The following is New Tang Dynasty TV Reporter Limin Zhou’s interview with former Canadian justice minister and attorney general Irwin Cotler on April 16, 2020. Cotler is now the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and an emeritus professor of law at McGill University.
Question: You’ve mentioned using the Magnitsky Law to sanction Chinese officials responsible for the suppression of the truth during the coronavirus, which led to the pandemic. Could you elaborate on this?
Prof. Irwin Cotler: What we’ve been witnessing in China, regrettably, has been a continuation of what has sometimes been ignored and that is a long-standing issue, and I’m speaking now of the leadership of the Communist Party, not the brave Chinese people. But what we’ve been witnessing has been an ongoing state-sanctioned culture of corruption and criminality—and even impunity, which has underpinned it—and which, regrettably, the international community has not held the Chinese leadership accountable for.
I’m speaking [about] before the pandemic in terms of all the issues that were going on, whether it be the repression of the Uighurs, or the Falun Gong, or the Tibetans, or the Hong Kong—in other words, what China has refers to as the “Five Poisons”—let alone the forced organ pillaging. And it was revealed last month that China has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world.
Now, all this is backdropped by what happened here with the pandemic. And it has to be understood in that context, because the pandemic was really one that was generated by the government’s, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) suppression of the truth, by its arrest and disappearances of those who sought to tell the truth, be the other medical doctors, or dissidents, and by a global campaign of disinformation since, to cover up the truth and blame others for what has occurred.
So it seems to me that our responsibility is to stand with the brave Chinese human rights defenders and doctors. Let them know that they are not alone and that we stand with them and support them. That’s why it is so necessary to call out those who have not been accountable, and to hold them accountable through Magnitsky-like sanctions and the like.
Question: How did the Chinese Communist regime’s coverup lead to the pandemic?
Prof. Cotler: Dr. Ai Fen, who was the head director of emergency medicine in Wuhan Hospital, she was the first who tried to sound the alarm, and she sought to do this back in December. And she shared her concern about the potential of this [virus to] spread with her fellow doctors, eight of whom were themselves afterwards imprisoned and “disappeared.”
So if the truth could have come out in December, as some scientific publications and others have shown, 95 percent of this pandemic which has engulfed the world could have been prevented. And that’s a human tragedy.
And it is the brave Chinese doctors and human rights defenders, who as I said sought to sound the alarm, to warn the international community, but mostly to tell their government in China: “Look, you’ve got to put a stop to this. We’ve got to let this be known, we can’t allow this to become what it has become, an international pandemic.” For that, they were imprisoned, disappeared, and the like, and regrettably, both the Chinese citizenry and the international community became the victims.
Question: What do you think of the role the World Health Organization has played in this affair?
Prof. Cotler: I think the reports have shown that the WHO’s mandate is, in fact, to, if you will, to sound the alarm—to be able to make the international community aware of any dangers so that the international community can protect itself and can even join together where need be for combating, if there’s such a thing, a global pandemic.
In this instance, the WHO did not convey the danger of the pandemic that was unfolding. In fact, it even denied at the beginning that such a pandemic was existent. It said that it had no knowledge of person-to-person transmission when that knowledge was already known. It has declined, even as we speak, to ever allow not only Taiwan to be a member of the WHO, but in fact Taiwan is also one of the great success stories with regard to combatting the pandemic and who sought to warn the WHO about what was happening. And that too was ignored or suppressed.
And in fact the WHO was not conveying the danger of not closing borders early enough and said travel was fine, and this was already when we knew about the danger of the pandemic. So there’s a culpability here too, regrettably, by the leadership of the WHO. The WHO does otherwise important work and will continue to do important work in safeguarding the health of the international community, but here the leadership has to bear accountability as well.
Question: Do you think the Chinese Communist Party has a big influence on the WHO?
Prof. Cotler: There’s the impact of the CCP on the WHO, and I might add not only on the WHO but on other organs of the United Nations. The Social and Economic Council has been characterized as an enterprise of the CCP and recently, two weeks ago, China was elected to the United Nations Council and Human Rights Panel to choose the experts in the areas of health, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, and disappeared persons.
Appalling that a country in the wake of this epidemic has been in effect assaulting all these fundamental human rights principles, has now been appointed to a panel, a human rights panel, a U.N. one, that is charged with appointing the experts that are in charge of these very values, rights, and principles.
Question: There has been talk about holding the Chinese Communist Party to account. How can that be done?
Prof. Cotler: We have to understand that the Magnitsky Law does not target countries. It does not target governments. It targets individuals who’ve been involved in the violations of human rights. Canada was amongst the first of the countries to adopt what is called “global justice for Sergei Magnitsky” legislation, but it’s not aimed at any country or government. It’s in order to hold human rights violators who’ve been involved in gross violations of human rights accountable.
Now there’s an interesting backdrop here. Boris Nemtsov, who was one of the leaders in Russia, had come to Canada to help support the adoption of Magnitsky legislation, and he was told: wasn’t this legislation, you know, anti-Russian? He said no—on the other hand, it’s the most pro-Russian legislation possible because it’s legislation on behalf of the Russian people. It wants to hold the Russian human rights violators accountable in the case of the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and others.
