Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Hold Iran accountable: Senator Obama should express commitment to acting against Iran’s genocidal intentions

Hold Iran accountable

Senator Obama should express commitment to acting against Iran’s genocidal intentions

Irwin Cotler

During his visit this week, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States, Senator Barack Obama, can be expected to speak eloquently about Israel’s right to live in peace and security, and the struggle for peace in the Middle East.

What is of compelling concern now – for the sake of peace and security – is that Senator Obama affirm – and act upon – the lessons of the Holocaust and of the more recent genocides – in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur – that followed. As Senator Obama well knows, the enduring lesson of these tragedies is that they occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but because of the state-sanctioned incitement to hatred. This teaching of contempt – this demonizing of the other – this is where it all begins.

 As the Supreme Court of Canada put it, "The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with words."

 It is this understanding of the lessons of history and jurisprudence by Senator Obama – a distinguished constitutional law professor before entering politics – and his appreciation of the companion lesson of the dangers of indifference and inaction in the face of genocide, that invite him to undertake a leadership role in advocating the available legal remedies to combat this state-sanctioned incitement to genocide.


For we have been witnessing for some time a state-sanctioned incitement to genocide whose epicentre is Ahmadinejad’s Iran. I distinguish Ahmadinejad’s Iran from the people of Iran who are themselves increasingly the target of the Iranian regime’s massive repression of human rights – a fact underscoring the principle that countries that violate the rights of their own citizens will surely violate those of neighbouring countries.


Indeed, today, in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, one finds the toxic convergence of the advocacy of the most horrific of crimes, namely genocide, embedded in the most virulent of hatreds, namely anti-Semitism. It is dramatized by the parading in the streets of Tehran of a Shihab-3 missile draped in the words "Wipe Israel off the map" while the assembled thousands are exhorted to chants of "Death to Israel" – a standing incitement ever present on his website.


Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s Iran is increasingly resorting to incendiary and demonizing language, including epidemiological metaphors reminiscent of Nazi incitement. Senator Obama himself stated that Ahmadinejad’s “words contain a chilling echo of some of the world’s most despicable and tragic history.” For example, Ahmadinejad characterizes Israel as "filthy bacteria," “a stinking corpse” and "a cancerous tumor that needs to be excised," while referring to Jews as "evil incarnate," “blood-thirsty barbarians” and the "defilers of Islam" – the whole as prologue to, and justification for, a Mid-East genocide, while at the same time denying the Nazi one.


Moreover, calls by the most senior figures in the Iranian leadership for the destruction of Israel are also frighteningly reminiscent of calls for the Rwandan extermination of Tutsis by the Hutu leadership. The crucial difference is that the Hutus were equipped with machetes, while Iran, in defiance of the world community, continues its pursuit of the most destructive of weaponry – nuclear arms.


Iran has already succeeded in developing and testing a long-range missile delivery system for that purpose, which former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said could "eliminate Israel in one single storm."


The failure to stop past genocides, as in the unspeakable, preventable genocide of Rwanda, caused the then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan to lament in 2004 on the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide: "We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda 10 years ago.


"Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So, what can we do?"


The answer is for the international community to pay heed to the precursors of genocide in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and to act now as mandated under the Genocide Convention, which prohibits the "direct and public incitement to genocide." Indeed, as one involved as Minister of Justice in Canada in the prosecution of Rwandan incitement, I can state that the aggregate of precursors of incitement in the Iranian case are more threatening than were those in the Rwandan one.


Senator Obama clearly understands these threats from Iran. In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last month, Senator Obama spoke of Ahmadinejad as a “President (who) denies the Holocaust and threatens to wipe Israel off the map. The danger from Iran is grave; it is real; and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”


But the Senator stopped short of an important initiative: identifying and supporting now, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, the juridical remedies available to the United States to combat Ahmadinejad’s incitement.


