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Bangladesh authorities have violated both their international undertakings and their own domestic constitution – Irwin Cotler, MP

Exclusive Interview

Law Professor, Constitutional and Comparative Law Scholar, International Human Rights Lawyer, Counsel to prisoners of conscience, NGO Head, Public Intellectual, Community Leader and Peace Activist, Member of Parliament, and Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada – Irwin Cotler has been variously described in these roles and responsibilities as being at the forefront of the struggle for justice, peace and human rights. Irwin Cotler is presently a Canadian Member of Parliament first elected in a by-election in November 1999 with 92% of the votes, in what was characterized as “the most stunning electoral victory in this century by any standard”. He was re-elected in the general elections of November 2000, June 2004, and January 2006, with the highest Liberal majority in the country. On December 12, 2003, the Prime Minister appointed him Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He was reappointed following the General Election of June 2004 and served in that office until the general election of January 2006, when the Liberal government was defeated. He is currently official Opposition Critic for Human Rights, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights, and a member of the House of Commons Committee on Public Safety and National Security. As Minister of Justice and Attorney General, he helped transform the face of the judiciary through the appointment of two outstanding women justices to the Supreme Court of Canada –Mesdames Justices Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron– making the Supreme Court of Canada the most gender representative Supreme Court in the world, while appointing the first ever visible minority and aboriginal justices to appellate courts. He also initiated legislation for the Protection of Children and other Vulnerable Persons; the first ever legislation to criminalize trafficking in persons; made the pursuit of international justice a priority, including, in particular, the combating of mass atrocity and genocide; initiated the first ever prosecution under the Canadian War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act for incitement to genocide in Rwanda; issued the first ever National Justice Initiative Against Racism and Hate; and quashed more wrongful convictions in a single year than any prior Minister.

An M.P. since 1999, he has made a distinctive mark as Chair of the Parliamentarians for Global Action (Canada); founder of the all-party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition; Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, the first ever all-party joint House-Senate human rights caucus; Executive Member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; and Honorary Member of the Liberal Women’s Caucus. A leading public advocate in and out of Parliament for the Human Rights Agenda, he headed the Canadian Delegation to the Stockholm International Forum on the Prevention of Genocide.

Mr. Cotler is currently on leave as a Professor of Law at McGill University, where he is Director of its Human Rights Program, and Chair of InterAmicus, the McGill-based International Human Rights Advocacy Centre. He has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Yale Law School, and is the recipient of eight Honorary Doctorates, including one from York University, whose citation referred to him as “a scholar and advocate of international stature”.

A constitutional and comparative law scholar, he litigated every section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including landmark cases in the areas of free speech, freedom of religion, women's rights, minority rights, war crimes justice, prisoners’ rights, and peace law. He has testified as an expert witness on human rights before Parliamentary Committees in Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Israel, and has lectured at major international academic and professional gatherings in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

An international human rights lawyer, Professor Cotler served as Counsel to former prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union [Andrei Sakharov], South Africa [Nelson Mandela], Latin America [Jacobo Timmerman], and Asia [Muchtar Pakpahan]. He later served as international legal counsel to imprisoned Russian environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin; Nigerian playwright and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka; the Chilean-Canadian group Vérité et justice in the Pinochet case; and Chinese-Canadian political prisoner, Professor KunLun Zhang. More recently, he served as Counsel to Professor Saad Edin Ibrahim, the leading democracy advocate in the Arab world. Professor Irwin Cotler is the international counsel for Weekly Blitz editor Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury A feature article on him in Maclean’s magazine referred to him as “Counsel for the Oppressed”.

He has testified as an expert witness on human rights before Parliamentary Committees in Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Israel, and has lectured at major international academic and professional gatherings in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

A noted peace activist, he has been a leader in the movement for arms control, and helped develop “Peace Law” as an area of both academic inquiry and legal advocacy; as well, Professor Cotler has been engaged –both as scholar and participant observer– in the search for peace in the Middle East. He has lectured in both Arab countries and Israel for over thirty years, and has been an active participant in rapprochement dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians. He was the first Government Minister to visit the Middle East –promoted a common justice agenda in the region– and secured agreement among the Justice Ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to participate in the first ever joint Justice Forum.

A leader in the struggle against impunity and the development of international humanitarian law, Professor Cotler served as Counsel to the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry in the matter of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice; filed amicus briefs before the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda; and was leading advocate for the establishment of an International Criminal Court.

A long-time advocate in the international struggle against racism and discrimination of any kind, Professor Cotler was at the forefront of the international struggle against apartheid, as well as the architect of legal remedies against racism in Canada and beyond, both in his capacity as Minister of Justice and formerly as legal counsel for national and international NGOs.

Professor Cotler’s efforts have resulted in his chairing, or being a member of, a number of governmental and citizens' Commissions of Inquiry –including being Chair of the International Commission of Inquiry into the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg; Chair of the Commission on Economic Coercion and Discrimination; member of the Commission of Inquiry on the Crime of Apartheid.

