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Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for International Migration Louise Arbour speaks during a press briefing in Marrakech, Morocco, Dec. 11, 2018.

Mosa'ab Elshamy/The Associated Press

Twenty-five years ago, when Louise Arbour headed a commission of inquiry on Canada’s treatment of female prisoners, women from maximum security were brought before her in shackles to testify.

She was having none of it.

“She insisted that nobody would be shackled in the courtroom,” Senator Kim Pate recalls. “That correctional officers or guards would not be right beside prisoners. That if people were coming and wanting to testify, she needed to be assured they were doing so in a way that was voluntary.”

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Today, after a remarkable quarter-century since then on the national and global human-rights stage, the 74-year-old Ms. Arbour has been appointed to lead an inquiry into harassment and sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. And the respect she showed the female prisoners during her wide-ranging 1996 inquiry, and her tough-mindedness in dealing with federal authorities, would exemplify her.

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“Her career has been defined by the principle that the people at the bottom and the people at the top are subject to the same rule of law, especially in the criminal-justice system,” Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ, who employs her daughter, lawyer Emilie Taman, in his human-rights law practice, said in an interview.

He said that her inquiry report on female prisoners “continues to be cited as the standard for humane treatment and fairness for prisoners in Canada,” and Ms. Pate said she expects more of inquiries than she would otherwise because “of the standard she set.”

As the chief international war-crimes prosecutor for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda from 1996 to 1999, Ms. Arbour became the first to issue an indictment for war crimes against a sitting head of state (Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic). It was “pretty earth-shaking on the international stage of justice,” Mr. Champ said.

Then she became a lively, active presence on the Supreme Court of Canada, from 1999 to 2004, her former colleague Louis LeBel says. “I think it was very clear when you would discuss [cases] with her that her concerns were with the people who would be classified as without power or having little influence in our society,” Mr. LeBel said in an interview.

But after just five years she left to become the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, a job she held till 2008. Montreal lawyer Julius Grey said she was unbiased and fair.

“She is courageous in taking positions,” Mr. Grey said. “For instance, blaming people for violating human rights even from places that are normally given a pass. She did not hesitate about Israel. She didn’t hesitate about Croatia, when the Western position was basically favourable to those countries. She was absolutely fair in defending human rights, and not anyone’s position. She did what a real judge would have done.”

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In an interview Thursday, Ms. Arbour said the problem of sexual misconduct will recur “if you have a system that is blind to some of the qualities that you need in the leadership of this kind of organization.”

But she said that sanctions and enforcement alone will not on their own end the problem of sexual wrongdoing in the military. “If you think that this will create enough general deterrence to turn all this around, I think it’s very naive. A lot of other things I think have to be done.”

She added: “At the end of the day, the defence sector is different, but it’s not as though we were doing brilliantly in the eradication of sexual harassment and sexual misbehaviour in the private sector and just about every walk of life. But this one to be fixed is going to need a pretty sophisticated mechanism. It’s not there yet.”

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