Now after we adopted the legislation, we implemented it in holding human rights violators accountable in Venezuela, in Russia, in South Sudan, in Saudi Arabia, in Myanmar, but we have not held any violators from China accountable. It seems to me that, with respect to the pandemic, the least we can do is hold accountable those responsible for having imprisoned, disappeared, and falsified the information regarding the pandemic. Those specific individuals should be held accountable for what has tragically now become a global pandemic.
Question: What evidence do we have that can be used to bring those responsible to account using the Magnitsky Law?
Prof. Cotler: We do know that ever since it became known, we have those in the leadership of the CCP, those officials who have said that the pandemic has been the result of the U.S. military people, or Italians, who have the virus who brought it to China. There was an attempt here to deflect, divert, and in fact apply blame to others in an exculpatory manner rather than assume responsibility themselves.
There have been reported attempts that have been documented of how, in China, they are now engaged in attempts to censor scientific publications to withhold scientific evidence. Again, those officials specifically involved in those specific suppressions of the truth in the imprisonment and disappearance of doctors and human rights defenders, those specific individuals should be held accountable under Magnitsky sanctions.
Question: So moving forward, what do you think should happen?
Prof. Cotler: Number one, as I mentioned, targeted individual sanctions holding human rights violators accountable. If we don’t do that, we continue to indulge the culture of impunity that has underpinned the culture of corruption and criminality, that’s number one.
Number two, there are legal initiatives that can be taken, and some are being planned. You mentioned a class-action that is being planned by some under international tort law. There are those who are exploring initiatives under American foreign sovereign immunity legislation.
The main thing is that we stand in support with the Chinese people, and that on their behalf, we continue to pronounce and affirm the bravery of those who’ve been imprisoned and disappeared, to continue in the naming and shaming of the Chinese leadership that has to be held accountable; to explore the different legal and diplomatic initiatives that can be taken, and not to forget the political prisoners that have been imprisoned all these years, and where there’s a Canadian connection to those political prisoners.
These political prisoners actually shone a spotlight through a looking glass into the situation of the culture of corruption and criminality. I began 20 years ago in taking up the case of Professor Kunlun Zhang, a colleague of mine at McGill University. He was a Falun Gong practitioner who went to China, who was arrested, tortured, and detentioned. After international advocacy, he was released, but he was a looking glass into the suppression of the Falun Gong.
There was Huseyin Celil, an advocate on behalf of the Uighurs, also a Canadian, and he remains imprisoned in China for the last 14 years. There’s more, such as Dr. Wang Bi Zhang whose case I got involved in 2002.
Dr. Wang Bi Zhang, also Canadian connection, came to McGill University in 1979 from China as a doctor, got a doctorate from McGill in 1982. He said he’d like to practice medicine, but more important, to help build democracy in China, and became the head of the overseas China democracy movement. He went on a visit to Vietnam, was abducted in 2002, brought to China, prosecuted and convicted on trumped up charges of treason and terrorism, and has been languishing in solitary confinement in a Chinese prison for the last 18 years.
So there are the cases and causes of political prisoners that we have to take up, and there are those with a Canadian connection, and we should be advocating on their behalf so they no longer continue to languish in Chinese prisons, but can become the free people that they deserve to be.
Question: What should the Western countries do under the current circumstances? Because it affects everybody and human life here.
Prof. Cotler: Well, I think it’s the role and responsibility of governments and parliaments simply to share the truth, and that holds true for the Chinese leadership. And in telling the truth, those who need to be held accountable will be held accountable.
I think also, we should call for Taiwan, which has an excellent medical system and has a lot to help us with, it should be part of the WHO. And we should seek to ensure that the WHO leadership is itself accountable to its mandate and does not indulge any of the falsity and representations that have been put up by the Chinese leaders.
And we should see to it that the United Nations does not acquiesce in this continuing set of misrepresentations by allowing China to participate in the appointing of human rights experts in the various fields, which is at issue with regards to the whole story of this pandemic: health, arbitrary detention, freedom of expression, and forced disappearances. As I said, it’s shocking that they should be able to determine who will be the U.N. experts in those areas as well as a number of others that I haven’t mentioned, but those four that have been specifically implicated in the Chinese coverup of the truth and the disappearance of the doctors and dissidents, and the ongoing disinformation spread that has accompanied the original coverup.
Question: It was reported that Chinese regime has continued to round up persecuted groups, like the Falun Gong group, even though there’s a pandemic. Do you have any comments on it?
Prof. Cotler: That’s it. We should not forget that behind those political prisoners are communities that are being persecuted. You mentioned that Falun Gong is still under persecution. There was a report by the human rights tribunal on the illegal harvesting of organs; the organs have been taken from Falun Gong practitioners and from members of the Uighurs. The members of the China Tribunal, headed by a distinguished international human rights advocate, Sir Geoffrey Nice, has found that this illegal organ harvesting amounts to be a crime against humanity. But you’ve heard very little about this here in Canada or elsewhere since the report came out.
I might add, and as part of the corruption, last July 50 countries sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council praising China for its human rights record. This, in the wake of the receipt of information and documentation of the massive suppression of a million Uighur Muslims, some of whom were released to perform forced labour in order that their organs be transplanted as part of China’s organ harvesting scheme.
So all of these things are interconnected, they come together, and either we stand up and hold those who need to be held to account, accountable, or we will in fact be acting as bystanders and enablers for these assaults on human rights.
This interview has been edited for brevity.