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 -
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
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
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
- 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
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
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