in March 2018.

Responsibility for putting Arbour’s recommendations will ultimately rest with a new team under a three-star general with the title “chief of professional conduct and culture,” whose responsibility will extend to weeding out racism and hateful conduct as well.

Lt.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, one of the military’s highest-ranking female officers, who recently completed a tour commanding a NATO training mission in Iraq, has been tapped to fill the position.

“Their goal is ensuring that our actions and behaviours reflect the very best parts of our organization, and Canadian society,” Sajjan said of the new team.

“Their efforts will closely align with the work being carried out by the external review. Informed by best practices as well as experts, advocates, and those with lived experience inside, and outside of our institution, and at all levels.”

While Sajjan billed Thursday’s announcement as a major step forward in the military’s fight against sexual misconduct, many victims, advocates and experts have insisted that the only real path to change is through external monitoring and accountability.

That is what retired Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps recommended in March 2015, when she released an explosive report on the scale and scope of the military’s problem with sexual misconduct.

Deschamps’s top recommendation was to create an independent centre outside the military that would receive reports of inappropriate behaviour while helping develop training, providing victims with support, and monitoring how cases are handled.

But the military resisted creating such an external body. The government instead allowed for the creation of a sexual misconduct response centre, a civilian-run body focused primarily on victim support and training but with no oversight powers.

That the government is ordering another review rather than establishing the independent centre recommended by Deschamps, and since touted by advocates as the best solution, is also likely to cause unrest among victims and others.

Along with Arbour’s appointment, Sajjan said the Ottawa-based response centre will be expanding its footprint to different military communities across the country. The government will also be offering peer support for victims who have served in uniform.

Both measures, which were hinted at in the federal budget as the government promised $77 million in new money and said it planned to redirect another $158 million from other parts of the military to help fight sexual misconduct in the ranks.

The launch of Arbour’s mandate coincides with a mandatory review of the military’s justice system, which is currently being conducted by retired Supreme Court justice Morris Fish.

Fish is to submit his report to Parliament in June, and the government says Arbour will be able to use his findings as part of her work and to prevent overlap.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Apr. 29, 2021.