Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity: Assessing the Genocide Convention After 60 Years with Irwin Cotler

Professor Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, addresses the 1st Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Nazanin Afshin Jam: I’m happy now to convene our first session: Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity, assessing the Genocide Convention after 60 years. Chairing will be the honorable Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament, who serves as special Counsel on Human Rights and International Justice to the Liberal Party. He is Canada’s former Minister of Justice and Attorney General and a distinguished professor of international human rights law. As a lawyer for dissidents around the world, including Nelson Mandela and Andre Sakharov, he is known as counsel for the oppressed. It’s my pleasure to introduce Professor Cotler, you have the floor


Irwin Cotler: Thank you Nazanin. I want to begin by thanking Nazanin, a colleague and also a Canadian. I have been with her in many manifestations, demonstrations, and she is at the forefront, and with all the courage that it takes to do so, of the struggle for human rights in general and for Iran in particular, and at the forefront of the struggle against child executions. So I want to thank you for your important opening statement and kind words of introduction. 

We meet today at an important moment of remembrance and reminder. A moment of bearing witness and indeed of public warning and prospective advocacy. For we come together in the aftermath of the 60th anniversary of the Genocide Convention, sometimes spoken of as the “ever again convention,” but which has tragically been violated again and again. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the unspeakable genocide in Rwanda.I say unspeakable because this genocide was preventable. Where, in less than 100 days, close to one million Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were murdered. On the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the genocide by attrition in Darfur. I must say that it’s astonishing that we are meeting now in the 21st century and still speaking about genocide, of the first genocide of the 21st century and on the occasion of the sixth year of this genocide by attrition in Darfur. On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the remembrance of things in Jewish history, I would say in human history, that are too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened. And so on this anniversary of anniversaries, of the obligation to remember, and the duty, the responsibility to act, we should ask ourselves, what have we learned and what we must do. 

As Kofi Anan lamented on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, and I quote, “such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life.” So what do we do? The answer surely must be that the International community will only prevent the killing fields of the future by heeding the lessons from past tragedies. As philosopher Kierkegaard has put it. “life must be lived forwards but sometimes it can only be understood backwards.” So let me summarize some of the main lessons of the last 60 years. 

The first, an endearing lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides that followed in Srebrenica, in Rwanda, in Darfur, is that these genocides occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of a state sanctioned incitement to genocide. It was this teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins. As the Supreme Court of Canada recognized in a judgment that has been referred to by the international criminal tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As the court said, “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words.” These, as the court put it, are the chilling facts of history. These, as the court put it, are the catastrophic effects of racism. Now we cannot to paraphrase Kofi Annan, to undo the genocides of the past, we cannot bring back the dead. And I mentioned this because Nazanin’s words reminded me of the fact that we are witnessing, yet again as we meet, a state-sanctioned incitement to genocide, whose epicenter is Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

Like Nazanin put it, I want to distinguish Iran from the people and publics of Iran who are otherwise themselves the targets of massive domestic repression in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Where we are witnessing today the toxic convergence of the advocacy of the most horrific of crimes, namely genocide. Embedded in the most virulent of hatreds, namely anti-Semitism. Dramatized, as you’ve seen this or read about it, by the parading in the streets of Tehran itself and up on billboards with the message “wipe Israel off the map,” which is draped on an emblem of a Shahab-3 missile that goes through the streets of Tehran. Warning Muslims that if they recognize Israel they will quote “burn in the ummah of Islam.” Denying the Nazi Holocaust as it incites to a new one. Let me just summarize this by saying, again to paraphrase Naznin, Ahmadinejad does not represent the great civilization of Iran and does not speak on behalf of the people of Iran. I regret that he should be a welcome guest here at the meeting of the United Nations Durban Review Conference


Such a person needs to be called to account and not be here as a welcome guest. The aftermath of the 60th anniversary of the Genocide Convention, the international committee must bear in mind, as the jurisprudence has reminded us again and again, that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. It is a violation of Article 3 of the Genocide Convention prohibiting the direct and public incitement to genocide. Taking action to prevent it, as the Genocide Convention itself compels us to do, is not a policy option. It is an international legal obligation of the highest order. And that’s why I’m delighted at some 40 international legal scholars, genocide experts, survivors of genocides, who have come together to endorse, in the spirit of the genocide convention and international law generally, a responsibility to prevent petition. To warn of the dangers of a genocidal, rights violating, nuclear Iran and the collective responsibility of the international community under international law to prevent it. 

