Irwin Cotler, MP: Minister of Justice
— or Sharon's newest pipeline to America?

Gary Zatzman, canpalnet Ottawa, 02-Jan-2004

Its legal fig leaf of "emergency powers" may enable certain government and army actions in the Occupied Territories to pass the "smell test" under Israeli law.  However, at the level of the international law of which Dr Cotler is such a fervent advocate, house demolitions and "collective punishments" of Palestinians are war crimes as well as crimes against humanity.  Is he ready to minister justice here?

Irwin Cotler, MP: Minister of Justice — or Sharon's newest pipeline to America?

Gary Zatzman reviews the record so far

January 2, 2004

Irwin Cotler, long-time law professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, a member of the Canadian House of Commons and an international human rights celebrity, has been receiving renewed press coverage over his appointment as Minister of Justice in the government of Paul Martin, who succeeded Jean Chrιtien as Prime Minister on December 12, 2003.

Cotler garnered much of his reputation as an "international human rights lawyer" back in the 1980s on the basis of "helping Soviet dissidents".  Given the manner in which the Soviet Union behaved under Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev regarding dissident intellectuals, not to mention the fortunes to be made off the entire and vast human trafficking industry in eastern bloc refugees that was spawned between the two superpowers — with the backing of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and other US congressional statutes — in the wake of these celebrity dissident cases, it was hardly surprising that Cotler actually became part of an entire trend of heroic-seeming figures, always well financed from various institutes and foundations in the United States, who were trotted out onto the world stage as the greatest defenders of "freedom" and "human rights".

Perhaps the single most notorious high profile case in which he became involved was that of Soviet mathematician Anatoly Shcharansky.  Cotler played a major role exfiltrating him to Israel, where the mathematician acted with the greatest calculation in promptly changing his name to Natan Sharansky, eventually entering the poisoned dark cobweb of Israeli politics and — presto, whizzo! — becoming Housing Minister in the Netanyahu government.

Sharansky then oversaw the greatest expansion ever in Russian Jewish settlement of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank.  As Interior Minister under Sharon, he remains one of the greatest defenders of Zionist rights to steal ever more Palestinian land for more settlement-colonies.

Perhaps some see Cotler's involvement at some stage with the case of Nelson Mandela — who in any case was freed ultimately by a decades long struggle of the South African native majority, a struggle with which Cotler had less than nothing to do — as something that could be said to "balance" the ledger, but the bald fact is that Irwin Cotler bears a grave responsibility for burdening the Palestinians with the likes of Natan Sharansky, even if someone else might eventually have come along to do all that dirty work.

Irwin Cotler's qualifications to defend anything to do with democracy — the small "d" kind which is about exercising actual power from below, as distinct from the Capital "D" kind, which is about taking up some position in a government that proclaims itself "democratic" because some electoral process preceded its installation — also merit further investigation.

On the one hand, the picture is seemingly one of a kind of rough "balance": defending the weak and vulnerable whether it is "Jewish victims of the new anti-semitism" (sic) or Arabs and Muslims singled out for discriminatory treatment.  But, on the other hand, talk is cheap: what are this man's deeds — especially when confronted?

In April 2002, when a number of Arab & Palestinian residents of the Mount Royal constituency he represents in the Canadian Parliament occupied his office over the support he expressed for the Israeli army's Operation "Defensive Shield", he called the cops to throw them out.  No discussion, no consideration of the other guy's point of view, just straightforward and simple: "you disagree with me so I will crush you like a bug as far as I can short of being indictable under any offense set out in the Criminal Code of Canada".

He thereby criminalised, in Canada, an act of dissent identical in principle to that for which he so lionised those dissidents back in the former Soviet Union.  This looked bad enough, like the kind of scenario of which they used to say back in the 'sixties: "scratch a liberal, get a fascist".

