Irwin Cotler, Former Canadian Minister of Justice, MP and advocate for political prisoners, addresses the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
Summarising the work of the Geneva Summit:
“This inspiring Geneva Summit has paid tribute to the commitment and courage of the human rights heroes at the forefront of this struggle for rights and democracy while calling to account the human rights violators who would imprison them as well.”
“This is what makes this Geneva summit so important and so hopeful notwithstanding the dynamics that I’ve just sought to rather inadequately summarize. Because what we have seen here has been the gathering and coming together of young people, of minorities, of people from diverse ideologies, an expression of the best of pluralism in human rights, of human rights defenders, all those who have understood and understand the importance of remembrance of ‘la d’avoir de memoire’ and the danger of forgetting.”
“If we do that which we can, that which we must, and that which I know people in this gathering will do then at the end of the day justice will prevail.”
May I begin by expressing appreciation to Vladimir Kara-Murza, the recipient of the Moral Courage Award, really for a lesson in what democracy is all about and also for being the message and metaphor of the human rights heroes represented here today. I also would like to, in these closing remarks, express appreciation to Alfred Moses, the Chair of UN Watch on this its tenth annual summit, to Hillel Neuer, the Executive Director, to the group of committed young people that have made and facilitated everything that has been going on in this conference, and to the representatives of the NGOs who’ve co-sponsored this conference that tell you the best of what can happen when civil society come together as they have here and as you’ve been able to witness it.
This inspiring Geneva Summit has paid tribute to the commitment and courage of the human rights heroes at the forefront of this struggle for rights and democracy while calling to account the human rights violators who would imprison them as well. This Summit takes place at an important, I would say an historical moment, of remembrance and reminder: on the 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights underpinned by the principle of free and equal in dignity and rights, of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the institutionalization of the Nuremberg legacy, and of our responsibility to bring the hostis humani generis, the enemies of humanity, to justice, and the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and of our responsibility to defend the defenders.
This historic moment of remembrance and reminder, I would say also of bearing witness and taking action, is particularly important as we meet at a juncture, and Alfred Moses described these dynamics well, at a juncture of a resurgent global authoritarianism. Of cultures of domestic repression and external aggression which find expression in Russia, in China, in North Korea, in Iran, in Venezuela, and other authoritarian dictatorial governments who we have sought to call out at this conference to hold these hostis humani generis, these enemies of humankind, responsible for their human rights violations and their assaults on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
The illiberal populism of the extreme left and the extreme right which at times even comes together, as astonishing as that may seem, in a common cause of extremism. Of the weaponization of information in a post-truth era. Of assaults on women, of rape, not only as incidental to armed conflict but in fact as being at times the purpose of armed conflict and I want to again express our appreciation to Julian Assange such a worthy recipient of the award on behalf of the struggle for women’s rights reminding us again always that women’s rights are human rights and there are no human rights if we do not have equal protection of the rights of women. Of the criminalization of fundamental freedoms and the imprisonment of those who would defend them. Of democracy and democracies in retreat and I’m reminded of the Prague Declaration for Democratic Renewal that was adopted in Prague in October and I had the privilege of being there, which said in its opening line that democracies are under threat and all who care about democracy must come to its defence.
This is what makes this Geneva summit so important and so hopeful notwithstanding the dynamics that I’ve just sought to rather inadequately summarize. Because what we have seen here has been the gathering and coming together of young people, of minorities, of people from diverse ideologies, an expression of the best of pluralism in human rights, of human rights defenders, all those who have understood and understand the importance of remembrance of ‘la d’avoir de memoire’ and the danger of forgetting.
As Milan Kundera put it “this struggle of memory against forgetting is the struggle of freedom against tyranny”. People who understand the danger of silence in the face of evil have the responsibility to stand up and speak up, of the responsibility in this day and age to stand up and not look around to see whoever else is standing before you do so, because in these times there two few people who are prepared to stand let alone to be counted and that’s what makes this gathering so compelling and so hopeful because the people have come together who have stood, who are prepared to be counted, who are prepared to put themselves on the line.
