Irwin Cotler, Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, addresses the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On political prisoners: 

“We have a responsibility to not only speak up but to act.”

“It’s our responsibility always to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard, to bear witness on behalf of those who testimony is silenced.”

“It’s our responsibility, therefore, to create a critical mass of advocacy which will serve as a tipping point against the human rights violators who will then realise that apart from the injustice of the case and why they should release the political prisoners on justice grounds, they must release them in their own self-interest because it costs them to keep these political prisoners in prison.”

On the families of political prisoners: 

“I can tell you almost every political prisoner that I had the privilege to represent was eventually released because of the unrelenting advocacy by a spouse or family member on their behalf.”

On repressive states sitting on the UNHRC:

“Next week we’ll be convening the High-Level Assembly of the United Nations Human Rights Council, whose membership includes many of the human rights country violators of our time, but, in particular, those who have imprisoned and tortured political prisoners amongst us.”

“Those who continue to imprison and torture the political prisoners on whose behalf we have assembled to speak and to act, and their presence on the UN Human Rights Council demeans and degrades the very mandate and mission of the UN Human Rights Council.”

Full Remarks

Thank you, Hillel, for those very kind words of introduction. If they come from a former student and the best of my students, they are the highest form of praise.

Excellencies, NGOs, coalition of NGOs who have given support and mobilised for this conference along with UN Watch, political prisoners and families, I am delighted to be here and to participate in the common cause which brings us together: the struggle for democracy and human rights and the defence of political prisoners as the organising principle and policy in that struggle for human dignity. 

I want to commend UN Watch and I want to commend in particular its inspired and inspiring Executive Director Hillel Neuer for convening, as he put it, this United Nations of Human Rights Heroes, from every continent, giving voice to the voiceless, providing advocacy to those who have been abandoned, serving as an important remembrance and reminder of the plight and pain of political prisoners. And, the former political prisoners who are here with us today will share with you their stories of that plight and pain and therefore as a reminder of those who are still imprisoned and being tortured in detention and in respect of whom we have a responsibility to not only speak up but to act.

I’m reminded also, and Hillel mentioned it, that next week we’ll be convening the High-Level Assembly of the United Nations Human Rights Council, whose membership includes many of the human rights violators of our time, but, in particular, those who have imprisoned and tortured political prisoners amongst us. Those who continue to imprison and torture the political prisoners on whose behalf we have assembled to speak and to act, and their presence on the UN Human Rights Council demeans and degrades the very mandate and mission of the UN Human Rights Council – which is the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity.

I was asked this morning as I was coming in what brought me into the struggle for human rights and democracy and in particular for the defence of political prisoners. I answer that it was my parents who first taught me the importance of this struggle. It was my father who taught me before I could understand the profundity of his teachings when he said to me when I was still a young boy that the pursuit of justice, as he put it, is equal to all the other commandments combined. But as my mother, when she would hear my father sayings these words, would say to me that if you want to pursue justice, you have to understand, you have to feel the injustice about you, you have to go in and above your community and beyond and feel the injustice and combat the injustice, otherwise, the pursuit of justice remains a theoretical abstraction. 

And so, as a result of these teachings, along with my mentor Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, who would always remind me that indifference in the face of evil also means coming down on the side of the victimiser, never on the side of the victim, would always remind me that wherever there is a dissident in prison, it is our responsibility to protest, to speak up, to act against that injustice, even if that protest may not avail, our responsibility is to speak up and to act.

And so, as a result of these teachings, I got involved in the two great human rights movements of the second half of the 20th century: the struggle for human rights in the former Soviet Union and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. And within those struggles, got involved with the two political prisoners who became the voice, the face, the identity of those struggles. Anatoly Shcharansky, along with other imprisoned members of the Helsinki Watch Group in the former Soviet Union who demonstrated – and there’s a song written about it – who demonstrated how one small group can transform history and led – if I may borrow a Marxist metaphor – and led to the withering away of the former Soviet Union. And Nelson Mandela who demonstrated how one person can endure 27 years in a South African prison and emerge to not only preside over and become the president of South Africa but to preside over the first democratic, egalitarian, non-racial, free South Africa. 

And that is why we also named our centre the Raoul Wallenberg Centre of Human Rights, after that great hero of humanity Raoul Wallenberg, who saved more Jews in the Second World War during the Holocaust than almost any single government. If you want to understand the dramatic appreciation of that rescue, from May to July 1944 in a period of some 10 weeks, 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz to the death camps. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish non-Jew, arriving as a diplomat in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, saved a remnant of 100,000 Jews during the rest of 1944, an example of how one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil, prevail and transform history. Regrettably, the person Raoul Wallenberg – who saved so many – was never saved by so many and ended up himself becoming a political prisoner and disappeared into the Soviet Gulag. 

