Interview with Irwin Cotler

By Yves Faguy Web Only

Irwin Cotler talks about his decision to leave politics, his abstention on the votes on the military mission against Islamic State and his current work in human rights.

Interview with Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler, the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and international rights lawyer in his Montreal riding office.

Irwin Cotler is leaving the House of Commons at the end of his term but he isn’t quitting his day job fighting for the rights of political prisoners.  National recently sat down with the Liberal MP and former minister of justice to discuss a range of topics for our upcoming print issue.  Below is an excerpt, in which we discussed his human rights work defending, among others, Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López, Iranian senior cleric Ayatollah Hossein Boroujerdi, who advocates the separation of religion and government and imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

National: You're not running again in the upcoming federal election. How do you feel about this chapter of your life coming to a close? 

Irwin Cotler: At this point I'm one of the oldest members in the House of Commons, if not the eldest, and I sort of felt the time had come, to use that cliché, for the torch to be passed to a younger generation.  I will continue to be active on all the issues that I have been engaged in, including defence of political prisoners. I just will be doing it from outside the Parliamentary arena rather than within. 

N: You built a career defending political prisoners.  How did that initially inform your decision to go into politics? 

IC: I was reminded of that [recently]. I was speaking at a gathering in Ottawa outside Parliament Hill, which should have been covered by the media and was not. It was the 21st anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda.  You know, one million Tutsis were murdered in a period of three months.  And somebody reminded me there that when I was asked at the time why did I finally decide to run, and it was published in The McGill Daily at that time, I said one word, "Rwanda."  And they said, "Rwanda?  Why Rwanda?"  I said because if there's ever going to be another, God forbid, genocide or mass atrocity, I don't want to be on the outside knocking on the door trying to get something done, I'd rather be on the inside trying to help to make things happen. 

N:  In light of that how do you explain your recent abstention on the vote on extending the military intervention in Syria? 

IC:  I was a long‑time advocate of the responsibility to protect doctrine […]  And so for years after the initial peaceful protests began in March 2011 in Syria – that was brutally suppressed by Assad and then ended in a scorched earth policy of barrel bombs, with torture and detentions and even at a certain point using chemical weapons – I was amongst a group that was calling for intervention to protect the civilians.  There were those of us who, when we were calling for it, were told, ‘well, if you intervene, this will lead to civil war, sectarian conflict, Jihadists coming,’ and everything we were told would happen if we intervened, in my view, happened because we didn't intervene. 

Fast forward to October 2014, the government had a motion to join the multilateral coalition with regard to Iraq.  And I was disposed to support the resolution until the Prime Minister got up in the House of Commons and said, ‘well, we're only going into Iraq – we will go into Syria if we get permission from Assad.’  So I felt to give the mass murderer Assad a veto on whether we can discharge our responsibility to protect meant that I couldn't support something that I might otherwise have supported under R2P, so I abstained. 

Fast forward to now.  The government [is going] into Syria, so why didn't [I] support the operation? Because the first time they gave Assad a veto over whether they'd go into Syria.  Now they gave him a green light.  In other words, there was no action to be taken to hold Assad accountable.  No reference to the International Criminal Court that he and those associated with him be held accountable for their crimes, no establishment of a no‑fly zone just as a kind of defensive means of interdicting air assaults, et cetera.  So I felt, once again, I had to abstain.

N: So tell us about your work for political prisoners.

IC: Right now I am actively engaged [in helping] three political prisoners: Raif Badawi, the imprisoned Saudi blogger; the senior Shi'ite Cleric Ayatollah Boroujerdi in Iran, who has been referred to as Iran's Mandela, and Leopoldo López in Venezuela.  Those are the three principle political prisoners that I have taken on recently and each of whom represent a kind of looking glass into the repressive regime that has imprisoned them and other, you know, political prisoners. 

N: What do they have in common? 

IC: Number one, they have all been deprived of their liberty for exercising rights protected under international treaties or international law that their government is obliged to, and, if not, also the constitutions of their own countries. 

And, number two, they have all had their rights criminalized — their exercise of fundamental freedoms of expression and association and assembly and the like.

Number three, they've all had unfair trials that have reversed all the fundamental norms of the presumption of innocence, the right to adduce evidence on their behalf, the right to effect counsel and the like. 

