Welcome to the Rule of Law Matters podcast. If you're wondering what the Rule of Law means and why it matters, this is the podcast for you. This is season one, episode nine, Authoritarianism Closer to Home. This podcast is brought to you by the Law Society of British Columbia. The Law Society is a regulatory body that protects the public by enforcing professional standards for lawyers in our province. We bring you this discussion today to raise awareness about the importance of upholding the rule of law. Here's your host.      

Jon Festinger

I'm your host Jon Festinger. I'm a member of the Law Society's Rule of Law and Lawyer Independence Advisory Committee. I'm also a lawyer and I teach at UBC's Allard School of Law and the Faculty of Law at Thompson River University. Today we have the pleasure of welcoming back Honorable Irwin Cotler to continue our discussion on the consequences of authoritarianism for Canadians mostly in situations closer to home. For those who missed our previous episodes with Professor Cotler, let me tell you just a little bit about his impressive achievements.

Professor Cotler is the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and an Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University. He is a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and a Member of Parliament from 1999 to 2015. He is also a renowned international human rights lawyer and for many years, he has worked very hard to free political prisoners and advocates for democracy around the world. In November 2020, he was appointed by the Prime Minister as Canada's special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism. Welcome back Professor Cotler and congratulations on your latest achievements and appointments..

Irwin Cotler

Thank you Jon, it's good to be with you.

Jon Festinger

Always a pleasure to be with an old professor of mine, all of this is hugely appreciated by our audience and by the Law Society of BC. A lot has happened since we last spoke in the fall of 2020. President Biden was elected, Trump made false claims that the election was fraudulent and disputed the result then in January a mob stormed the US Capitol at the very least prompted by Trump. And as we speak, a second impeachment trial is underway in the United States in respect to the same individual. Do any particular historical events come to your mind as resembling or echoing this recent mob attack on democracy and its houses in the United States?

Irwin Cotler

Actually, I think the January 6th attack, the events that led up to it and since, were really sui generis. They were unprecedented for the US and for constitutional democracies. You know there is a hint that takes us back maybe to what happened with the War Measures Ac,t but I do think that this situation is clearly distinguishable. As we speak, we're witnessing the first ever you know Senate trial of a former US president. That we've never had before. For the first time we're also witnessing a second impeachment trial of a president underway as we speak and as you mention. For the first time, we have a trial with a charge of incitement to insurrection and as Congressman Raskin put it, if that is not an impeachable offense what would be? For the first time, we have the Senate sitting not simply as jurors who are listening to evidence but where they are witnesses themselves because the senators were part and targets of that Capitol Hill attack. For the first time, as David Shribman wrote in The Globe and Mail, we have what he called a show not tell situation with the graphic media of the assault including incendiary remarks made by the president leading off the trial process. So all these things really are, as I say, sui generis in that regard.

Jon Festinger

I've got to ask you one question that I think certainly I find puzzling and I suspect a lot of people find puzzling. The President of the United States has a great deal of access to a great deal of information. You've been in the corridors of power, you've seen a lot in politics, been in politics yourself for a very long time, you've seen leaders; what do you think we're really dealing with in President Trump? You know I can't put you in his mind and I'm sure you've seen a wide range of personalities, but are we dealing with someone who just really believes they didn't lose and they actually won and is delusional in that sense or are we dealing with the most cynical of cynical acts or somewhere along that spectrum? Do you even have a guess on that?

Irwin Cotler

Well, probably somewhere along that spectrum. I think President Trump has been one of the most, you know, narcissistic people that ever occupied the presidency, one who obviously engaged in misrepresentations on Twitter and the like, a person who had so many bigoted views about so many things. All of what you said you know could comprise how he was behaving as well as what he was saying. So he had won in the same time, you know, could believe that in fact the election was rigged and he had won in the same time could also cynically manipulate that fact. So I think it's all of the above.

Jon Festinger

Thank you for answering that because your sense of that I think you know having been in power and being so close to power and politicians for a long time is gonna be a lot better an answer than most of us, which takes us to something we can be a little bit clearer and more objective on and that is what did the events on and surrounding January 6th, 2021, the insurrection itself, say about the state of the rule of law in the United States? How should we understand the relationship of those events to concepts of authoritarianism?

Irwin Cotler

Well, I think if we look at the events surrounding January 6th, they effectively constitute an assault on the rule of law including by a sitting president and this against a background of sort of populist authoritarianism by the president and his incited supporters. This included the attempt to overturn the results of an election, it included an attempt to pressure, for example, the Secretary of State in Georgia to change the election results. As we are speaking, there is in fact the initiation of a process there with regard to electoral fraud that may have been initiated by the president. So there are all these things in terms of the assault on the rule of law against the backdrop of populist authoritarianism.