And so, from my involvement in the defence of political prisoners, I want to share with you two things today: first, the patterns of persecution and prosecution endured by political prisoners – and you’ll hear firsthand case histories today as Hillel Neuer said – and secondly, what we must do. Let me begin with these patterns of persecution and prosecution, of torture and injustice, that have been endured by the heroes amongst us today and those on whose behalf we must act who are languishing in prisons. 

Number 1: the criminalisation of innocents, where people are imprisoned not for what they do but for who they are, reminding us of the old Soviet dictum which used to say ‘give us the prisoner, and we will find the crime’. 

Second: the pattern of arbitrary arrests and detention. We see in the reports of the United Nations Working Groups on Arbitrary Detention, whether it be with respect to Ledezma’s case or whether it be with respect to Raif Badawi, where they’ve spoken and concluded about patterns, patterns of arbitrary arrest and detention. And I want to single out here, if I may, one of the great human rights lawyers of our time, and that is Jared Genser, who has made more representations and effective representations to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention than any lawyer I know, let alone his effective representation which includes acting on behalf of Mohammed Nasheed, the imprisoned president of the Maldives who is present with us today and will be receiving later the Human Rights Award. 

Third: the criminalisation of fundamental freedoms, be they the freedom of expression and opinion of conscience and belief where one finds particular patterns of such persecution and prosecution in the cases and indictments against political prisoners. 

Number Four: torture in detention; again, one must never forget the ongoing pain and plight of those in prison and being tortured in detention. 

Fifth: the persistent and pervasive assault on the fundamental legal rights of these political prisoners, their denial of a right to a fair trial and a fair hearing and including in that a reversal of the presumption of innocence, the denial of the right to counsel, the denial of the right to make their case, the denial of the right to appear before an independent judiciary and the like; a critical mass, one might say, of the denial of fundamental legal rights including their right to physical integrity. 

Number six is the unlawful conviction, the false and absurd trumped-up charges such as corruption on earth, which lead to these false and absurd convictions. 

Number Seven: the targeted and extrajudicial executions under cover of law, where for example in Iran you have a country which executes more people per capita than any other country in the world, including political prisoners among them. And, the targeting of the especially vulnerable as in the case of the Yazidi, and we will hear later today from Shirin who was herself a target of that kind of vicious sexual violence and abuse, who will be receiving the Women’s Human Rights Award. 

Number Nine: the patterns of intimidation, harassment, abuse and indeed imprisonment of family members which includes, for example, Narges Mohammadi, the wife of our former political prisoner Mr Rahmani here from Iran, a case study of not only the harassment but imprisonment of family members and the imprisonment of human rights defenders who would seek to act on behalf of political prisoners and who end up becoming political prisoners themselves. 

Number Ten: the state-sanctioned character of the culture of repression as particularly practised by these authoritarian states who as I said in a kind of macabre Kafkaesque example with respect to human rights and as Hillel Neuer dramatically expressed, are members of the UN Human Rights Council.

And finally, the culture of impunity which not only rewards these human rights violator countries with seats on the UN Human Rights Council but also rewards the violators themselves with seats in government. The Minister of Justice in Iran today, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is the person responsible for the thousands of murders in the 1988 mass repression and mass murder in Iran, yet he today serves as a Minister of justice in Iran, himself responsible for the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners today.

And so, the question becomes: ‘what then, do we do?’ I want to share with you briefly an advocacy model that I’ve developed for the last 45 years in the defence of political prisoners and which, as I said, someone like Jared Genser is the most reflective and representative exponent of that human rights advocacy. 

Number One: the mobilisation of shame against the human rights violator, of using law and lawyering to expose and unmask those human rights violations; where legal briefs become the instrument of naming and shaming and where the human rights violators are themselves put into the docket by that legal naming and shaming. 