And finally, they are all a looking glass into the repressive regime that has imprisoned them.  So through their particular cases, we can have a more generic appreciation of the ongoing repression that is being exercised by the government that has persecuted and prosecuted them. 

N: What is going on in Venezuela with Leopoldo López? 

IC: Well, there was [recently] a piece in The Economist, saying that Venezuela is sliding from authoritarianism into dictatorship.  That is something quite harsh to be saying about a country that effectively one might say, whether one likes it or not, has an elected democratic leadership.  But, certainly in the last period of [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez's term and particularly [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro — apart from the violence, the corruption, the rampant inflation, the unavailability of food security and so on from a legal point of view — what you have had has been the arbitrary and illegal arrests of protesters, particularly those which occurred in February 2014.  You've had a slew of political prisoners incarcerated.  You had an assault on the independence of the judiciary.  You had an utter reversal of presumptions of innocence, whereby, for example, Maduro refers to López as a murderer even before López's trial begins and then again during his trial.  You have a situation whereby in the course of the trial the government's one hundred witnesses are approved and the defence only has two of its witnesses approved.  You have the government being able to adduce all forms of evidence and the accused being denied any form of evidence.  You have pronouncements being made by people in the judiciary themselves reflecting their own bias with regard to the cases before them.  The [Special Rapporteur for] the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, has declared, that López's detention is arbitrary, illegal, and unjust and he should be released. The Special Rapporteur on Torture says that his solitary confinement has been also prohibited under the torture convention.

So you've had widespread and wholesale violation by Venezuela of its own constitution as well as international treaties to which it is a party. [You have] the fact that the European Parliament passes a resolution calling for his release and President Obama, who is not given to calling for a political prisoner's release, calling for a release of López, as well as former President Clinton. What is, I think, distinctive has been how many Latin American leaders and former presidents have called for the release of López and María Corina Machado, who is an MP, but has been threatened with the charge of treason and so on. […] Venezuela, you know, has arrested one‑third of its democratically elected mayors. I mean at this point it's going beyond López to become a wholesale crackdown on democracy and legitimate dissent. 

N: Raif Badawi we know of here because he's made headlines.  Why is it that we don't know López, an otherwise well-known figure around the world, that well here in Canada? 

IC: You know, it's interesting that you say that. I think some of it has to do with the media in Canada, which are not as engaged on foreign affairs issues as they should be.  For example, I mentioned the 21st anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda.  I got up that morning and the media was reporting, rightly, on the beginning of the [Mike] Duffy trial the same day.  And how the media hordes were there at the Duffy trial.  I would have liked just five of those [journalists] to have come and reported on this very painful moment of remembrance for Rwandan survivors, when we, in the House of Commons, had established April 7th as a National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide. I didn't see an op‑ed, I didn't see a news report, I didn't see a thing on that.  That we were saturated on the same April 7th day with the beginning of the Duffy trial, fine, but certainly, as I once said to the media, you can, I would hope, talk and chew gum at the same time and cover this second item.

On the anniversary of [former south African President Nelson] Mandela's death we had an all‑party press conference, nothing partisan about it, in which we highlighted the three political prisoners that I mentioned to you, López, Badawi, and Boroujerdi.  No reporting on it, save for some reporting with regard to Badawi.  But I have to tell you the reporting on Badawi took on a momentum of its own after the terrorist attacks in France. And so when you had “Je Suis Charlie”, “Je Suis Raif”, that developed.  Before that, Badawi has been in prison going back years.  It's only now that his case, post‑Charlie Hebdo, that Badawi's case began to command the attention that it warranted before.  And there is a Quebec connection and Canadian connection.  His family are refugees here in Quebec.

N: At a recent symposium at McGill University you spoke about generating awareness about these cases. What, in your view, can an organization like the Canadian Bar Association do? 

IC: If an organization like the Canadian Bar Association would highlight the plight of one or more of these three political prisoners — each of them have their own Canadian connection in one form or another — [it begins] the mobilization of consciousness and awareness that leads to a greater appreciation by the legal community and then the broader community of our even role and responsibilities with regard to these political prisoners.

[…] The Canadian legal profession has a repository of experience and expertise that, if they lent it to the case and cause of a political prisoner, could give that case and cause an awareness, a salience or a resonance that it would not otherwise have both within Canada and beyond, and perhaps the CBA through its integrated international networks and could help to internationalise the case and cause. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.


Yves Faguy is the senior and online editor.

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