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Freedom, peace, justice, democracy, equal rights: Among other things, they count among Canada's official exports.

For starters, we are currently using our armed forces to support an international military coalition whose official goal is to stop humanitarian atrocities in Iraq and soon Syria. We are using our justice system to back international trials against abusive officials in Libya, Sudan, Kenya, Central African Republic, the Ivory Coast and Uganda. We are using our funding and influence to support the rights of women, homosexuals and minorities in a number of countries.

These sorts of actions have been going on for 25 years, since the stark national-interest politics of the Cold War gave way to a new reality in which more successful nations put together new institutions, coalitions and systems of rules.

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Or so it was meant to be. But what if those institutions, coalitions and systems of rules, after some initial successes, have stopped making the world better?

"On everything I've been engaged in – international governance, human security, the responsibility to protect, arms reduction, international criminal justice, all the good things that were happening – it's either very stuck, or it's very confused." So says Louise Arbour, the former Supreme Court justice. "One doesn't have a sense that there's a general direction that is encouraging."

Ms. Arbour has been rethinking many of her firmly held beliefs about the way those values are enforced in the world, she told me in a recent interview. Not that she doubts the universality of those values, or the basic value of international law – but she has come to have grave doubts about the way wealthy and powerful countries, such as Canada, deliver them. She recently finished a five-year term as president of the International Crisis Group, the non-governmental organization that tries to mitigate and resolve conflicts.

"Having worked in the human-rights field internationally, I now find it incredible how the West seems to be absolutely incapable of hearing what it sounds like to the rest of the world – a total disconnect, in the promotion of what it rightly believes are universal values, while being completely oblivious to the fact that others don't take this at face value as being a good-faith pursuit of universal goods. It just doesn't work."

It just doesn't work. While many would make this point, it is extraordinary coming from someone who, more than any Canadian, was responsible for the creation of those institutions: She was chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which led to the creation of the International Criminal Court. She then served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. And in 2008, she argued in an influential essay that interventions to stop genocide or mass atrocity had become a legally enforceable norm – that countries such as Canada should not be "innocent and impotent bystanders" when humanitarian atrocities and war crimes are being committed abroad. This view led to the UN Security Council's adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which requires countries to intervene to prevent potential crimes against humanity.

But in these three areas – international law, human-rights promotion and intervention – she sees the system as stalled.

She now sees the R2P doctrine, in particular, as a failure: Its imposition by the UN in Libya, and the resulting chaos, severely crippled the notion of a legal intervention, she believes.

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There is a basic flaw in the international effort to simultaneously pursue justice, peace and human rights, she says: "The initiation and unfolding of criminal prosecutions can complicate if not impede peace processes." Conversely, the negotiation of a lasting peace often requires a delaying, or forgiving, of justice. And by attempting to impose fully formed notions of equal rights on countries that have yet to develop them internally, Western countries appear to be bullies, undermining their efforts on the other two fronts.

The way out of this, she says, is to stop trying to impose everything at once and opt for a more humble, "micro" approach: a quiet, mediating role in fixing individual wrongs.

"What I'm trying to promote, maybe as a way out of this, is the idea of a kind of political empathy as a strategic advantage. Not as a sentimental, do-gooder virtue," she says. "But something that is sustained and has a capacity to genuinely try to understand what an issue looks like from an opponent's or from another party's point of view – a blueprint for understanding before you act, as opposed to rushing into things."

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