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U.N. Human Rights Chief Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights and onetime chief prosecutor in the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals, discusses U.S. policy on detainees in the fight against terrorism.


Other segments from the episode on June 18, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 18, 2007: Interview with Louise Arbour; Review of Paul McCartney's album "Memory Almost Full"; Review of books for summer reading.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Louise Arbour, United Nations high commissioner for
human rights, on indicting Slobodan Milosevic, the US' violations
of human rights, being a woman and physically small

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Louise Arbour, has stood up to some of the most brutal men in the
world. From 1996 to '99, she was the chief prosecutor of war crimes for the
international criminal tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. She
indicted Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia and Yugoslavia. Since
2004, she has served as the UN high commissioner for human rights. In 2004,
she was named one of Time magazine's top 100 leaders and thinkers. The
feature about her in that edition was written by Paul Martin, who was then the
prime minister of Canada. He wrote, quote, "This remarkable Canadian stood up
to the bullies and stood up for the victim. Arbour was instrumental in
raising the profile of the tribunal from relative obscurity to what many
believe was the most effective international criminal court ever," unquote.

I spoke with Louise Arbour earlier this month during her visit to the US.

Louise Arbour, welcome to FRESH AIR. Through your work as the UN high
commissioner for human rights and the chief prosecutor at the war crimes
tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, you've dealt with genocide, war, really
with every human rights violation known to man. Do you spend a lot of time
reflecting on human nature and asking yourself, `What about the people who are
responsible for genocide and war? Is it power they want? Is there a kind of
mental illness, a pathology that is behind genocide?' Do you reflect on those
issues a lot, or do they not get you anywheres when you're doing the practical
work that you have to do?

Ms. LOUISE ARBOUR: Well, actually, it's really interesting. In a sense, I
think about it all the time. You can't, when you're doing this kind of work,
be easily distracted, so it's very absorbing. There's not a huge amount of
time to be very reflective and analytical about the bigger picture. You're
just totally driven. We have so much work. I work all the time. So I don't
have a lot of--I don't indulge in a lot of more reflective work. But at the
same time, sometimes I'm struck by features that I think, in part, explain
this kind of behavior that otherwise is unexplainable, particularly these like
real, very large scale massive atrocities that need the mobilization of a lot
of people. You know, we point the fingers at leadership of these activities,
but if you look at Rwanda, for instance, you're looking at mobilizing
literally hundreds of thousands of people to kill 800,000 in a hundred days.
It's a massive enterprise. And then you look at different elements that
congregated to make that possible.

And some of it, I think, is a deeply rooted pathology of a kind of culture of
obedience which has completely obliterated personal moral judgment. So you
see that kind of element. Then you see propaganda, absolutely vicious hate
propaganda over here. And then an atmosphere of fear, where people genuinely
believe that what they're about to do to others is what they would do to them
if they didn't get there first. So it's a mixture of, as I said, a lot of
pathologies coming together seem to create this nightmarish situation.

GROSS: So what about the leaders who instigate the genocides? Have you met
any of the people who you've prosecuted or tried to hold accountable for
violations, and if so, how have they compared with your expectations?

Ms. ARBOUR: In fact, I've met very few of them. I deliberately--when I was
the prosecutor, I deliberately avoided asking for meetings with people I was
pretty sure I was going to indict. I wasn't particularly looking forward to
the photo op of the smiling handshake. And it wasn't clear--I, you know, I
was the chief prosecutor, so I ran all the investigations and the
prosecutions, but I didn't do the case-by-case detailed work. I, you know, I
essentially, I was not the one interviewing witnesses and getting the first
hit of the terrible stories that they had to tell for the first time to a
stranger through an interpreter. Now, I met, of course, I met victims'
groups, I met, you know, the mothers of Srebrenica. I met all kinds of people
who were traumatized and terribly victimized by what had happened to them.
But for the most part, that's not what I did on a day-to-day basis.

And the same with perpetrators. I did my best to avoid having official
meetings with them, because I didn't think it would serve much purpose, and I
would have felt so prejudiced against them that I'm not sure I would have been
able to have a sort of detached appreciation of their character.

GROSS: Are there human rights violations you've criticized the United States
for as part of its prosecution of the war on terror?