The second lesson, and not unrelated to the first, is the dangers of indifference and the consequences of inaction. For genocide has occurred not only because of the machinery of death, not only because of state-sanctioned cultures of hate and racism, but because of conspiracies of silence. Because of crimes of indifference. What makes the Rwandan Genocide so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide, though that is bad and evil enough, it is the fact that this genocide was preventable. Nobody can say that we did not know. We knew but we did not act. Just as in the case of Darfur, nobody can say that we do not know. We know, but we are not acting sufficiently to protect the victims.

The third lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity. If the last century was the age of atrocity it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice. So just as there must not be any refuge for bigotry or any sanctuary for hate so there must not be any safe haven for those who perpetrate war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In that sense we should be encouraged by the historic judgment of the International Criminal Court some six weeks ago, which issued the first ever arrest warrant against a sitting head of state in the person of President al-Bashir of Sudan. Encouraged because this was not only a historic judgment, but a promise to both end the injustice and end the human suffering. 

At the same time, we have to realize that this judgment has taken place in the context of the culture of impunity that is still ongoing in Sudan itself. I must remind you that we are on the occasion of the second anniversary of another arrest warrant, issued by the International Criminal Court two years ago, against Ahmed Harun, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan. Where the International Criminal Court declared him to be responsible for the planning and perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. What was the response of the Sudanese government obliged to surrender him to the international criminal court? They promoted him to be the person responsible for hearing human rights complaints from the very victims against whom he perpetrated his crimes. What more Orwellian inversion of law and morality can we find? So while this was a historic precedent, the question is whether the international community will enforce this judgment. And so the history here is yet to be written; whether the culture of impunity will be replaced by a culture of accountability.

The fourth lesson – and I’ll move more quickly to a close – is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in society. Again, the Holocaust and the genocides that followed occurred not only because of the vulnerability of the powerless, but the powerlessness of the vulnerable. And so it’s our responsibility, as citizens of the world. to give voice to the voiceless as we empower the powerless wherever and whoever they may be. 

The fifth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial, an assault on memory and truth, a criminal conspiracy to whitewash the worst crimes of history. As in the case of Holocaust denial, where it actually accuses the victims of falsifying this hoax. And now again in the phenomenon of genocide denial with respect to Rwanda. Remembrance of genocides is itself a repudiation of such denial, which becomes more prevalent tragically with a passage of time.

The sixth and final lesson I would say here is the importance of remembering the heroic rescuers like Raoul Wallenberg, who demonstrated the possibilities of human resistance. That one person can stand up to confront evil, prevail and thereby transform history. We are meeting in Geneva, where Raoul Wallenberg’s brother Giban Dardel resides and I want to make this comment to pay tribute to this Swedish non-Jew who saved almost more Jews in the Second World War than almost any single government. A tragedy, that happens to be the case, and that too deserves to be remembered as a hero of our time.


I want to turn now to introduce our panel of experts themselves including human rights advocates, genocide survivors, leaders in the struggle against racism, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. I’ll introduce them in the sequence in which they will be speaking. And our first speaker will be Jibril Hamid himself from Darfur who’s the president of the Peace and Development Center here in Switzerland itself. A human rights activist and defender of defenders, and we know what that means when you put yourself on the line in that regard. Involved in all facets of humanitarian relief, which is desperately needed now even more so in Darfur before President Al Bashir evicted the humanitarian relief groups. Already 404 million people were in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. He has been involved not only in humanitarian relief but in speaking truth to power and giving voice to the voiceless and giving voice to the victims in Darfur.

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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