The evening consisted of a meeting for members of the five-year-old JSpace, which describes itself as a Jewish, progressive, pro-Israel, pro-peace group, and a program open to the public featuring Cotler and moderated by Walrus editor Jonathan Kay. The event also saw the installation of human rights activist Karen Mock as the group’s new president.
Cotler, chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and emeritus professor of law at McGill University, listed the tenets he said are necessary for a just foreign policy in the Middle East.
• Acknowledgement of, and respect for, the security, legitimacy and well-being of Israel, which Cotler said has been the cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy under both Liberal and Conservative governments.
• The Palestinians are a people with legitimate rights, including the right to self-determination and a right to an independent state.
“I made that statement 48 years ago, before it became politically correct to do so. I believed then and now that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination. Included in that is a right to a democratic, independent Palestinian state,” Cotler said.
• Terrorism, from whatever corner, in whatever form and for whatever purpose is unacceptable.
• There’s an obligation to end all forms of state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and terror.
Cotler said he used to meet regularly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and would warn him that state-sanctioned incitement to hatred is “not simply a danger to Israel and to peace, but a danger to the self-determination of the Palestinian people.”
He said Abbas brought up Israeli incitement of hatred toward the Palestinians. Cotler said such incitement exists, but “incitement from the Palestinian side is government-sanctioned… [compared to] incitement that exists in Israel, a state where the rule of law can hold the perpetrators [of incitement] accountable.”
• All states in the Middle East have a right to exist within secure boundaries, free from threats or acts of force.
• There’s a need to fight hatred and anti-Semitism, which many Canadian politicians have cited as “the oldest and most enduring of hatreds,” Cotler said.
He noted a unanimous resolution adopted by the House of Commons in 2015 that condemned the global rise of anti-Semitism and urged that fighting it be a priority domestically and internationally. “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic, and to say so is wrong. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and indictment and denying its right to exist… is hateful, discriminatory and anti-Semitic,” Cotler said
• Fairness and protecting due process in international institutions, particularly the United Nations, is important.
Cotler spoke of the UN’s “annual ritual” of passing numerous resolutions condemning Israel for human rights violations, compared to a scant number of similar resolutions against every other country in the world combined. “The problem is this is not only prejudicial to Israel, but it’s a major human rights violation and a breach of the UN charter,” he said.
He said the UN’s delegitimization of Israel is especially troubling, because it’s done behind a “mask of universal public values,” adding, “In a country like Canada, where international law is a centrepiece of our identity, laundering delegitimization of Israel under the cover of a culture of human rights… is prejudicing the minds and hearts of Canadians [against Israel].”
Cotler closed by speaking about the crisis in Syria, where war crimes and human rights violations have gone unchecked for 5-1/2 years, while thousands of Syrians have died and 12.5 million have been displaced.
He said he was among those who called early on for international intervention to protect innocent civilians.
“We were told if we intervene, this will lead to civil war… to jihadists coming in… Yet everything we were told would happen if we intervened happened because we didn’t. This shows the dangers of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocities,” he said.