Ms. ARBOUR: Yes. Yes. In fact, I think the events of September 11th have,
in a sense, launched a counterterrorism set of initiatives that have provoked
a real erosion of norms in international standards that had been well
established under the torture convention, under the Geneva conventions. I'm
very concerned with the efforts to screen away, or carve out a series of
actions that are not subject to judicial scrutiny. I think democratic
governments work when you have a real balance between the role of the
executive, the legislative and the judicial branch, and I'm always very wary
of activities that take place where, deliberately, the executive tries to
shelter its activities from judicial oversight. And this, I think, has been a
feature of some of the initiatives that were taken there.

The second aspect is the level of secrecy that has been said to be inevitable
when national security interests are at stake, and as a result of that, we
have been living in an unprecedented environment of secrecy that makes it very
difficult in a democratic country for citizens to tell their government what
they are willing for the government to do on their behalf, or in their name.
So I am concerned, also, that we live in an environment in which there has to
be kind of blind faith or a blank check issued to the authorities, which is
not the way in which, I think, we want our democratic institutions to operate.

GROSS: So what specific programs have you criticized?

Ms. ARBOUR: At the very beginning, I certainly, like many, was very
concerned that the Guantanamo framework appeared to have been created
deliberately to create a kind of legal black hole in which everything was
outside the reach of the court. Now, bit by bit, I think we've seen that
change, and the American courts have managed to assert some of their oversight
authority over these activities. I've been concerned also about the
articulation of the legal constraints surrounding the use of torture. And
there are many aspects to that. One is the definition of what constitutes
torture in and of itself.

Second aspect is the question of the test under which you can return someone,
or deport or extradite or transfer someone to a country where there's a risk
of torture. Again, the American authorities have articulated that test very
differently than the way it's understood by the international community and
the way it's phrased in the torture convention, which is that you should not
deport and transfer someone if there's a substantial risk of torture. Now,
the American authorities have decided to interpret that to mean, if it's more
likely than not that torture will be applied.

So there are lots, many, many small ways in which we see a lowering of the
protective standard against the use of torture. I've been very concerned
about the use of the so-called extraordinary renditions against transferring
people but not to face any kind of judicial process. So I think that there
were many, many initiatives that created a lot of uncertainty and a lot of

GROSS: Are you surprised to be in the position of having to criticize the
United States for human rights violations?

Ms. ARBOUR: Well, let's be very clear. I don't think any government is
perfect. I have yet to see a country where I could see, `Here's the model,
the perfect human rights record.' I mean, even in very advanced, mature
democracies that have a long tradition of upholding human rights values, civil
liberties, and so on, you have to understand first of all the breadth of human
rights agenda. It includes, you know, in Roosevelt's terms, not only freedom
from fear but also freedom from want. So it's a whole array. The human
rights agenda includes the right to not only life and physical security, but
the right to health, the right to education, the right to housing. So if you
really put to the test even developed countries to this vast array of human
rights obligations, it's not very hard to see how many fall very short.

I think what is surprising, though, is to see, in a sense, as I said, the
erosion of standards that I would have thought were well established and not
in jeopardy, such as in this area of detention, interrogation, and so on.
This came, I think, it's fair to say, for me, as a surprise. And in
particular, to see the United States not use its courts. I think I'm a very
big fan of the American judiciary and historically it has provided a framework
for human rights and civil liberties protection in this country that were very
important. So to see a government trying to bypass its judicial system, I
found surprising in the extreme.

GROSS: My guest is Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights
and the former prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal
tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. More after a break. This is


GROSS: My guest is Louise Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights
and the former prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal
tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Now, back when you were the chief prosecutor for the UN's international
criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, you indicted Slobodan Milosevic
for genocide and crimes against humanity, which was in 1999, when he was still
the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This was the first time
a sitting head of state was indicted by an international court. What were the
implications of indicting a sitting head of state?

Ms. ARBOUR: Well, it was a very sobering moment, I can tell you, in
particular because not only was he a sitting head of state, but this was in
the middle of an international arm conflict involving him and the forces under
his command in Serbia, and the NATO forces who, you may recall, at that time
were engages in air strikes against Serbia. So it was not just indicting a
sitting head of state, but it was doing so in the middle of an international
arm conflict, with a lot of political speculation that it might jeopardize the
prospect of a peace settlement. So the political environment was just about
as tense as you can imagine, not only because of his status, but because of
the circumstances.