For what is so often ignored is that state parties to the Genocide Convention, such as the United States, have not only a right, but a responsibility, to enforce the convention, particularly to prevent genocide.


Indeed, the Genocide Convention itself, together with international legal instruments such as the Treaty for an International Criminal Court – which also directly prohibits the public incitement of genocide – and the UN Charter, authorize panoply of international juridical remedies to which Senator Obama could refer.


Specifically, an application for immediate action against Iran – also a state party to the Genocide Convention – should be submitted to the Security Council pursuant to Article 8 of the Genocide Convention. This would allow the United States to detail the compelling danger of genocidal incitement presented to Israel by Ahmadinejad’s Iran and seek an effective range of sanctions and remedies against this dire threat, the whole without any procedural obstacles to overcome.


The evidence supporting such an application to the Security Council – as Senator Obama can appreciate – is alarming and overwhelming, and it includes:


  • The virulent hate speech and incitement to genocide that emerges on a continuous basis from Ahmadinejad’s Iran, dehumanizing Israelis and Jews and paving the way for a genocide to be perpetuated against them.
  • The despicable support for Holocaust denial – an assault on Jewish memory, truth and justice.
  • The tangible steps towards acquiring nuclear weapons that Ahmadinejad’s Iran continues to take, in blatant disregard for international condemnation and sanctions.
  • The shameful, criminal connection between Ahmadinejad’s Iran and crimes against humanity through its support for two genocidal movements – Hizbullah and Hamas – which are trained, financed, armed and instigated by this regime. This terrorist link has been confirmed, among other sources, by Argentina’s Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who concluded that the horrific bombing of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 – the greatest terrorist atrocity in Argentina since World War II – was conceived, planned and ordered by the “highest echelons in the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
  • The myriad domestic human rights violations committed on a daily basis in Ahmadinejad’s Iran, showing the regime’s callous indifference to the most basic freedoms of its population and the lives of its neighbours.


Accordingly, given this genocidal incitement, the cases of Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders can be referred to other UN agencies as well. It is astonishing that this criminal incitement has yet to be addressed by any agency of the UN, including the UN Security Council the UN General Assembly, or the UN Human Rights Council. To the contrary, the UN found fit to give Ahmadinejad a podium in the past, while he has indicated that he will attend the UN General Assembly again this fall.


Senator Obama can also advocate several measures that the United States could be taking on the domestic front. For instance, it should be preparing criminal indictments of Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders on the basis of the "universal jurisdiction" principle, which would become actionable when they set foot on American territory, just as Ahmadinejad did on September 24, 2007, when speaking at Columbia University in New York, and just as he prepares to do again when he visits the UN General Assembly in the fall. At the very least, the United States should support remedies in private law against Ahmadinejad, akin to the tort action that was instituted against the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.


Perhaps most simply, Ahmadinejad and other designated Iranian leaders should be placed on a watch list, preventing their entrance into the United States as "inadmissible persons," as has been done in the past for then-Austrian president Kurt Waldheim because of his participation in the persecution of civilian populations during World War II.



It is time for Senator Obama – while still the presumptive Democratic nominee – to support and promote one or more of the above options, which might also embolden progressive forces within Iran, while holding the responsible Iranian individuals accountable.


The juridical remedies to Ahmadinejad’s incitement exist, but the leadership has thus far been wanting. Just last month, Senator Obama declared that “as president I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security.” Yet in the face of Ahmadinejad’s incitement, continued inaction is compromise.


When he visits Israel and the Middle East this week, Senator Obama will have the opportunity to demonstrate that he understands these lessons, that he understands his country’s responsibility under the Genocide Convention, and that he understands that the full force of international law must be invoked against those who so outrageously defy its principles. Senator Obama knows very well the tragic history of genocide; let us trust that he will act against incitement and indifference to it.


The writer is the Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is a Professor of Law (on leave) at McGill University and has written extensively on – and prosecuted for – incitement to genocide,7340,L-3571759,00.html