Observing Cotler's reactive response, a non-Palestinian and non-Arab professor from another Canadian university wrote him to express his shock and sadness, opining that Cotler's approach to the concerns of his Arab and Palestinian constituents seemed anti-Semitic.  Out flashed the fangs as the venom arrived in a return e-mail, in which Cotler approvingly cited some definition of the term "anti-Semitism" from the Oxford Dictionary (as though the British Empire was now the fount of truth and wisdom about anything Middle Eastern).  According to Natan Sharansky's saviour, "anti-Semitism" could not be applied to treatment of Semites who aren't Jewish!  Among the words that could not leap to mind to describe this response are "balanced", "measured" or "fair".

Back in the fall of 2001, in response to 9-11 and in the closest coordination with the introduction of the USA PATRIOT Act in Congress in Washington, Bill C-36 and the rest of the so-called "anti-terrorist" apparatus of statutes were imposed by the Liberal government in Canada.  Cotler was their fullest throated defender.

These laws included the powers being used extensively throughout Canada at this time to issue security certificates and subject to secret trials anyone the Canadian or U.S. government has targeted, especially if they are of Arab origin or Muslim faith.

Again Cotler has brought the great liberal idea of "balance" back into play, acting on behalf of Maher Arar to obtain a full public inquiry into his brazenly illegal detention by US authorities while en route back to Canada and subsequent deportation to Syria for an entire year of detention and torture.

Is this, however, entirely unconnected with Zionist objectives to collect, at others' (Canadians') expense, all kinds of information regarding Syria that could otherwise be expensive, or too time-consuming, or difficult to impossible to collect?  Are his actions animated by a sincere desire to see justice done? Or is it just another career move, along the lines of "sure I'm pro-Israel, but I can still defend the unjustly treated"?

Certainly, even as a career move, it nevertheless still reflects on the individual's actual perspective as to what kind of democracy Canada currently enjoys.

Even if, as Cotler claimed at the time, the draconian provisions of Bill C-36 were necessary to give Canadian Jews a greater sense of "human security", to acknowledge that Maher Arar has a case suggests immediately that Cotler also sees that the manipulation of its powers by the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to target individuals might need some reining in, or at least increased government supervision and scrutiny.

But what is the corollary? Cotler's notion of Canadian democracy is apparently that, in the post-9/11 conditions, it nevertheless requires the draconian powers of Bill C-36.  That is, Canadian democracy requires whatever the U.S. government says it requires.

If this logic is accepted, should Canadians not just rent the time and resources of US Attorney General Ashcroft or Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, and save billions ever after by dispensing entirely with a Canadian Ministry of Justice — and Dr Cotler's services?.

The difference between Cotler's response to dissidents in the Soviet Union and dissidents in his own constituency may well be just as it appears.  Stripped of all the racist, chauvinist and exclusivist qualifications added by decades of British and American imperial practices throughout the globe in general and in the Middle East in particular, the democracy and human rights Dr Cotler claims to stand for seem empty, their actual generic meanings long gone.

Have they become a luxury reserved for the Empire's friends, agents or tools?  For everyone else, is there nothing left but the butt end of the policeman's night stick, the pepper spray, the rubber bullet?  One's positions as a university professor and practitioner of international law are one thing; where will Dr Cotler stand on these questions as Minister of Justice?

In addition to his passion for "balance" — which keeps people off balance as to his true intentions — Cotler purports to defend "equality".  To be sure, this is obviously another one of those areas in which real life always tests, often severely, how far we can uphold our most cherished ideals in actual practice.

In a recent interview, however, (Yair Sheleg, " 'Israel must not be discriminated against on human rights' ", Ha'aretz, 23 Dec 2003), Cotler states that "in the human rights committee of the United Nations, where I sat as part of the Canadian delegation, I opposed the position that set Israel apart and isolated it from all other countries in the world with accusations of discrimination and racism.  I argued that this position was harmful not only to Israel, but also to the integrity of the United Nations itself.  That will be my policy in my current job as well.  I will support a Canadian policy that will not only be fair to Israel, but that will not distance itself from the principles of international law."