I felt very strongly that it was not for me to politicize my mandate. I had
been tasked by the Security Council to investigate and prosecute those most
responsible for the most serious violations of human rights. And that mandate
was ongoing. I really believed that the justice agenda must be pursued--not
totally blindly; I'm not naive enough to believe that I was operating in a
total political vacuum, but I thought that when I had a case--and I had a case
regarding Kosovo. The charges were very serious, involving hundreds of
killings and so on, that I should bring the indictment to a judge for a
confirmation, and make it public and have the arrest warrant issued.

GROSS: So what kind of...

Ms. ARBOUR: But it was a very sobering experience, I can certainly tell you

GROSS: What kind of criticisms did you get from NATO leaders when you issued
the indictment?

Ms. ARBOUR: First of all, nobody attempted directly to influence my
decision. I was not--contrary to a lot of assumptions that have been made--I
was not under tremendous political pressure beforehand not to do it. And
first of all, I don't think anybody knew how close we were, the timing of
that. It was held very closely in my office, and after I made the indictment
public, I suspect, in retrospect, that the NATO leaders would have preferred
not to have that happen. Because, of course, when you're managing a complex
situation, you don't like anything that's not within your control to happen.
But when it happened, I suspect also that the conventional wisdom would have
been that this is not a good thing for peace, that he will be very resistant
to any kind of surrender or peace deal, and so I suspect that it was not
particularly well received.

On the other hand, it was very hard for the NATO leadership or anybody else to
criticize my office for doing exactly what we had been mandated to do. The
mandate was not, you know, `Investigate and charge people unless it's not a
good thing to do at that time.' The mandate was to go and do it. And as it
turns out, within eight days he totally capitulated and surrendered, so I'm
not going to take credit; I'm not going to say, you know, it was the
indictment that made him do that, but it's pretty clear that the indictment
certainly did not become an impediment to the surrender.

GROSS: Had he not surrendered, what kind of power would you have had to go
and get him and extradite him?

Ms. ARBOUR: None. And, in fact, even after he--when I say he surrendered,
he didn't surrender himself to The Hague, the conflict was resolved and the
war ended. It still took--what it?--a year and a half, if not two years,
before he was actually apprehended by his own government, having lost his
political support base, and was then transferred to The Hague to stand trial.
That also came as a big surprise. I think most observers of the event
predicted that he would never stand trial, that he would remain sufficiently
politically strong, or astute, to shelter himself from the execution of these

GROSS: Now, Milosevic died of a heart attack after about 50 hours of
testimony, but he died before the end of the trial. What was your reaction
when he died, knowing that he'd never be convicted because he died?

Ms. ARBOUR: Yeah, I thought it was a terrible setback because, I mean, all
the documentation that--the trial was in the third year, I think, by the time
he died. These were very complex charges, and it's like trying to run, you
know, multiple murder cases all together, and also establishing in court the
existence of very difficult elements, like the existence of an international
armed conflict and chains of command and so on. Very complex litigation. In
retrospect, it might have been better to break down the charges into smaller
pieces and have something completed. By then I had left. The decision of my
successor was to do a comprehensive trial, putting the whole case together in
one piece. It's very disappointing that it didn't result in what I'm sure
would have been a conviction. Also because we don't have the benefits of the
jurisprudence, the judgment that would have come out of that, which would have
been, I think, a big expose, a recital, basically, of the events.

GROSS: Milosevic decided to defend himself. How did that affect the

Ms. ARBOUR: You know, these activities were very new, all this international
criminal law was still in its infancy. It still is. If I had to guess, I
suspect that, in retrospect, the judges might have regretted the decision they
made to allow him to participate fully in his trial but unrepresented. They
ended up having to appoint a group of lawyers to give them some guidance and
to sort of make some legal arguments on his behalf. His conduct was very
disruptive, I think, and in a sense was largely responsible for the delays in
the presentation of the case. And I think it's really highly inappropriate
for someone who is a former head of state to very aggressively cross-examine
sometimes very simple people who have been victimized by people under his
command and authority. He was a very clever man, and if you've seen some of
his courtroom antics, I think it was at times outrageous to see that display
of his arrogance.