At the same time, I think that democracy demonstrated its resilience and the rule of law also demonstrated that it works. First of all, with respect to the elections themselves, you had democratic elections held in the shadow of a pandemic without any evidence of fraud and in fact, courts heard allegations of fraud including the Supreme Court of the United States and all those allegations were dismissed. So this also demonstrates that we have a viable independent judiciary and an independent judiciary that was sitting in judgement including judges that had been chosen you know by Trump himself in a number of the instances. The third thing is we had an independent media, an independent media that continued to report and to expose and to unmask assaults on the rule of law. The fourth thing is that we had political protests and protests went on also unabated both before and after you know January 6th. We had the House of Congress and were able to come together and do their necessary electoral certification work. And we had of course the very impeachment processes that were set in motion. To me, all this demonstrates you know the resilience of the rule of law in the United States.

At the same time, I don’t want to say there are not any disturbing underlying issues and events, and I'm just gonna do it in terms of almost one-liners or less including you know the dynamics of systemic racism which preceded all this but you know were exacerbated, the inequality that persists and has been in fact itself exacerbated by the pandemic, the post truth universe that Trump himself not only exemplified but in fact dramatized, the exploding hate on the internet, the dangers posed by white supremacist and Neo-Nazi movements including the Proud Boys which Trump at one point during the debates said you know stand down and stand up.

We have all these dynamics and there are dynamics that will have to be addressed and it appears that the Biden administration you know has begun addressing them. But they're there and let's not forget that some 70 million Americans did vote for Trump for the nomination, they will not be easily assuaged even by the advent of the impeachment proceedings and the trial underway.

Jon Festinger

You mentioned earlier, just in passing, the you know potential parallels to the October Crisis in 1970 and of course that was a very different time and a rather different situation, which I'm, you know I know you will talk about, but it was also a different time in terms of media and amount of media and there not being an internet that created its own viral messages that traveled everywhere. Now during the October Crisis, you were a political aid to John Turner who was the Attorney General of Canada at the time. Can you tell us a little bit about that time and what it felt like from the inside and then you know I'll come back and probably set the question if you want to set the framework?

Irwin Cotler

Now when I mentioned you know the one’s mind might be going back to the War Measures Act when we were talking about the assault on democracy in the US and the assault on the US Capitol, that was because somebody had mentioned that to me. I have to say that I don’t see the parallels and I'll try to explain why, though they're both very compelling historical events.

As you mentioned, I was serving as a special advisor to John Turner when he was Minister of Justice from 1968 to 1970 but in the summer of 1970, I went to, I became a professor of law at Osgoode Hall Law School while remaining two days of work working with John Turner. I mention this because I was living therefore in two universes at the time in the run-up to the War Measures Act both in my roles as special advisor to Turner, being also within the halls of academe, and we had in fact post War Measures Act an intense symposium at Osgoode Hall Law School, and as a resident of Quebec, I was visiting Quebec while this was going on so with that context, let me just share with you what I witnessed occurring at the time.

The first thing that's notable and you know with the passage of time you know people forget 50 years later but both Prime Minister Trudeau and Justice Minister John Turner were very reluctant to invoke the War Measures Act. They were asked repeatedly and in fact the Premier of Quebec, Robert Bourassa at the time, called Trudeau you know close to a half a dozen times to ask him to invoke the War Measures Act. And it was only after a number of events took place that Trudeau and John Turner reluctantly agreed to do so. First you had the demands, the calls on them from both the Mayor of Montreal at the time, Jean Drapeau, and Bourassa, but more than that, you had a unanimous, a unanimous call for the federal government to act by the National Assembly of Quebec. Now within federalism, it's hard for the federal government to refuse a unanimous democratic call by the elected representatives in Quebec and in the city of Montreal. So that was the first important thing.

The second thing was that there had been the kidnappings of both a British diplomat and a Quebec minister, Pierre Laporte. The third thing is this came against a backdrop of a terrorist cell, Front de libération du Québec, the FLQ, that had been operating for years and there had been a series of bombings and people had been killed and I recall a bombing not far from the McGill Student Union where I then was a student during that period. So there were these backdrops also and when all this converged with kidnappings of the two as I mentioned with the call from Quebec and the city of Montreal with the police reporting threats of dynamite with police also saying that they can't really effectively manage the situation, with the Department of Justice giving advice to John Turner at the time, look, there's no measure short of the War Measures Act that will allow us to delegate the proper authority to provincial and municipal police forces and the like. It came to a point where both Trudeau and Turner felt that they had no other choice but to impose the War Measures Act.

