Beware of rising authoritarians indulged by Trump: former justice minister

Irwin Cotler warns B.C. lawyers of global anti-democracy creep

International rights lawyer and former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler is warning against the rise of authoritarian governments | Photo: Submitted

Rising global authoritarianism needs to be combatted, former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler says.

Cotler, a McGill University law school emeritus professor, said in a recent Law Society of B.C. podcast that a free press and lawyers who defend rights and those fighting for them are essential freedoms. Just as important, he said, are free elections, democratically elected governments, freedom of religion, protection of minority rights, due process of law and the right to a fair trial.

“All these indicators are not only eroded in the authoritarian states but in fact have been suppressed,” said Cotler, who served in Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin’s cabinet and chairs the international Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

“That suppression, as we speak, that is intensifying,” Cotler said.

The international human rights lawyer said the world is experiencing not one but three pandemics: COVID-19, the resurgence of authoritarianism coupled with backsliding of democracies and the lack of accountability among nations.

He said the playbook for authoritarian regimes look the same, and they are “increasingly acting in concert.”

And, he said, that is being accompanied by the backsliding of democracies.

“We don’t have any American leadership as we had for a long time protecting that order,” he said.

At the same time, he said, Trump has been indulging authoritarian leaders “as he was dividing his allies.”

Cotler cited China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ali Khamenei, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman as the world’s primary authoritarian leaders.

“You have China and Russia, for example, supporting Maduro in Venezuela. They now have their almost authoritarian alliance,” Cotler said.

He said creeping authoritarianism has corrupted the UN Human Rights Council with the recent elections of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“The penetration now into the international institutions that are to be protective of democracy and promotive of human rights are being undermined by the international reach of the authoritarians,”Cotler said.

He said the export of Xi’s repression, for example, puts at risk diaspora Chinese Canadians “through foreign disinformation and penetration.”

Now, Cotler said, the U.S. has an “authoritarian populism that is personified by Trump.”

Cotler’s experiences with the U.S. government date from his time in the country’s universities and then as an aide to former prime minister John Turner when the two visited Washington DC during the presidency of Richard Nixon (Turner was not yet prime minister).

“Democracy does not happen by accident,” he quoted his old boss as saying.

It was with Turner that Cotler went to Washington D.C., meeting Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell.

Asked by podcast host Jon Festinger how he compares the 1960s, when he attended U.S. universities such as Harvard and Yale, with the U.S. of today, he said the situation in the U.S. is worse.

Then, he said, race and the Vietnam War were front and centre.

“Everything has become more vulnerable, more brittle, and because of the media now, more amplified.” Cotler said.

Now, Cotler said, the race situation in the U.S. is connected to President Donald Trump’s term of office.

“I think he’s been the most divisive, polarizing, inciting, dog-whistling, etc., etc. president that maybe the U.S. has ever had.”

Cotler said Trump “has single-handedly undermined . . . the whole fundamentals of a free press.”

He said “the increasing crescendo” of lies has culminated in the pandemic.

“When it happens from the pulpit of the presidency and he weaponized the social media for that purpose, that to me is a standing threat to the whole notion of a free press.”

As an international human rights lawyer, Cotler has worked to free political prisoners and advocates for democracy around the world, including work with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who arrived in Hungary in July 1944, just after some 430,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz in 10 weeks. Wallenberg rescued some 100,000 Jews in six months in Hungary in 1944. He vanished into the Soviet Gulag in 1945.

The whole podcast can be heard here.