But at the same time, I'm not sure what decision I would have made had I made
the judges. You know? You want to protect, to bend over backwards to make
sure that the process will be fair, that the accused will have every
opportunity to make a full answer in defense. And so having embarked on this
course of action, would they let him conduct his own defense? I think the
genie was out of the bottle, and I think it led to a very unruly set of

GROSS: Do you think trials like the war crimes tribunal trial have a
deterrent effect on world leaders? And I ask this because, you know, if
you're willing to organize a genocide, is the trial of another genocidal
leader going to have a deterrent effect on you?

Ms. ARBOUR: I think they do, but let me then back off and say, one has to
think of, `What are the purposes of using personal criminal responsibility,
even in domestic law?' And deterrence is certainly an important factor in the
use of the criminal sanction to control conduct. But it's not the only
factor. Like, for instance, domestically, you could say, `Well, we still have
murders in America, so does that mean we shouldn't bother to have homicide
laws because they obviously don't deter all potential criminals?' Well, the
fact that they don't deter all doesn't mean that they don't have a deterrent
effect. Deterrence is very difficult to measure, and in any event I think
it's not the sole purpose. There are lots of purposes of the use of criminal
denunciation. You know, it's a form in which we collectively reaffirm, one,
our solidarity with victims, and our shared our common values. And lots and
lots of other good things come from criminal trials and activating criminal

Having said that, I believe that there is--at this point it's still anecdotal
evidence, because we haven't done enough of these kinds of international
criminal trials to have a critical mass to be able to do empirical work on
that. And if you look, for instance, at African leaders--I just saw recently
the film about Idi Amin, you know, "The Last King of Scotland." Idi Amin died
in 2003 peacefully and happily, I assume, in Saudi Arabia. That is the end of
an era. I mean, now you have Charles Taylor on trial on The Hague. You have
Hissene Habre, the former dictator of Chad, who will stand trial in Senegal
imminently. I mean, you have now an infrastructure where, to have a deterrent
effect, it has to be more the norm that you will be held accountable than the
exception, and we're not quite there yet.

GROSS: So you think the era of comfortable exile should be over?

Ms. ARBOUR: I think so.

GROSS: Louise Arbour is the UN high commissioner for human rights and the
former prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal tribunal for
Rwanada and the former Yugoslavia. She'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Louise Arbour, the UN
high commissioner for human rights. From 1996 to '99, she was the chief
prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda
and the former Yugoslavia.

When you got started with the UN war crimes tribunals, were you naive about
anything, and if so, did any of that naivete actually lead you to do the right
thing that other people maybe wouldn't have done because they were too
cynical, thought they couldn't get it accomplished? You know, was there any
moment at which a certain amount of newness and naivete was actually a really
good thing to have?

Ms. ARBOUR: I don't know. At first, I was very naive. I came from a very
academic background. I was a law professor for many years, and I was a judge.
And maybe it's not so much being naive as being--I came from a very principled
environment. I really believed in the law. I was not particularly
politically astute, and therefore not particularly interested in the political
maneuvering. It was not a field that I felt particularly agile in, so I
stayed within the law. And in retrospect, I think that served me well. All
the strategies that I developed were very grounded in very solid legal
principles and initiatives.

For instance, when I arrived, about 75 people had been indicted, but there was
virtually no prospect of getting any of them arrested. And the early
strategy, of course, was to publicize the indictment to show the world that
the tribunal was working and was active. But I thought we had reached the
point where it's one thing to show that you're active, but quickly you're
going to show that you're irrelevant if you indict all these people and you
can't hold a single trial. So we had to develop a strategy to facilitate the
arrests, mostly by NATO troops in Bosnia who were not keen at all to do it.
It became clear to me that the more we publicized the indictment, the more we
fed into a kind of double avoidance strategy. Indictees avoid NATO troops,
NATO troops avoid indictees because they don't want to arrest them.

So we developed a strategy of secret indictments. We persuaded the judges
that they could confirm an indictment but make a nondisclosure order. And
then I could share it only with the NATO troops, in which case it was a lot
harder for them to avoid executing this warrant, and it was operationally a
lot easier to execute the warrant because the accused, presumably, were not
guarding themselves against a possible arrest. Therefore less likely to be
armed and to resist, because they didn't know that they were the subject of an
arrest. This proved very successful, and, in fact, it was the turning point,
I think, in the effectiveness of the tribunal. This was grounded purely in
kind of legal strategy, was anchored in this concept that you could get a
nondisclosure order attached to an indictment. So I was not very political.
I hoped to think that I was sufficiently strategic and not necessarily naive
in the way I went about trying to do my job.

GROSS: You visited the site of a massacre in Racak in Kosovo. Why did you
want to go, and what impact did it have on you to actually be at the site of
one of the massacres that was involved in the prosecution of Milosevic?

Ms. ARBOUR: In fact, in the case of Racak, I didn't get there. I went to a
lot of other sites, but in this particular instance, I tried to get there. I
got all the way to the border. I went to Macedonia and I notified the Serbian
government of my intention to go into Racak, which was in Kosovo on Serbian
territory, and the government said they wouldn't let me in. They told me
ahead of time, the day before. I told them I was going to go in any event, go
to the border, because I had a right, I had a Security Council mandate which
explicitly said that I could access any part of the former Yugoslavia for the
purpose of investigation.

And I presented myself at the border, and the border guard said, `No, you
don't have a visa.' I said, `Well, I know I don't have a visa. I don't need a
visa, I'm entitled because of my position to come in.' And he said, `No,' and
I asked him if he had instructions from Belgrade and he said, `Yes.' And I
turned around and I stayed in Skopje, Macedonia, for a couple of days, trying
everything I could to negotiate my way in, and it never worked.

I went--in fact, I'll never forget that moment, because I went back to The
Hague feeling--I think it was the first time I felt completely defeated. I
thought, `I just can't. They'll have to get somebody else to do this job.
Obviously I've hit the brick wall. I just can't get there.' And when I
arrived in The Hague, my colleagues were jumping with joy. They said, `This
is the greatest victory for the tribunal.' And I thought, `What are they
talking about?' Now, of course, what I didn't know, because when you're on the
ground, you don't what's happening elsewhere, is that this attempt to get into
Racak had made the front page of The New York Times, and it was, for my
colleagues--and I think they were right--the perception of reality was more
real than the reality as I experienced it. This was not a defeat for the
tribunal. This was a very strong moment of mobilizing international public
opinion and support, which of course we needed to continue our work. So the
Racak incident, I think, was a story in and of itself, of the difficulty of
doing this work and how things are not always as they appear to be.

GROSS: Now, correct me if I'm wrong, I think you're about 5' tall?

Ms. ARBOUR: Yes, that's true. I'm shrinking, too, in my old age. I'm
probably even shorter than that.

GROSS: Being 5' tall and dealing with very powerful people, some of whom are
physically imposing, does it affect--I mean, your power doesn't come from your
size, it comes from your mandate and from the organization behind you at the
UN. But does your petite size ever affect how you use your authority or how
people perceive your authority?

Ms. ARBOUR: Yeah, I think very much so. It's not just my size, let's start
with my gender.

GROSS: Yeah, sure, let's start with your gender. Yeah.

Ms. ARBOUR: And my gender--my size, I like to think, is also a factor of my
gender. But I'm the short end of that gender characteristic, you know, but I
think, particularly when you deal with issues of war and excessive use of
force and military environment, it's a very natural environment in which I
have experienced on many, many occasions, what I'm sure was a very different
treatment that I received compared to what one of my male colleagues might
have received, or possibly bigger women, but I'm not too sure about that. I
think they are contemptuous of all of us, regardless of size. Now, in a lot
of cases, it was actually quite an advantage, because there's nothing better
than to have your opponent grossly mis-assess your abilities or underestimate
your capacities.

I often give a recent example, which could be taken as amusing, but the
reality of it is actually is quite interesting. I went a couple of times to
Darfur, and when I arrived in say a camp for internally displaced
persons--now, these camps, of course, have their own sort of infrastructures.
You enter a camp of 70,000 people, there's a group of men that are the camp
leaders, and they're at the entrance of the camp. And they receive a lot of
international visitors, so there's an element of sleekness or--I don't know if
that's a word, but, you know, they have a bit of an attitude. They know
exactly how to receive you. You're not the first UN or international person
they've seen.

So I would typically arrive with a couple of vehicles with my, you know, a
driver and a couple of security officers and so a lot of men around me, and an
interpreter. So the interpreter would approach the leader of the camp, and
there are all these men there, and would say, pointing to me, `She's the boss.
She's the chief of the delegation. She's the United Nations high commissioner
for human rights.' And they nod approvingly, and immediately engage in a long
political debate with my driver, or with my security officer, totally ignore
me. Which gives me the great advantage of being able to walk into the camp
and go speak to the women, who very often have a very different story to tell
because they complain not only about their outside aggressors, but also about
the corruption inside the camp that deprived lots of them, for instance, of
their food ration if they're not supported a man because the camp leaders
themselves are corrupt.

Now, if I'd stayed at the gate and insist that the camp leaders talk to me, I
would have missed this opportunity to get a real insight, and meanwhile my
security officer and my driver is taking good notes of all the political
complaints of the camp leadership. So, you see, in some cases, it's
actually--as long as you're not easily offended by these breaches of
protocol--it's a great advantage to be underestimated or dismissed.

GROSS: Well, I hope you have a smart and diplomatic driver.

Ms. ARBOUR: I have a variety of them, and I think they're getting used to
being mistaken for the boss when they're in my presence in these kinds of

GROSS: Does that ever make you really angry that you're dealing with these
powerful men who refuse to take you seriously?

Ms. ARBOUR: No, doesn't make me angry. I don't have a lot of admiration for
them to start with.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ARBOUR: That doesn't add to a positive developing on my part, a more
positive view of who they are. I don't expect, frankly, much more from them
than this discriminatory, totally unfounded superior attitude.

GROSS: It must give you some pleasure to think, `Well, they are ignoring me
now'--at least like when you were head of the war crimes tribunal--`they are
ignoring me now, they won't be ignoring me after the indictment.'

Ms. ARBOUR: Yes. It's a little more frustrating, I have to say, in the case
of Darfur. I don't have arrest warrants in my pocket. So there...

GROSS: Right. Right. Well, I mean, that's the kind of teeth you don't have
as UN human rights commissioner.

Ms. ARBOUR: Exactly.

GROSS: You don't have the power to, you know, try to extradite and indict and
prosecute and all that. So how would you compare what you are capable of
doing as UN high commissioner for human rights with what you were capable of
doing as the head of the two war crimes tribunal?

Ms. ARBOUR: Well, in the tribunal, my mandate was very targeted, so in a
sense it was very narrow but was very powerful. I had actually coercive
powers. I could issue or I could have the court issue orders addressed to
heads of states, military leaders, you know, arrest warrants, orders to comply
with a request to produce documents and so on. But it was very narrow. The
playing field was very targeted. In the case of Rwanda, it was only dealing
with events for the calendar year 1994. The rest of the world was carrying
on, events were taking place in the region, and we were still very frozen in
time investigating that series of event. It was broader in Yugoslavia, but
still, it was just that region.

In contrast, now, I can have an impact, I hope, anywhere in the world with my
colleagues as we see opportunities to do something good or to intervene. And
so the scope for action, in a sense, is hugely more varied, broad,
interesting. But we have no coercive powers. And the tools at our disposal
are less strictly legal. There's a lot of advocacy, persuasion, private
diplomatic initiatives, public initiatives. But it's less anchored in legal
instruments than what I did before. So for me it was an adaptation, it's a
little more challenging to start using instruments that are not, strictly
speaking, legal initiatives, more diplomatic, political and so on.

GROSS: Louise Arbour, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ARBOUR: It was a great pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Louise Arbour is the UN high commissioner for human rights and a
former prosecutor of war crimes for the international criminal tribunal for
Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Paul McCartney's new album. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on Paul McCartney's album "Memory Almost Full"

Earlier this month, Starbucks stores premiered the new Paul McCartney album
"Memory Almost Full," playing it all day in their stores. Finding new ways to
market music to today's mass audience is only one of the challenges McCartney
faces, and rock critic Ken Tucker hears "Memory Almost Full" as the former
Beatles' attempt to address those challenges.