Recently Professor Cotler gave an exclusive interview to Weekly Blitz. Excerpts:

Q. Bangladeshi interim government has promised to hold the election by December 2008 thus re-instating democratic system in the country. How important is for Bangladesh to be back to democracy in enjoying continuous support and assistance from the international community, including Canada?

A. Governance through democratic institutions is a cornerstone right of citizens around the world, and a cornerstone obligation of governments around the world. Studies have shown that democratic governments do not make war against other democracies, nor engage in assaults on the rights of their own citizens. Accordingly, the international community looks upon the human rights abuses that typify undemocratic countries with horror. Re-establishing a democratic system of government and protecting its citizens from abuse would be an immense step for Bangladesh, and it would be greeted with acclaim and admiration the world over.


Q. As a politician and internationally acclaimed attorney, how do you look into the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of media in Bangladesh?

A. It is not an exaggeration to state that freedom of expression and freedom of the media represent the lifeblood of any free and democratic society. Indeed, a society is only truly free when its people can be open in their criticisms, can engage in public debate, and can subject their government to the scrutiny that democracy demands. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are prerequisites to many of the rights that are guaranteed by a constitutional democracy, as Bangladesh itself has affirmed. But they are also prerequisites to the proper functioning of a democratic government; in other words, these freedoms are rights and they are obligations. It is the responsibility of civil society to continuously monitor the government and hold it to account. Without constant vigilance, the line between democracy and despotism could easily be crossed.


Q. Combating religious militancy is an important agenda for the world. Bangladeshi government continues persecuting journalist and Weekly Blitz editor for confronting radical Islam. What is your opinion on this particular case of persecution?

I presently act as international counsel for this journalist, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury. His treatment at the hands of the Bangladeshi government is shameful, and has very unfortunately tainted the name of this great nation in the eyes of the international community. The Bangladesh authorities have violated both their international undertakings and their own domestic constitution. The case of Mr. Choudhury brings to light the paramount importance of a free press to a country.


A. Bangladesh's military backed interim government is fighting corruption. How do you look into this?

The potential for corruption exists in all organizations. Through vigilance, however, corruption can be exposed, controlled, and deterred. Once again, the existence of corruption underscores the need for a determined civil society – assisted by a free press – to watch out for public abuses. I strongly support all attempts to root out corruption, as corruption is nothing more than a fetter on proper government administration, and ultimately undermines democracy and the protection of human rights as a whole.


Q. According to your own opinion, combating corruption or handing over power to questioned politicians, which one is important?

A. Government always requires a balance between those who possess the power to make important decisions, and those who hold them to account. A government that has total power without accountability will inevitably become corrupt. In other words, it is not the grant of power itself that leads to corruption, but rather the grant of power combined with the lack of oversight. Because of the destructive force of corruption, it is incumbent on all governments to ensure that proper checks exist before power is handed out, and to ensure that proper means for fighting corruption – should it be found – are provided.


Q. Many of the international media as well as some countries continue anti Semitic notion while some of the countries in the world continue partial or total ban on Israel. How do you look into this?

A. The State of Israel was created through an act of the United Nations, but has regrettably been the object of acts of war and aggression since its first day of existence. While Israel is not perfect – and has shortcomings like any other state – it is a democratic nation characterized by a free press, an elected government, and a judiciary that takes great care to hold that government to account. Israel rightfully holds a seat among the liberal, constitutional democracies of the world. Though individuals and other states have every right to criticize its policies, this criticism crosses the line to anti-Semitism when it not only questions Israel’s right to exist and, by extension, the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland, but in particular seeks to destroy that state and people. Accordingly, any valid criticism of the Jewish State must begin with the premise that, like all other nations, it has a right to live in peace and security. Israel itself has operated on this premise in its policies towards other nations—including Bangladesh, as Israel was among the first countries in the world to recognize Bangladesh after it declared independence. In my view, far more can be gained through a policy of recognition and critical debate than through non-recognition and avoidance, let alone assault. One would hope that these two countries could one day work together towards mutual advancement and progress.


Q. Bangladesh and Canada continues cordial and friendly relations for several decades. How this relation can be more beneficial to both the nations?

A. As a Member of Parliament in Canada, it has been my honor to work for many years on the Canada-Bangladesh Rule of Law Project. This joint initiative introduced me to the Minister of Justice of Bangladesh, who signed a memorandum on the rule of law in order to promote “due process” and fundamental human rights protections in this country. Through programs like this, Canada and Bangladesh are able to work together, learning much about each other in the process. This type of legal-academic relationship, in addition to obvious economic and diplomatic relationships, is an excellent means of interacting and promoting common understanding between our two countries.


Q. You have been a friend of Bangladesh for long. Do you have any plan to visit this country in near future?

A. I would very much like to visit Bangladesh in the future, but cannot say at this time when the opportunity may present itself. We are in election-mode in Canada with a minority government situation. Therefore, it will depend on my Parliamentary responsibilities and my ability to arrange such a visit. I will explore the possibility and hope to be able to arrange a trip in the future.