Cotler impresses NGOs

July 23, 2010 by Henry Benjamin
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The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies hosted a lunchtime meeting in Sydney at which Canadian Jurist Professor Irwin Cotler addressed leading NGOs and trade unionists…and tells them  the Holocaust began with words.

Professor Irwin Cotler pic: Henry Benjamin

Cotler has spent most of his time in Australia talking to Jewish groups, but yesterday spoke to groups who work in the area close to professor’s heart…human rights.

The president of the NSWJBD, Robin Margo, told the audience that Yale-trained Cotler had spent 25 years teaching at Montreal’s McGill University where he was director of the Law School’s Human Rights program. He added that Professor Cotler had been involved in cases involving free speech, women’s rights, freedom of religion, war crimes justice, prisoners’ rights and peace law.

In 1999, Professor Cotler left the world of academia to enter politics, becoming Canadian Minister of Justice between 2003 and 2006.

Professor Cotler is currently the Canadian Liberal Partys’s special counsel on Human Rights and International Justice…and has served as chair of the international commission of enquiry as the fate and whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who aided Jews in WWII.

The jurist told the group that it now 65 years since the United Nation Charter “intended to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which had been assaulted again and again”. He said it was also the 65th anniversary of the “Never Again Convention” intended to eliminate genocide which had also been “violated again and again”.

He said that the international community can only prevent the killing fields of the future by learning from past tragedies.Life must be lived forwards but sometimes it can only be understood backwards.

The first lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides which followed such as Rwanda and Darfur is that these genocides occurred “not simply because of the machinery of death but because of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide.” The Canadian courts had said that “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers…it began with words.”

He pointed his finger to a similar situation occurring today…Ahmadinejad’s Iran. He explained that he had given this new name to Iran to distinguish it from the people of Iran who “are targets of massive domestic repression”. He said that the current campaign in Iran was strongly anti-Semitic and mentioned the images often seen from Iran the slogan draped around a missile stating “Wipe Israel Off the Map”. He said that it was religiously sanctioned incitement against Israel.

He said that Ahmadinejad had breached the genocide convention but no country had many move to hold him to account.

He asked for minimum action by concerned nations to at least refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council for deliberation.

The second lesson concerns “the dangers of indifference and the consequences of inaction”. The Holocaust and later genocide occurred because of “crimes of indifference…because of conspiracies of silence”. On the 16th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Professor Cotler told the audience that “This genocide was preventable”. Comparing it to Darfur he said: “We knew…but we did not act.” He quoted Eli Wiesel who said that indifference and inaction “always came down on the side of the victimiser…never the victim”.

The third lesson is the danger of the culture of impunity. He said that few of the perpetrators were brought to justice and that there should be sanctuary for those responsible for the atrocities “who continue to walk the planet undeterred and unredressed”. He told the group that Sudanese President Al-Bashir has failed to front the International Criminal Court and that “he continues with his criminal conduct including expulsion of humanitarian groups from the Sudan including groups providing healthcare, sanitation and water to millions of people.” President Al-Bashir continues to live freely in spite of the arrest warrant which has been issued. The Argentinian judiciary had stated that the Iranians were responsible for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Centre in Buenos Aries. The man named by the Argentinians, Ahmad Vahidi became Minister of Defence in Iran and the overseer of the country’s nuclear program.

The fourth lesson is the danger of the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable. He mentioned the Nazis’ moves to target those “whose lives are not worth living”. The first group earmarked for killing by the Nazis was the Jewish disabled.  He said that it was the duty of human rights groups to “give voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless wherever they may be”. He said that the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable is the battered child”.

His fifth lesson focused on Canada’s history of exclusion and discrimination against its Aboriginal people, against its women, against racial and religious minorities. He said that this discrimination had been “state-sanctioned laws to discriminate against the vulnerable” reversed through the Charter of Rights.

Professor Cotler called for Australians to enter into discourse into the possibility of bringing into law a similar Charter…an expression of the input from NGOs and groups and individuals.

The fifth lesson of the Holocaust is that it was made possible “not only by the bureaucratisation of genocide but because of the betrayal of the elite…the complicity of physicians, church leaders, architects, judges, lawyers, engineers, educators and the likes…

He quoted Wiesel again saying: “If the Holocaust proved anything it showed that a person could both love poems and kill children.”

He added: “It becomes our responsibility to speak truth to power and to hold power accountable to truth. It holds true today with respect to our elite and the institutional elite as represented by United Nations.”

He mentioned that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in first 33 resolutions, 26 were targeted against Israel…a State like any other which is responsible for any violation of Human Rights. Not one resolution has been made against Sudan or Iran. He told the meeting that there was permanent item number seven on the Commission’s agenda….Human Rights violations by Israel. Item number eight, according to Cottler, was Human Rights Violations by the rest of the world.

Professor Cotler called for the introduction of a process of reform for the United Nations. He said: “I am not one to say ‘forget the UN. If it did not exist, we would have to invent it.”

The sixth lesson is Holocaust denial where “the very victims are accused of having fabricated the Holocaust to begin with.” There is a role for us to play in terms of speaking truth to power on these issues.

He spoke of the Custodians of Memory program at the Holocaust centre in Melbourne where a survivor mentors a young person who then becomes a custodian of memory for those days when the survivors will no longer be with us.

He said that the Canadian parliament has become a custodian of the memory of the Holocaust.

The seventh lesson  is the importance of remembering the rescuers like Raoul Wallenberg who “stood up against evil and thereby transformed history.”

The group was told that Raoul Wallenberg was the first person to be named an honorary citizen of Canada….and a commemorative day had been named after him.

Professor Irwin Cotler closed by saying that this the 65th anniversary was not simply an act of remembrance…but remembrance to act.


4 Responses to “Cotler impresses NGOs”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    Admin; I did, through Barney Swartzs Religious Writer for the Age, taking a chance on protocol.

  2. admin says:

    It was a lunchtime meeting which ran late. The room emptied immediately…but the reaction was very positive…thank you for your input

  3. Lynne Newington says:

    This article should find it’s place in the Age or similar media outlet not confined to a website.
    I’m glad Elie Wiesel was quoted.
    The fact NGO’s were invited was a good thing, there should be no political correctness to excuse them from not to speaking up in their own affiliations and in their own church related issues in paricular, where rights of any discription are violated.

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