(Soundbite of "Ever Present Past")

Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY: (Singing) I've got too much on my plate
Don't have no time to be a decent lover
I hope it isn't too late
Searching for the time that has gone so fast
The time that I thought would last
My ever-present past

I've got too much on my mind

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: On its surface, and for as deep as it gets, "Memory Almost
Full" is a nostalgia album. I'm not saying that Paul McCartney is trying to
sound like The Beatles, or even like the man he was when he released his first
solo album 37 years ago. No, it's an album about looking back with fondness.
And whereas I, at least, often have trouble remembering what I did a month
ago, Paul McCartney sings, on the song I just played, about what he calls his
"ever-present past." It's a past, of course, that looms with gigantic presence
across pop history.

But when McCartney isn't musing about it, he sometimes seems at a loss for
subject matter. He can lapse into innocuous prettiness that's not about much
of anything, such as this song, the album's first single, "Dance Tonight."

(Soundbite of "Dance Tonight")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) Everybody going to dance tonight
Everybody's going to feel all right
Everybody going to dance around tonight

Everybody going to dance around
Everybody going to hit the ground
Everybody going to dance around tonight

Well, you can come over to my place if you want to
You can do anything you want to do

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: As I say, that's a pretty little tune with McCartney trilling and
whistling while strumming a mandolin. I don't mean to condescend to the skill
it takes to come up with a melody as nice as that and to execute it with such
artful casualness, but there's a sense in which McCartney's musical modesty
collides with his iron-willed careerism that strikes me as sometimes
disingenuous, or at least, as they say in therapy trade, compartmentalized.

A couple of times on "Memory Almost Full," an intriguing McCartney emerges. I
confess to being fascinated in a tabloid way by the song "Gratitude," which I
have a hard time not hearing as an assertion of appreciation or a kindly kiss
off to his wife Heather Mills. I gather McCartney has denied it, and the
song's full-throated sincerity belies the interpretation of barbed irony. At
any rate, no matter how you hear it, it's a good piece of McCartney music
making for its effulgent and simply stated emotionalism, a sound rarely heard
from anyone these days.

(Soundbite of "Gratitude")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude
I'm so grateful for everything you've ever given me
How can I explain what it means to be loved by you?
By you! Loved by you! Loved by you
Show my gratitude, gratitude,
Show my gratitude
I want to show my gratitude, gratitude, yeah-ah-yeah!

Well, I was lonely,
I was living with a memory
But my cold and lonely nights ended
When you sheltered me

Loved by you!
I was loved by you!
Yeah, I was loved by you
I want to show my gratitude
I want to show my gratitude
Yeah, show my gratitude
Ode to you

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: The best song on this album is another one in which McCartney reaches
into his throat for his Little Richard growl and comes out with "That Was Me."
As it happens, it's also the album's most clearly autobiographical song, with
references to his childhood and his early days with The Beatles.

(Soundbite of "That Was Me")

Mr. McCARTNEY: (Singing) That was me
A capella
At the altar
In the middle of the picture
That was me

That was me
At the party
Sweatin' cobwebs
In a cellar
Yeah, that was me

The same me that stands here now,
And when I think that all this stuff
Can make a life, it's pretty hard
To take it in,
That was me
That was me
Yeah, that was me

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: As this album proceeds, McCartney sings more and more about end
times, with lines about how he wants jokes and stories to be told on the day
he dies. It's difficult to imagine that such sentiments mean much to anyone
younger than his baby boomer demographic, but that may also be the younger
generation's loss.

In the meantime, his albums could bear a few more songs than he offers here
that are more than extremely well-played ditties and artful caprices, artful
dodges. It might make the music mean more than a soundtrack to getting your
venti soy latte pronto.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Memory Almost Full" from Paul McCartney.

Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has some summer reading
recommendations. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Maureen Corrigan with summer reading recommendations

Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has been looking for books to recommend for
summer reading. She has some nonfiction choices, which we'll hear about on a
future edition of our show. Right now she has three novels to recommend.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Sometimes it pays to let yourself be manipulated. My
first instinct upon seeing Hilma Wolitzer's new novel was to poo-poo it as a
bald appeal to book clubs across the land. I mean, come on, here we have a
novel set in the glossy beach towns of the Hamptons about rich women who
gather to gossip and drowsily comment on classics, like "Madame Bovary," that
they've maybe half-read. Even more shameful, Wolitzer's novel is brazenly
entitled "Summer Reading." But you want to know the most outrageous thing
about this novel? It works.

