Attacks on democracy and human rights are a greater pandemic than COVID, diplomats say

(Credit: The 2021 Kanee Lecture/YouTube)

COVID is not the only disease wreaking havoc on the world today. In fact, according to Irwin Cotler, COVID is just one of four concurrent pandemics disrupting and destroying life around the globe.

Cotler, Canada’s Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism, and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, was one of two guest speakers at Winnipeg’s Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada’s Kanee Lecture Series. Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was the second speaker at the May 13 event, which examined “Human Rights Around the Globe.”

The second pandemic after COVID, Cotler said, is systemic racism that targets people who are Indigenous, Black and, most recently, Asian.

“And, of course, along with all this,” Cotler added, “is the pandemic of anti-Semitism, the oldest, most enduring, virulent, and most lethal of hatreds.

Once again for the fifth straight year, Jews were the most targeted group for hate crimes in Canada, as they were in many European countries. 

“If you want an example of the convergence of the pandemic of COVID- 19 and the pandemic of anti-Semitism,” Cotler continued, “you only have to look at the manner in which we’ve been witnessing once again the resurrection of the classic anti-Semitic trope of the Jews as the poisoners of the wells. We have been accused of not only manufacturing the virus, but of spreading the virus, and profiting from the virus.” 

But it was the fourth pandemic, which Cotler referred to as the global political pandemic, for which he reserved most of his remarks and censure.

This is the resurgence of global authoritarianism, characterized by the backsliding of democracies, the widespread internment of political prisoners, and attacks on human rights, including media freedom, he said.

China’s President Xi Jinping best exemplifies this, he said.

This assault includes the mass atrocities targeting the Uyghurs, attacks on the democracy movement in Hong Kong and on democracy itself in Hong Kong, the persecution and prosecution of the Falun Gong, the repression of Tibet, and the menacing of Taiwan.

Additionally, Cotler emphasized, China jails more journalists than any other country in the world, and increasingly, is jailing the lawyers who dare to defend those journalists.

Bob Rae also focused many of his remarks on China, having attended, just the day before, an event secretly organized by 18 UN member countries for Uyghur representatives to speak about their persecution. 

“The organization of the event was very hush-hush over a period of months,” Rae explained, “because as soon as they knew that we were doing this, the Chinese government put tremendous pressure on all of us not to participate, not to engage.

For those involved in human rights campaigns, China’s tactics were not new, Rae said. “We’re used to a very, very far-reaching, quite sophisticated, very determined effort by the Chinese government to just shut it down.”

The concern is not just about the repression, Rae continued, but also how a country like China can try to use its influence, its power, and its platforms, of which the United Nations is certainly one, to spread disinformation.

“Authoritarian governments’ use of disinformation, their cyber-crimes, their ability to engage in not only internal surveillance but also to spread it round the world, and their ability to disrupt communication, are sophisticated campaigns often underestimated by all of us,” Rae said. 

Other nations, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, are using similar tactics as China, Rae and Cotler said.

“This is a critical moment for Canada, I believe, where we really have to recognize that terrible things are happening in the world,” Rae said. 

COVID has taken its toll on everyone, but this is not the time for Canadians to be solely focused on themselves and their families, the ambassador said.

“We have to respond to the social, the political, the legal, and the other situations that are happening in all their complexities in the rest of the world,” he continued, “so that we can in fact protect ourselves from another kind of virus, the virus of hatred, the virus of division, the epidemic of oppression and authoritarianism.”

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