Of the dangers also of state-sanctioned incitement to hate, if not at times even to genocide, and our responsibility to prevent it. As the Supreme Court of Canada said in a little-known precedent and principle the Mugesera case, that the very incitement- the very incitement- to hate and genocide constitutes the crime in and of itself. Even if acts of atrocity and genocide do not necessarily follow. Of the dangers of indifference and inaction and Alfred Moses spoke about this in his closing remark, the dangers of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity.
What makes for example the Rwandan genocide, the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, so horrific is not only the horror of the genocide itself- that would be bad enough. What makes it so horrific is that this genocide was preventable. Nobody could say we did not know- we knew but we did not act. Just as with regard to Darfur- we knew but we did not act. Just as with regard to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and we are now on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the killing fields in Syria, where the humanitarian catastrophe is consequence of the beginning of those killing fields and it was in April and March 2011, we should not forget this, were young people- courageous young Syrian- marched with olive branches saying “peace! peace! dignity! dignity!” and they were gunned down by Assad’s forces. When other young people came to their defense also calling “peace! peace! dignity! dignity!” they too were gunned down.
Then the scorched-earth policy of Assad’s Syria began, and this was before we ever had heard of Islamic State and the like. And those of us who said towards the end of 2011 where there were quote-un-quote “only 7,000 killed”, only quote-on-quote “20,000 that have been displaced” and I remind you that we meet where more than now more than 500,000 have been killed we’re 12.5 million have been internally displaced. We have more than 5 million refugees where those of us have said at the time, that this was a case study of the responsibility to protect. That where you have a situation in any country where the government in that country is unable or unwilling to do anything about the war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed, let us recall, war crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed every day- every day- in March 2011 until the end, let alone since.
And those of us have said this is a classic case for the responsibility to protect, we’re told ‘well you know if you intervene this will lead to sectarian warfare, this will lead to civil warfare, this will lead to jihadis coming in’. Everything we were told would happen if we intervened, happened because we didn’t intervene.
And so the importance, therefore, of the responsibility to protect. That it should not just be something that is there on paper but something which we invoke. Of the danger of impunity and their responsibility to bring human rights violators to justice. Of the danger of assaults on the vulnerable. Of the danger of being bystanders, if not enablers, to human rights violations.
And let me close by paying tribute to the rescuers, the righteous among the nations, who are not bystanders, who are not enablers, but those who took their place at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and human rights and human dignity. Indeed for the survival of humankind.
I’ll give you one example and that has to do with the heroism of Raoul Wallenberg. From May to the beginning of July 1944, when nobody could say we did not know what was happening at that point in the Holocaust in Europe. 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the death camps in Auschwitz, the cruellest most efficient killing field in all of the Holocaust. And the international community stood by as bystander and enabler. One person, Raoul Wallenberg, a person who showed how one person with a compassion to care and the courage to act can’t confront evil and transform humanity, mobilized the resources of those with him in the Swedish Legation in Budapest and others and other legations, and managed to save the remnant of 100,000 Jews.
So what one person was able to do by his inspiration and bravery, a whole European community of bystanders and enablers failed to do. And that is a lesson for each of us here, to bear this in mind.
Raoul Wallenberg also ended his life as a political prisoner, it’s not that well-known. As I’m speaking to you at this moment there is an action in the Russian courts calling upon the Russian authorities to finally disclose the truth about what happened to Raoul Wallenberg. Where the person who saved so many, was never saved by so many who could. And where the family deserves the elementary justice, so does really humanities of knowing what happened to him, and we will here the results within minutes.
So I close by saying, this then must be our task. To speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard, to bear witness on behalf of those who cannot testify, to act on behalf of those who are putting not only their livelihood but their lives on the line, and that is why Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights is announcing today the establishment of a political prisoner advisory group so that we can work together in common cause for the freedom of these great human rights heroes of our time.
If we do that which we can, that which we must, and that which I know people in this gathering will do then at the end of the day justice will prevail.