It's droll and inventive and smart in a rollicking way about the way books can
both enlarge and warp the world views of us susceptible readers. I was
especially vulnerable to the fantasy Wolitzer spins out about her main
character. Angela Graves is a retired English professor who lives in a
book-lined cottage by the sea. The only irksome facet of her life is her
seasonal job: leading discussions at local book groups. One of those groups,
hosted by a blond billionaires named Lissy Snyder, calls itself The Page
Turners. They pay a lot of attention to style, and less to substance. For
instance, for their ostensible discussion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Love in
the Time of Cholera," The Page-Turners have their meeting catered by Fiesta on
Wheels, complete with pinatas stuffed with bookmarks.

"Summer Reading" darkens in tone as Wolitzer sweeps us back into Angela's past
to the love affair responsible for her present seclusion. Wolitzer also
cleverly investigates the fallout of reading on three women from different
classes. Lissy is a socialite, her house cleaner who picks up a discarded
paperback of Evan F. Connell's novel "Mrs. Bridge," and of course Angela
herself. Like a fun novel with a similar premise from a few years ago, Karen
Joy Fowler's "The Jane Austen Book Club," Wolitzer's "Summer Reading" wittily
plays off the plots and styles of the great books under discussion,
culminating in shimmering summer fairy tale endings for all the characters we
readers have come to root for.

No fairy tales afoot, I'm afraid, in Andrew O'Hagan's meditative novel "Be
Near Me." Set in a small, mean town in Scotland by the Irish sea, "Be Near Me"
tells the story of a 50-ish Catholic priest named David Anderton who finds
himself drawn to the company of two outlaw teenagers. Father David is
something of a lonely aesthete. He cultivates his garden and his fine tastes
in music and food, but the teenagers, who dabble in drugs and shoplifting,
re-awaken Father David's memories of a more reckless life back when he was an
Oxford student in the 1960s.

O'Hagan is a lovely, precise writer with unexpected ways of describing the
miraculous, as well as the mundane. For instance, here's Father David's
estimation of the atmosphere at the local Catholic school:

"One got the impression the staff believed very strongly that education was a
matter of bitter entrenchment, as opposed to any sort of managed revelation.
And they seemed in cahoots with the children when it came to the sorry victory
of rights over responsibilities. Stupid children are always aware of their
rights, and so are stupid teachers."

Father David is far from stupid, but as it turns out, he lacks the smarts to
fend off temptations fueled by his own aggrieved sense of regret.

Speaking of being less than bright, last year I was so carried by Ian McEwan's
novel "Saturday" that I began enthusing about it to a crowd at a bookstore, no
less, when I was just two thirds of the way through it. Then I finished it,
and saw to my horror that "Saturday" took a nose dive from the sublime to the
ridiculous. So this is a pronouncement based on my complete reading of
McEwan's latest novel, "On Chesil Beach." It's superb, everything that readers
have come to expect of McEwan: a restrained hand with plot revelations, that
signature narrative tone of the rueful shoulder shrug. It's all here in this
slim novel.

The setting is a seaside hotel in England in 1962. Two newlyweds, both
virgins, find themselves fearing the night to come. The groom, Edward,
worries about his sexual performance. His bride, Florence, is repulsed by the
very thought of intercourse. In preparation for the married life, she's been
reading a modern sex handbook studded with phrases that make her gag: mucous
membrane, glands, penetration. Was she obliged, Florence thought, to
transform herself for Edward into a kind of portal or drawing room through
which he might process?

Edward is a budding historian, enthralled to the great man theory of history.
But as McEwan ironically and painfully details, Edward and Florence can't
themselves transcend the neuroses of their personal histories, nor the
constraints of their times. Intense and emotionally wise, "On Chesil Beach"
is a masterwork of short fiction that might even make frivolous readers, like
those Page-Turners, put down their glasses of white wine and show some

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed new books by Hilma Wolitzer, Andrew O'Hagan and Ian McEwan.

You can download podcasts of FRESH AIR by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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