Canada’s former Attorney General and Scholar in a War on Genocide Denial


A Canadian lawmaker has vowed to continue to fight Genocide denial and historical revisionism in part to prevent trivialisation of the tragedy that took place in Rwanda in 1994.

Prof. Irwin Cotler, also a former Canadian Justice Minister, is the man who successfully pushed for the enactment of the Canadian War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity Act to bring war criminals in Canada to justice. The legislation received Royal assent on June 29, 2000.

In a recent interview with The New Times, Prof. Irwin Cotler outlined three central challenges that must be addressed in relation to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, including combating the rise of Genocide denial and historical revisionism, education, and ending the culture of impunity.

It is important, he added, to guard the authentic record of what happened, for Rwandans who must live with the painful legacy of the Genocide and for the entire world, which must see this as a serious warning on the dangers of incitement and indifference to atrocity.

On education, Professor Cotler stressed the need to encourage survivors to tell their stories and to inform the world of what happened – to bear witness to atrocity – so that “never again” will be the moral and legal injunction “by which we live”.

Inspiration to others 

“Finally, we must continue to work towards ending the culture of impunity for those involved in genocide and other war crimes. We must mobilise the necessary political will and commit the needed resources for this purpose.”

Prof. Cotler also initiated the first-ever prosecution under the Canadian War Crimes and Crimes against humanity Act – the trial of suspected Genocidaire Désiré Munyaneza, now a convicted war criminal who was living in Toronto, Ontario, before being imprisoned in Canada, in October 2009.

Munyaneza, the first man to be arrested and convicted in Canada on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for his role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, was sentenced to life in prison and without parole for 25 years – the lengthiest sentence possible under Canadian law.

“I was one of those who sought to warn decision-makers, including the Canadian Government (while a law professor) about the impending genocide in Rwanda – tragically, to no avail. Accordingly, when I was asked in 1999 when, after 30 years as a law professor and human rights lawyer,  why I was running for Parliament, I answered, in one word, ‘Rwanda,’” Prof. Cotler said via email.

“If such mass atrocity were to ever occur or if we were in a position to prevent it – I wanted to be part of the decision-making community and not on the outside looking in.”

13-year fight 

Elected to parliament, in 1999, Cotler vowed to make sure that the failures that led to the 1994 Genocide would no longer go unanswered, especially by those in positions of responsibility and endowed with the public trust to do something about it.

“That has been my work in Parliament for the greater part of the last 13 years wherein the lessons of Rwanda have played an important role and where, for example, I chaired the Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition and led the Canadian delegation to the Stockholm Conference on the Prevention of Genocide in 2004, where the lessons of Rwanda were a prominent part of my address.”

The Law Professor cites three important lessons to learn from the 1994 Genocide: the danger of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide; the dangers of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity; and the danger of the culture of impunity that allows those who engage in genocide to go unpunished.

Consequently, he “sought to act on these lessons” through four initiatives.

The enactment of the War Crimes Act, followed by initiating the first-ever prosecution – Munyaneza’s trial – which started in 2003 when he became Attorney General.

This was followed by the case against Léon Mugesera, former Quebec resident who Canada’s Supreme Court found criminally responsible for incitement to Genocide and allowed his extradition last year.

Mugesera’s case went to Canada’s Supreme Court in 2005. Cotler made bringing war criminals to justice “a priority in our justice agenda” during his tenure and it was when he was Justice Minister and Attorney General (2003 to 2006) that Mugesera was prosecuted.

In 2008, Prof. Cotler introduced a motion – unanimously adopted by the Canadian Parliament – establishing April 7 as the National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.

“The pursuit of justice – “and our responsibility” to victims of past genocides and war crimes – is to prevent other genocides from happening, to hold accountable those who took part in atrocities, and to care for those who were left to live with the wounds of these tragedies, he says.

“These are responsibilities that the entire world must share.”



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