Political Prisoners as a Looking Glass into a Resurgent Authoritarianism with Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Canadian Justice Minister and MP, addresses the 11th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the threat to democracy: 

“We are witnessing a resurgence of global authoritarianism on the one hand and democracy under threat from within on the other. Indeed, democracy and democracies are in retreat.”

On Raif Badawi:

“It’s our responsibility now as members of communities of democracies to stand with the Badawis, to stand with women human rights defenders so that accountability and justice can be secured.”

“They are a reminder for all of us, individually and collectively, for our responsibilities to act in solidarity with political prisoners, to let them know that they are not alone, that we are with them, and that we will not relent until they are released.”

On the Geneva Summit and political prisoners worldwide:

“We see the pain and plight of political prisoners and their families here before this Geneva Summit as a looking glass into both this resurgent global authoritarianism and the compelling need and responsibility for all of us to stand singly and collectively with the case and cause of political prisoners, and the case and cause of the struggle for rights and democracy – which is what this Geneva Summit is all about.”

Full Remarks

This Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy takes place at an important historical moment, where we are witnessing a resurgence of global authoritarianism on the one hand and democracy under threat from within on the other. Indeed, democracy and democracies are in retreat. 

And in particular the presence here of former political prisoners and their families, like the family of Raif Badawi, who is looking at both the resurgence of global authoritarianism and to democracy in retreat. They are a reminder for all of us, individually and collectively, for our responsibilities to act in solidarity with political prisoners, to let them know that they are not alone, that we are with them, and that we will not relent until they are released.

Let me share with you three case studies in this regard. The first is that of Saudi Arabia and I’m delighted that the Badawi family is here with us to present first-hand witness testimony. Last August, the Foreign Minister of Canada, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted a call for the release of Raif Badawi – now in his seventh year of imprisonment for saying seven years ago what the crown prince has been saying since. And his sister Samar Badawi, who’s amongst a group of women who have themselves been arrested for calling for the very reforms, such as the right to drive, that the crown prince had already instituted.

Right after the tweet by the foreign minister, Saudi Arabia authorities erupted in fury, expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Canada, suspended all trade and investment, recalled some 15,000 students, and so on. All this even though Canada was simply repeating what it had been saying for years, and where a week earlier, the UN Council on Human Rights had called for the same things.

Regrettably, not one democracy came to Canada’s support and defense. As I wrote at the time, after the atrocious murder of Khashoggi, it was the silence of the democracies that emboldened the authorities in Saudi Arabia to go down the road to the murder of Khashoggi and to the ongoing arrest and imprisonment, torture and detention of human rights defenders.

So it’s our responsibility now as members of communities of democracies to stand with the Badawis, to stand with women human rights defenders so that accountability and justice can be secured.

Second is the case of Hamen Yaizi Raem, and I always use this term to distinguish it from the people and publics of Iran who are otherwise the targets of massive domestic repression. 2018 was one of the worst years in recent memory for that repression. What Amnesty International referred to as a ‘year of shame’. Where the leaders of all civil society groups in Iran were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture in detention, extrajudicial execution, and the like. I want to, in particular, mention here that as we meet it is the anniversary of the arrest of eight environmentalists in Iran where, in a Kafkaesque maneuver that would make even Kafka blush, environment protection became a capital offense in Iran. At the very moment Iran is suffering from drought, environmental plight, and is in desperate need of environmental protection and the skill and expertise of these environmentalists. But they have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured in detention, deprived of any right to a hearing. 

Highlighting as well the case and cause of Nasrin Sotoudeh,  the iconic woman human rights lawyer, in Iran, who has gone down the line, on behalf of the leaders of all these civil society groups, representing women imprisoned, representing juveniles subjected to execution, representing lawyers in detention, representing other political prisoners until she herself became a political prisoner. As we meet has just been sentenced to 38 years in imprisonment, a virtual death sentence, along with torture by lashes and the like.

This leads me now to the third case study and that is Venezuela. A little over a year ago I became a member of a three-person panel established by the Organization of American States to look into whether crimes against humanity had been and were being committed in Venezuela and if so, should the matter be referred to the International Criminal Court. In May 2018 our independent panel of legal experts, as it was characterized, or commission of inquiry, determined that there was reasonable cause to believe the threshold under the International Criminal Code statute, “reasonable cause to believe” that seven major crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela including the weaponization of food and medicine that has led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths and diseases and the like. To an astonishing rise in one year of 60 percent rise in maternal mortality, 30 percent rise in infant mortality, and the like. I’m speaking here only of one, and only part, of one of the major seven crimes against humanity. 

A group of the democracies did come together and collectively referred the matter to the International Criminal Court for investigation and perspective prosecution, but interestingly enough we just marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of the leader of the Democratic opposition, Leopoldo Lopez. In an astonishing witness testimony, in public hearings before our commission of inquiry, the judge who signed the arrest warrant in the Leopoldo Lopez case, who escaped from Venezuela to Toronto and appeared before us in a Washington hearing, testified to the fact that she had been ordered by the Maduro regime to issue this false arrest warrant. Frank Luiz, the prosecutor in the Leopoldo Lopez case, who also escaped from Venezuela came before our hearing and testified that he was ordered to levy trumped-up charges against Leopoldo Lopez and that Leopoldo Lopez was otherwise innocent of any and all of the charges and that there was not a shred of evidence against him. Which included also another witness, before our hearing, who testified to the fact that he had been tortured into issuing a false testimony against Leopoldo Lopez. 

So we see here three case studies of the massive domestic repression, under the resurgent global authoritarianism. We see democracies who either were silent or came late to mobilizing, to combat this massive domestic repression. And in particular, we see the pain and plight of political prisoners and their families here before this Geneva Summit as a looking glass into both this resurgent global authoritarianism and the compelling need and responsibility for all of us to stand singly and collectively with the case and cause of political prisoners, and the case and cause of the struggle for rights and democracy – which is what this Geneva Summit is all about.

Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada

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