Professor Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, addresses the 13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On rising authoritarianism:

“We are witnessing…a global political pandemic characterized by a resurgent global authoritarianism, the backsliding of democracies, the assault on human rights, including media freedom, and political prisoners as a looking glass into this global political pandemic – the whole underpinned by yet another pandemic, the pandemic of impunity.”

On Iran’s imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh:

“Nasrin Sotoudeh has gone down the line for the rights of women, for the rights of juveniles destined for execution…and on behalf of other political prisoners until she became herself a political prisoner- sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes — a virtual death sentence for a woman in her late fifties.”

“Two days after this conviction [of Nasrin Sotoudeh] on trumped up charges devoid of any legal process, Iran was elected to the UN Commission on Women’s Rights.”

On Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment of Raif and Samar Badawi:

“Raif Badawi is now in his ninth year of imprisonment, for saying 9 years ago what the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s has been saying himself for the last four years- namely, calling for a ‘more open’ Saudi Arabia and a more ‘moderate’ Islam.”

“His sister Samar Badawi has also been imprisoned for doing nothing other than calling for the right to drive, a reform that in fact was implemented by the Crown Prince himself, who then proceeded to imprison the women who called for this very reform.”

On Western silence in the face of Saudi abuses:

“In a word, there’s a straight line between the silence of the democracies, the enabling of MBS, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

On Venezuela’s imprisonment of Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni:

“Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, following her acquittal of a political prisoner, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, where she was not only brutally tortured, but where the ‘Afiuni Effect’ was used by the Maduro regime to intimidate and silence other judges in their assault on the rule of law.”

On Venezuela being on the Human Rights Council:

“Maduro’s Venezuela was shockingly elected yet again to the UN Human Rights Council in mocking defiance of the Council’s mandate of the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Full Remarks

May I begin by commending UN Watch and its Executive Director Hillel Neuer and the participating human rights NGO’s for organizing yet another exemplary Geneva Summit- giving voice to the voiceless, while seeking justice for the victims and accountability for the human rights violators. 

We meet at an important historical inflection moment, where we bear witness not only on the untold human suffering of the global COVID pandemic, but where we are witnessing also a global political pandemic characterized by a resurgent global authoritarianism, the backsliding of democracies, the assault on human rights, including media freedom, and political prisoners as a looking glass into this global political pandemic- the whole underpinned by yet another pandemic, the pandemic of impunity. 

Accordingly, may I share with you three case studies of this global political pandemic- and the respective political prisoners as a looking glass. 

The first case study is that of Khamenei’s Iran- and I want to distinguish it from the people and publics of Iran who are the targets of mass domestic repression. The political prisoner is Nasrin Sotoudeh, the iconic Iranian woman human rights lawyer, who is the embodiment of the struggle for human rights in Iran and emblematic of the criminalization of fundamental freedoms. Nasrin Sotoudeh has gone down the line for the rights of women, for the rights of juveniles destined for execution, for the rights of journalists whose expression is silenced, for the rights of minorities, like the Bahá’í, targeted for persecution, for lawyers imprisoned for defending political prisoners, and on behalf of other political prisoners until she became herself a political prisoner- sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes — a virtual death sentence for a woman in her late fifties; and where two days after this conviction on trumped up charges devoid of any legal process, Iran was elected to the UN Commission on Women’s Rights.

The second case study is that of Muhammad bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia; where Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi is now in his ninth year of imprisonment, for saying 9 years ago what the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s has been saying himself for the last four years- namely, calling for a “more open” Saudi Arabia and a more “moderate” Islam. Moreover, his sister Samar Badawi has also been imprisoned for doing nothing other than calling for the right to drive, a reform that in fact was implemented by the Crown Prince himself, who then proceeded to imprison the women who called for this very reform. 

Close to three years ago, the then Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted a call for the release of the Badawi’s. The Saudi authorities erupted in fury, ejecting the Canadian ambassador from Saudi Arabia, recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada, suspending all trade and investment with Canada, and recalling 15,000 Saudi students from Canada, in effect, a self-inflicted wound. But the reason I’m sharing this with you is that not one democracy came to Canada’s defence. And two months later we witnessed the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In a word, there’s a straight line between the silence of the democracies, the enabling of MBS, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. 

The third case study is that of Maduro’s Venezuela where Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, following her acquittal of a political prisoner, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, where she was not only brutally tortured, but where the “Afiuni Effect” was used by the Maduro regime to intimidate and silence other judges in their assault on the rule of law. Following her 10-year imprisonment, Justice Afiuni was convicted last year of the invented charge of “spiritual corruption” and sentenced to another 5 years in prison. Maduro’s Venezuela was shockingly elected yet again to the UN Human Rights Council in mocking defiance of the Council’s mandate of the promotion and protection of human rights. 

May I close, by commending the organizers for presenting the International Women’s Right’s Award to Gulalai Ismail- a particularly important recognition as more women are being imprisoned for their human rights advocacy; and the Moral Courage Award to Alexei Navalny at a time where political prisoners in Putin’s Russia have increased tenfold in the last 5 years alone. 

May this Geneva Summit not only give voice to the voiceless but may the advocacy of this Summit combat the pandemic of impunity underpinning the resurgent global authoritarianism, while helping to secure justice for the victims and accountability for the violators. 

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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