Of course, all this sounds very impressive.  The only problem is, which principles?  Do they include the principles set out in U.N. Security Council Resolutions 181, 194 and 273 during 1947-49?  What is the concrete content of the "equality" Cotler advocates?  Is he ready to minister justice on this issue?

Cotler went on in this interview to frame his insistence on equal treatment for Israel as follows: "Israel, just like any other country, must give an account for every violation of human rights, and cannot expect any special dispensations because of what happened in the Holocaust.  On the other hand, Israel must not be discriminated against in the area of human rights compared to other countries."

But the fact is — Israel is not quite a state like any other.  Its right to exist as a state in the first place is set out, under United Nations resolutions, as a specific exception within international law.  These resolutions do not mandate that Israel have a constitution, and indeed Israel still has none.  Nor do these UN definitions speak at all about the conditions under which Israel as a sovereign government may or may not declare or impose emergency law, and indeed a great deal of what Israel inflicts on the Palestinians has been done in the name of such "emergency laws".

These resolutions do, however, include the definition of Israel's borders (Partition Resolution 181, 29 November 1947), which Israel has disregarded.  They call on Israel to uphold and permit exercise of the Palestinian refugees' right of return (Resolution 194), which Israel spat upon as it arrogantly concocted and proclaimed the so-called "Jewish right of return" in reply.

Implementation of the Palestinian right of return is the proviso under which Israel's right even to retain its seat in the United Nations General Assembly is actually defined as a matter of international law (Resolution 273).  As the occupying power in Palestinian territory, and as a signatory to the Fourth Geneva Convention setting out the responsibilities of an occupying power, the Israeli government's encouragement or toleration of every settlement-colony in occupied territory is a war crime.

Its legal fig leaf of "emergency powers" may enable certain government and army actions in the Occupied Territories to pass the "smell test" under Israeli law.  However, at the level of the international law of which Dr Cotler is such a fervent advocate, house demolitions and "collective punishments" of Palestinians are war crimes as well as crimes against humanity.  Is he ready to minister justice here?

The Palestinian right of return is not an insignificant matter for the international community.  It involves the fate of present-day Israel and its future as a "Jewish democracy" that denies equality to Palestinians and other Arabs, as well as the fate of about 5.5 million mostly stateless people dispersed around the globe.

It is not an insignificant matter, either, for the Canadian government.

Unfortunately, up to now the Canadian government has not addressed the Palestinian right of return from the standpoint of seeing it implemented and international law upheld.  Rather, in recent years a proposal has been floated to extinguish the right of return "gradually", by converting it into permission for up to 30,000 Palestinians a year to resettle in Canada.  So — where should we look for Dr Cotler on this question?

Does he get a free pass not to speak?  He told Ha'aretz that, as a member of the Canadian federal cabinet, he viewed Palestinian issues as questions for the Department of Foreign Affairs — without mentioning that as a member of the Canadian federal cabinet he would in fact be as responsible for decisions of the Foreign Affairs department as he would be for those of his own department.

Possessing such a prominent profile in the field of international law, will he pronounce himself as one who would now minister justice — in the truest, fullest and highest sense of that term — or will he remain standing as he so often has in the past, not as any kind of defender of universal human rights, but rather as one more upholder of Zionism first, last and always, in all its cupidity and brutality, Sharon's newest pipeline to America?

Gary Zatzman's Profile in brief: Journalist; lecturer; researcher (Killam Research Chair Oil & Gas); strategic management consultant (The New Consultancy — Halifax, N.S.)
Member, Editorial Board, shunpiking discovery magazine
Editor, EEC Innovation magazine
Co-editor, Dossier on Palestine

Recent publications:
Political economy of the Bush Doctrine (2004)
New energy pricing policy (2003)
Theories of nationality (2002-03)

© Canada-Palestine Support Network, Ottawa  2004

Canada-Palestine Support Network, Ottawa  www.canpalnet-ottawa.org/Cotler.html