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Cotler speech disrupted by pro-Palestinian activists

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators taunt Irwin Cotler, centre, during a conference on interna-tional rights issues at Concordia University in Montreal on June 3. (Janice Arnold photo)

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupted a presentation by Irwin Cotler at Concordia University on June 3, when two of them, neither of whom attend the school, got on stage holding “Free Palestine” posters.

A security guard was called in, but he stood watching from the sidelines as a third protester, also not a student, climbed on stage and proceeded to berate Cotler for allegedly failing to defend the human rights of Palestinians and refusing to criticize the “apartheid” State of Israel and its “crimes.”

A few others then joined in at the back of the De Sève Cinema in the McConnell Building and started chanting. It was all over in about 15 minutes, when the protesters left of their own accord.

The demonstration took place near the end of a daylong conference on international human rights issues, which was organized by Concordia’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS), the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR), of which Cotler is the founder and chair, and other organizations.

MIGS’s executive director, Kyle Matthews, who tried to get the protesters off the stage and refused to cede the microphone to them, apologized for the failure of security to stop them from getting in.

The audience, a mix of students and the public, remained mostly quiet. Some told the demonstrators to wait until the question period to air their views, while a couple upheld their right to protest.

One of the poster holders was Yves Engler, a longtime anti-Israel activist and writer, and the one who berated Cotler verbally was Dmitri Lascaris, a lawyer by profession and justice spokesperson for the Parti Vert du Québec.

With the muscular Lascaris looming over him, the 79-year-old Cotler said that, “For the last 45 years, as a matter of principle and policy, I have supported two states for two peoples.”

Then, Brandon Silver, RWCHR’s director of policy and projects, and Lascaris exchanged accusations of “shame.”

The session, titled “Canada as a Human Rights Leader,” which had just got underway, resumed. Cotler’s main point was that “the community of democracies” must be more pro-active in the prevention of mass atrocities and egregious rights violations, which it was not in the recent examples of the Syrian civil war or the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, even though the warning signs were evident, he said.

The “culture of impunity” that this silence has spawned has “emboldened” authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, he said, adding that human rights should not be sacrificed to strategic or economic interests.

Canada, particularly Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, stands out today as a defender of a “rules-based, liberal international order,” often without the support of other democracies, he said.

Canada is only the third country to adopt a so-called Magnitsky act, which allows for sanctions against leading perpetrators of repression in individual countries, he said.

Cotler was critical of China’s treatment of minorities and dissidents, citing the creation of “concentration camps,” and of the arbitrary detention of two Canadian men.

He wondered why democracies did not “erupt in fury” over their arrests, as Saudi Arabia did when Freeland tweeted last year for the release of two “political prisoners” in that country.

Cotler thinks the free world should “raise a hue and cry” over the fact that Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Cotler then returned to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, saying that, having “fought against a real apartheid regime, South Africa, it is demeaning to make a comparison (with Israel).

“I’m not saying that Israel is not guilty of certain human rights violations and it must be held accountable like any democracy, but to single out it out” is wrong.

Cotler said he has appeared in Israeli courts on behalf of both Israelis and Palestinians and noted the independence of its judiciary.

“I support the free and democratic State of Israel and will continue to defend it against any false and prejudicial allegations,” he said.

“We do have to act on the Palestinian tragedy, but you can’t say it has gone unaddressed in the court of public opinion. The problem is Israel is the only party held accountable; Hamas and the like have impunity,” most glaringly at the United Nations.

“We do not protect the Palestinian people when their leadership is not held accountable for the atrocities perpetrated against them,” he added.

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At the end of the conference, the RWCHR and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa released a report titled, Cameroon’s Unfolding Catastrophe, which documents escalating violations of the human rights of the country’s English-speaking minority and evidence of possible crimes against humanity.