Our Responsibility to Political Prisoners with Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler, former Canadian Minister of Justice and MP and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, addresses the 12th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On Raoul Wallenberg:

“One person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can transform history.”

On the goal of this conference and the need for advocacy:

“We are here today, to remind these international institutions of their collective responsibility.”

“What makes these atrocities so unspeakable is that they were preventable. Nobody could say that they did not know. They knew but they did not act. Indifference and inaction has been accompanying these mass atrocities.”

“Our responsibility is to ensure and to let victims know that they are not alone – that we will act and march in solidarity with them, until justice is secured, until their freedom is secured.”

Full Remarks

Good afternoon everyone,

This conference takes place at an important historical moment of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness, and particularly important, of taking action. I want to commend UN Watch under the leadership of it’s Chair; Alfred Moses and it’s Executive Director Hillel Neuer for convening this annual summit on rights and democracy in association with 25 NGOs who speak to the importance of not only bearing witness but of taking action. 

As I mentioned this is an important historical moment. It is the seventy fifth anniversary of the imprisonment and disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, Canada’s first honorary citizen, whom the United Nations characterized as “the greatest humanitarian of the twentieth century. Who demonstrated how one person, with the compassion to care, and the courage to act, can confront evil, prevail, and transform history.

From mid-May 1944 to the beginning of July 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to the death camps in Auschwitz Birkenau: the cruellest, most efficient, most horrific killing field in all of the holocaust.

Raoul Wallenberg arrived as a Swedish diplomat in the Swedish legation in Hungary in mid-July 1944. In a combination of courage and cunning and bluff and bravery and the mobilization of other legations and the like, he managed to save 100,000 Jews, of whom our prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, on our annual Raoul Wallenberg commemorative day recently stated on January 17th: “Raoul Wallenberg saved more Jews than any single government or institution.

A reminder to all of us and an important and inspirational historical lesson. How one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can transform history.

It’s also the 30th anniversary of the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. Canada’s second, honorary citizen who endured 27 years in a South African prison and who managed to not only preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to become the inspirational President of the first free, Democratic, egalitarian, South Africa, and who spoke always about how each one of us every day can do one good deed and help advance the human condition. 

We meet also on the 75th anniversary of the United Nations Charter. Where Kofi Anan, in his inspirational appreciation of the import and vision of that Charter, would say that a United Nations that does not put human rights at the forefront of its work, would be a United Nations that would betray its founding ideals and that would be forfeiting its responsibilities. 

That is why we are collectively gathered here today. To remind the UN and its institutions of our collective responsibilities with regard to the pursuit of justice and the combating of injustice.

Of advocacy on behalf of political prisoners. That is what this panel is all about. And we have happily assembled a representative group of human rights heroes who have been acting on behalf of the imprisoned. Who have been working in the trenches day in and day out on behalf of those political prisoners who are themselves the victims of the criminalization of human rights. Of the criminalization of fundamental freedoms, be they freedom of religion, conscience, belief, expression, thought, and the like. Of the persecution and prosecution of those who have exercised the fundamental rights mandated under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, mandated under our whole framework of international human rights law. 

So it’s my pleasure now to introduce them one by one, to tell their story, to tell the story of the heroism on behalf of the political prisoner they are respectively advocating for. Whose rights have been criminalized and whose case and cause must be our individual and collective case and cause.

Our first representative member of the panel – who I’ll call up to speak is Dennis Chau, the son of Vietnamese political prisoner  Chau Van Kham. It’s interesting and I was reminded of this today, one of the first resolutions that I introduced in the Canadian Parliament some 18 years ago, was on behalf of Vietnamese political prisoners. One could say, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”-  the more things change the more they remain the same.

And so, Dennis I will invite you to tell your story, which is our responsibility.

12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, Monday, February 17, 2020

On the UN and human rights:

“A United Nations that does not put human rights on the forefront of its advocacy, is a United Nations that betrays its advocacy and forfeits its future. Right now, the UN is in fact, betraying its ideals.” 

On our responsibility:

“We have to collectively take our responsibilities and name and shame violators of human rights.”

“Each of us has the capacity to transform the ledger every day, from evil to good. To speak and to act on behalf of political prisoners. To let them know that we stand with them. To let them know that we will not relent in our advocacy for them.”

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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