Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler was on stage as one of several “inspiring thought leaders” talking about “pressing human rights issues” at Montreal’s Concordia University on Monday.
But one issue the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights was in no hurry to talk about is Israel’s massive and systematic violations of Palestinian rights.
Cotler was the focus of a disruption that sought to raise the question of Palestine in a place where members of Canada’s liberal elite preferred silence.
As the video above shows, lawyer and activist Dimitri Lascaris jumps up on the stage and challenges Cotler directly, pointing out how Israeli snipers have deliberately killed journalists, medics and unarmed protesters during Great March of Return protests in Gaza over the last year.
Lascaris says that he used to believe that Cotler, a prominent figure in Canada’s Israel lobby, was a “true defender of human rights.”
“But I’ve learned since then that you refuse to criticize a regime which is running roughshod over the human rights of the Palestinian people, and I find that disgraceful,” Lascaris says.
“Are you prepared to criticize Israel for anything?”
Cotler refuses to answer as people in the audience can be heard chanting, “Palestine will be free,” and demanding that the former justice minister address the question about Gaza.
Eventually Cotler asserts that for the last four decades, “I’ve been a supporter of two states for two peoples.”
Event officials criticize Lascaris for disrupting the conference, to which he responds: “I object to a man who was a justice minister of the country of which I am a citizen apologizing for the heinous crimes of an apartheid regime relentlessly.”
“I will disrupt your event to express my objection to this outrage.”
“Human rights-free zone”
Lascaris is a member of the Quebec Movement for Peace, and two other members of that group, author Yves Engler and human rights activist Malcolm Guy, also mounted the stage to take part in the protest.
As can be seen in this video, they stand behind Cotler with signs saying, “Free Palestine”:
Engler admonishes Cotler for his “constant justification of Israeli violence against Palestinians.”
Lascaris told The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday why he thought it was important to protest Cotler, a high-profile member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party.
“Wittingly or unwittingly, Cotler has assumed the function of legitimizing the support for the Zionist entity among liberals and moderate progressives in Canada, and he does this effectively because in matters unrelated to Palestine he has engaged in advocacy promoting human rights around the world,” Lascaris said.
“But he behaves as if historic Palestine is a human rights-free zone and as if the laws that apply to other actors are inapplicable there.”
Indeed, Trudeau has acknowledged Cotler’s influence on the Canadian government’s extreme pro-Israel policies, including its smear campaign against the nonviolent BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement for Palestinian rights.
Cotler’s support for Israel is so unconditional that he publicly rebuked Trudeau’s government for not being pro-Israel enough, and blamed Hamas for Israel’s deliberate shooting of unarmed protesters in Gaza:
The Cotler family’s ties to Israel are such that Michal, Irwin’s daughter, ran in Israel’s elections in April as a candidate for the party headed by Benny Gantz, the general who commanded the Israeli army during its 2014 assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children.
Support for Venezuela coup effort
During his protest on stage, Engler also mentions how Cotler has been a key supporter of the Canadian government’s joint effort with the Trump administration to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and Guy holds up a sign reading, “Hands off Venezuela.”
Cotler was part of a panel of so-called independent experts appointed by the Organization of American States that called for the prosecution of Maduro at the International Criminal Court for supposed crimes against humanity.
During a press conference presenting their findings a year ago, journalist Max Blumenthal also challenged Cotler both about the panel’s biases – Cotler, for instance, was a lawyer for Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the US-backed opposition – and for his silence about Israel’s crimes in Gaza: