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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Debate on Motion M-587: Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention Month

Posted on April 24, 2015

Hon. Irwin Cotler (Mount Royal, Lib.):

Mr. Speaker, earlier this month, on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, I spoke at a gathering on Parliament Hill to mark Canada’s National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide. Last week, I attended a Yom Hashoah Holocaust remembrance service in my riding, 70 years since the liberation of the death camps. Earlier today, I had the privilege to address the thousands assembled outside this building, who are commemorating the Armenian genocide, which began a century ago and which Pope Francis recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century.

What these genocides and others have in common, as I said at the gathering to commemorate the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, is not only that these genocides are unspeakable because of the horror of the genocide, but also because these genocides were preventable. Nobody could say that we did not know. There were, as there always are, warning signs, forerunners to genocide. Yet time and again, the world has stood by, minimizing the threats of demonization and dehumanization, ignoring the ominous march to mass atrocity until it is too late and we find ourselves yet again promising never again and insisting that we mean it this time.

I therefore welcome the motion put forward by the member for Mississauga—Streetsville, which acknowledges four genocides that have been recognized by the House, along with the associated memorial days, and which calls on the House to establish April as genocide remembrance, condemnation and prevention month. A month so designated would provide an impetus not only to remember these tragic events, le devoir de mémoire, but to speak out and to act against racism, hatred, exclusion, demonization and dehumanization, the precursors to genocide, and in favour of justice, human dignity and the protection of human rights, including minority rights. Moreover, such a month would be an opportunity to continue the teaching and learning of the genocides past, with a view to preventing genocide in the future.

I will now touch on several lessons of remembrance and the remembrance to act always.

The first lesson is the danger of forgetting the importance and responsibility of remembrance itself, both in the sense of bearing witness to past collective failures to prevent genocide and in the sense of acknowledging and bearing witness to each victim of genocide as individuals. The numbers of genocide can be overwhelming: six million Jews killed by the Nazis, 10,000 Tutsis murdered every day for three months, 1,000 Ukrainians starved to death every hour at the height of the Holodomor, and I could go on. Genocide is not a matter of abstract statistics. As we say at these moments of remembrance, unto each person there is a name; each person has an identity; each person is a universe.

The second enduring lesson is that genocides have occurred not only because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement to hate. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with words. The international community must therefore bear in mind, as the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed also in the Mugesera case, that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. Taking action to prevent it, as the genocide convention compels us, is not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order.

The third lesson is the danger of indifference and the responsibility to act. In 1994, for example, while the UN Security Council dithered and delayed, Rwandans were dying. Ten years later, massacres in Darfur were met with a similarly dilatory global response. No one can say that we did not know. We knew, but we did not act.

In an effort to end this pattern of the international community as bystander, the United Nations adopted in 2005 the responsibility to protect doctrine, a Canadian initiative of which we should be very proud. According to R to P, whenever there are war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or, God forbid, genocide, and the government of the region in question is unable or unwilling to take action, or worse, is the author of that criminality, as in the case of the Syrian regime, the international community has a responsibility to intervene to protect targeted or innocent civilians. It is now the 10th anniversary of R to P and Canada must reaffirm its commitment to the abiding moral imperative in which it is anchored, that we are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.

The fourth lesson is a danger of a culture of impunity and therefore the importance of bringing to justice those who are engaged in mass human rights violations. If the past century was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Far too few of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity have been brought to justice and far too many of them live comfortable lives in Canada and elsewhere. As such, I encourage the government to commit adequate resources to Canada’s war crimes program in order that such war criminals will be brought to justice.

The fifth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial in its most obscene form, where genocide denial actually even accuses the victim of falsifying the crime, of perpetrating a hoax, but by commemorating genocide, we repudiate such denial.

Today, with crowds gathered on Parliament Hill to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, we must be clear. The current Turkish government and the Turkish people are not responsible for the killing of Armenians a century ago. Yet, reconciliation requires recognition, and I trust we all hope for reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian people anchored in recognition and truth.

Sixth is the importance of remembering the heroic rescuers, those who confronted and resisted evil, who remind us of the range of humanity that prevailed in the face of evil, and thereby transformed history.

I am reminded, for instance, of our former colleague, Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was a beacon of humanity amidst the inhumanity of the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda; and of Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who, in 1944, rescued more Hungarian Jews than any single government before himself disappearing into the Soviet gulag.

Finally, we must remember and pay tribute to the survivors who endured the worst of inhumanity, and somehow found in the resources of their own humanity the will to go on, to rebuild their lives, as they contribute to the building of the communities in which they live.

Thus, I thank the member for Mississauga—Streetsville for his motion, and my party and myself will happily support it. Indeed, I have introduced a similar motion. The only difference being that mine makes mention of the Srebrenica massacre.

In that vein, before I close, I inform the House of a letter I received earlier this week from the president of the Congress of North American Bosniaks and from the chairman of the Institute for Research of Genocide in Canada. They wrote to express their surprise that the Srebrenica Remembrance Day and the related motion unanimously adopted by the House, on October 19, 2010, were not mentioned in Motion No. 587. They request that it be included.

Indeed, Srebrenica Remembrance Day is the only genocide commemoration day recognized by the House of Commons, but not specifically referenced in the motion before us. As such, I intend to introduce a motion in the coming weeks that will reaffirm the House’s recognition of the Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide to be commemorated each year on July 12.

On Srebrenica Remembrance Day, on the other commemorated days mentioned in Motion No. 587 and soon, during the entire month of April, Canadians will unite in active remembrance of the victims and in furtherance of tolerance, human dignity, human rights and peace. Never again will be affirmed, and this time we will be able to not only remember but hopefully act always on that remembrance.

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