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A Few Minutes with Professor Irwin Cotler

"I think it’s crucial to never lose sight of the distinction between the corrupt CCP regime and the Chinese people"

Professor Irwin Cotler has been one of the world’s leading human rights attorneys for decades. In several recent opinion pieces, Cotler has been sharply critical of the Chinese government and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I spoke to Cotler late last week.


You have called the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Chernobyl moment.” What did you mean by that?

Like Chernobyl, the CCP’s handling of the coronavirus breakout in Wuhan is a self-inflicted wound that not only harmed China’s own citizens but has inflicted untold damage on the entire global community. It has exposed the CCP’s underlying culture of criminality and corruption.

What are you referring to by that culture of criminality and corruption?

The CCP is one of the greatest human rights violators in the world. It has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world. It has moved aggressively against what it calls the “five poisons” by holding Tibet captive for decades and uprooting Tibetan culture; keeping one million Uyghur Muslims in various levels of reeducation camps; harvesting organs of Falun Gong prisoners; violating its treaty obligations in attacking pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong; and by maintaining a perpetually threatening posture toward Taiwan.

But none of this has exactly been a secret. And yet the West has generally turned a blind eye toward China’s violations. European firms have tens of billions of dollars invested in Chinese plants and co-ventures, and China provides the world’s largest market for their goods. Will the Europeans dare to upset the Chinese giant?

You are right that China has long received a pass on its human rights violations. Just today came the news that the EU report on the pandemic dramatically downplayed Chinese culpability to avoid arousing Chinese wrath.

Nevertheless there is a tremendous amount of anger directed at China right now. A very credible University of Southampton study found that 95 percent of the worldwide damage from the COVID-19 virus could have been avoided had the Chinese informed the world three weeks earlier of what they already knew about human-to-human transmission of the virus rather than letting tens of thousands of potentially infected people fly from Wuhan.

Instead Chana did everything to suppress the news. Dr. Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan’s Central Hospital, who first informed fellow physicians of what was happening, has disappeared, along with eight colleagues. Dr. Li Wenliang, the first doctor to go public, was forced to publicly recant, before he died of the virus.

But isn’t that anger a reflection of self-interest rather than of any deep commitment to human rights?

Sometimes a sense of outrage, even if it has a large component of self-interest, can be channeled, and that’s what we are trying to do now. The goal is to replace Chinese impunity with accountability.

How so?

One thing we are doing at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre is drawing up an inventory of possible legal actions against the CCP regime to take advantage of the spotlight the pandemic has shone on CCP suppression of human rights. For example, a petition to the UN Security Council could be based on China’s violation of the Biological Weapons Convention. The suppression and falsification of information about the virus, detention of health practitioners who attempted to sound the alarm, and the leveraging of economic threats to ensure that hundreds of flights left Wuhan after the outbreak of the virus all constitute forms of “retention” of dangerous biological agents to the detriment of world peace and security under the Convention. The World Health Organization sanctioned China in 2003 for its handling of the SARS epidemic. Chinese actions in the present epidemic could be the basis of a referral to the International Court of Justice.

The Centre has been at the forefront of promoting so-called Magnitsky acts, named after the forensic accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who revealed the theft of $230 million by senior Russian officials, for which he was imprisoned and then murdered in prison. Magnitsky acts allow governments to levy sanctions on foreign officials who have grossly violated human rights.

But how will these types of actions help, especially given China’s influence on the WHO and its veto power over any UN Security Council resolution?

These efforts to pursue justice against China in international forums are beginning to bear fruit. The US, UK, Germany, France, and Australia have called for impartial inquiry into the origin and spread of the coronavirus. And Nigeria, a recipient of large amounts of Chinese foreign aid, has instituted a major legal action against China.

You place a lot of emphasis on publicizing Chinese wrongdoing. How powerful is the adverse publicity?

It can be potentially decisive under the right circumstances. Let me quote something Avital Sharansky once said during the campaign to free her husband, Natan, from Soviet prison. “I can’t promise that if we demonstrate, he will be freed. But I can promise that if we do not demonstrate, he will be imprisoned forever.”

Journalist associations, medical associations, lawyers’ associations all over the world need to be mobilized to protest Chinese abuses.

And it should be noted that governments are beginning to notice some of the dangers involved in becoming too enmeshed with China, i.e., that they may be providing China the rope with which to hang them. In this pandemic, they have discovered the danger, for instance, of being completely dependent on China for certain pharmaceuticals or personal protection equipment.

China runs a surveillance state that operates 200 million surveillance machines. Governments around the world have to ask themselves whether the security dangers of using Chinese products in the next generation of 5G technologies outweigh any possible benefits.

Some have argued that, given the threats posed by China, top Western universities should stop educating tens of thousands of Chinese students annually and providing them with the expertise that they need to gain a technological advantage.

I think it’s crucial to never lose sight of the distinction between the corrupt CCP regime and the Chinese people. Many of these students remain in the West and become highly productive contributors to their adopted countries.

We have recently seen that sometimes the Chinese students need protection from their own government, which is spreading its tentacles internationally. In a recent case, a Chinese student was elected student government president at the University of Toronto and she was subjected to a great deal of harassment by her fellow Chinese students, likely at the direction of the CCP.

We must remain vigilant against the surreptitious interference by the Chinese in our parliamentary democracies, elections, media, and campus culture — of which there has been a great deal.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 809)


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