Second: invoking the good offices, the voice and the action of our own respective governments. Let me give you one example: Anatoly Shcharansky, as I mentioned to you, after serving eight and a half years in a Soviet prison, was freed in February 1986. This occurred less than a year after Gorbachev had become the president of the former Soviet Union. And so, when I was once on a panel with him several years after that, I asked him what role did he play if any in the release of Anatoly Shcharansky, and he told me something which I want to share with you because it brings together the importance of mobilising a critical mass of advocacy: governmental, parliamentary, civil society. He said, ‘You know, I came to Canada in 1984. I was then the Minister of Agriculture in the Soviet Union.’ He said, ‘I had never heard of Sharansky. I know he was a household word in the West, but I have to tell you, I in the Soviet Union had never heard of him. So I came to Canada to appear before your Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture. And after a few questions on agriculture, they started to ask me questions about this Anatoly Shcharansky. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I left the parliament buildings and there was a gigantic demonstration on behalf of this Anatoly Shcharansky. I was hosted by the Minister of Agriculture in the Canadian government and he spoke to me at the weekend which I was at his home of this Anatoly Shcharansky. And so, when I came back and when I became president of the Soviet Union, I ordered up his file which said yes, he was a troublemaker, but he wasn’t a criminal’ – but the main thing, and these are the words I never forgot – ‘but keeping him in prison was costing us; it was costing us economically, it was costing us politically, it was costing us in terms of our standing internationally, so I ordered his release in our self-interest.’

And so, it’s our responsibility, therefore, to mobilise the internationalised advocacy, to mobilise civil society, to organise parliamentarians, to create a critical mass of advocacy which will serve as a tipping point against the human rights violators who will then realise that apart from the injustice of the case and why they should release the political prisoners on justice grounds, they must release them in their own self-interest because it costs them to keep these political prisoners in prison.

We need to use the panoply of remedies in the UN System. While I mentioned the fact that human rights violators adorn the UN Human Rights Council, let us not forget that there are a panoply of remedies, whether it be a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, whether it be the UN Special Rapporteurs, whether it be the Universal Periodic Review, whether it be the UN Special Procedures which provide remedy and recourse on behalf of political prisoners and have been effective in that regard. 

Number Five: recourse to international courts and tribunals, Commissions of Inquiry, setting up citizens’ commissions of inquiry, exposing and unmasking this culture of impunity and bringing the human rights violator to justice along the path to freeing the political prisoners. 

Six: engaging civil societies, the army of NGOs which provide, as I said, that critical mass of advocacy. 

Seven: the importance of the media – I’ll give you one quick vignette from my own experience – when I was arrested and detained and then expelled from the former Soviet Union in 1979 as I was alighted onto a Japanese airliner which fortunately was going to London and not the Far East. Before I sat down I asked the steward on the plane ‘can you please advise the Canadian Embassy that I’m being released, that I’ve been detained and now expelled, and tell Dan Fisher, the Moscow Correspondent for Los Angeles Times that I won’t be able to meet him for dinner.’ When I arrived in London some four and a half hours later, called my wife – I had just been recently married – and said ‘don’t tell anyone I’ve just been expelled from the Soviet Union, I’m in London’, she said ‘what do you mean don’t tell anyone? It’s all over the news. Dan Fisher broke the story’ and in breaking the story, no one knew who I was, but in the Andy Warhol universe in which anybody can be famous for 15 minutes because I was representing that famous political prisoner Anatoly Sharansky, then his advocacy with the help of the media became a sustaining celebratory moment. 

And finally, in this regard, we must do our best to visit those in prison, to recognise and provide public recognition of those in prison. Last year, from this same podium I spoke of Biram Dah Abeid, and I was delighted when The Christian Science Monitor in 2016 referred to him as an unsung hero of our time, but as those moments of public recognition and that sustained involvement on them, that can help result in their release. 

And let us not forget – let us not forget – the crucial roles that are played by families, by the families of the imprisoned, because they become the face, the voice, the identity, of the political prisoner. I can tell you almost every political prisoner that I had the privilege to represent was eventually released because of the unrelenting advocacy by a spouse or family member on their behalf; and so, it’s our responsibility always to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard, to bear witness on behalf of those who testimony is silenced, to act on behalf of those who put not only their livelihood but indeed their lives on the line, to stand always in solidarity with political prisoners, to let them know that they are not alone, that we will not relent until their freedom is secured, whether we speak about a Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia or [unsure of word] a Narges Mohammadi in Iran or wether we’re speaking about the only Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr Liu Xiabo, imprisoned in China along with Dr Wang Bingzhang or we’re speaking as well about Leopoldo López in Venezuela, we must never relent until their freedom and those of all political prisoners are secured. As Elie Wiesel said in words I’ll never forget: ‘as long as one dissident remains in prison, our freedom is not true’, and so we must be relentless in our advocacy to secure freedom for these political prisoners and secure human dignity for ourselves.

Thank you.