Now, it's true that the imposition of the War Measures Act did involve mass arrests at the time but let us not forget that the independent judiciary remained to review it, that the parliaments were in session, democratically elected parliaments and the like. And one thing that is forgotten also to this day, you know I recall that my professor, Frank Scott, probably the leading civil libertarian in Quebec noted for the Roncarelli Duplessis case, himself, not only did he support the imposition of the War Measures Act and, as I said, all the Quebec Members of Parliament and all the federal Members of Parliament and Ministers from Quebec, but if you look back at public opinion polls at the time, 89 percent of Anglophones and 86 percent of Francophones supported the imposition of the War Measures Act so there is a convergence of all these dynamics. If you look at the issue today, you would think that there was a split in public opinion or in the legislatures or in the leadership or among Francophones and Anglophones; not at all for all the reasons I mentioned.

Jon Festinger

How much information, if you can say, how much real knowledge did those in government have about you know how large the FLQ was, how sophisticated they were because when we play it back from 2021, the FLQ was characterized as you know pretty small and pretty fringe and it plays out as a bit of an overreaction. How much of a problem, how much did we know at the time and in retrospect, is it fair to characterize it as an overreaction given what we know now or do you think it was, you know it was clearly the right thing to do but now with the benefit of history, was there another way?

Irwin Cotler

As I mentioned, I was at Osgoode Hall Law School at the time. We had a one day symposium about this and there were critiques you know, the civil libertarian critiques of the mass arrests and the like, arbitrary detentions, and I myself at the time while I was a professor at Osgoode and working with Turner, I signed on to a petition that did critique the arrests. However, this does not detract from the fact that as to why the decision was felt it had to be taken.

I remember when I came back to Ottawa from having been at this symposium at Osgoode, I signed the petition and I met with Trudeau at the time and he said to me you know, I'll never forget his words, he says you know Irwin, you and your academics, you know, protesting, he says the fact that an insurrection did not occur does not mean that it could not have been apprehended he said, and for all the reasons that you know he says, it was clearly apprehendable. And you have to ask yourself what might have happened had we not invoked the War Measures Act and that led to a whole discussion about the nature of the, the climate of insecurity and fear at the time against the backdrop. And there were large demonstrations going on with thousands of people and students and protests at the Université de Montréal and there was this real apprehension that things were getting out of control and intelligence reports that in fact unless the War Measures Act were invoked, the necessary legislative and enforcement measures that needed to be taken would not be able to be acted upon. And that's why, as I say, for all the reasons I've mentioned, I think at the time, it was a correct decision and indeed a democratically inspired decision for again all the reasons I mentioned. That doesn't mean that abuses did not occur in the course of the arrests but they were able to be addressed within the framework of an independent judiciary, a free press, democratically elected legislatures, protests and the like.

So I think at the end of the day, Trudeau's comment to me, the fact that in insurrection did not occur did not mean it could not have been apprehended and what might the alternative have been are not things that we should not bear in mind. We should also not ignore, as I said, the compelling public opinion, both Francophones and Anglophones, I don’t know of any other time where both so dramatically agreed, 89 percent and 86 percent respectively, that this was a legitimate and necessary measure to be taken.

Jon Festinger

So let's turn to a contrast here. How do you contrast all of this, the US situation, the War Measures Act, all of the negatives that we can pull from those examples, and compare to, compare it to what's happening in China today where Chinese citizens are being detained in various ways for reporting on or criticizing the Chinese government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, the situation in Hong Kong, you know how do you reconcile the difference between arbitrary detentions in Canada 50 years ago and arbitrary detentions in China today?

Irwin Cotler

Okay first, when you begin with what happened with the coronavirus, and it's a good case study, what you had there was you know the suppression of information by you know Xi Jinping's government, the arrests and disappearances of doctors and dissidents, the assault on any notion of a free media, in fact it was then the Hong Kong media that had to report on what was going on in China, and you had you know state orchestrated disinformation campaigns by again the Xi Jinping's government at the time. So just on that particular issue re: the coronavirus, there are dramatic differences but I think leaving aside that and looking at the issues re: arbitrary detentions in Canada and the War Measures Act let's say, and what has been happening in China, there's simply no comparison because what happened in the War Measures Act for the reasons I mentioned really was a response really to democratic calls etcetera, and it was short lived invocation, all the other things remained in place, free press, independent judiciary, rule of law, peaceful protests. None of that exists in China.

In fact, what we are witnessing in China today is really the greatest threat to the international legal order that we had. In terms of the mass atrocities that are targeting the Uyghurs for example, you have the greatest not only mass detentions but mass incarcerations in detention camps you know since the Holocaust and I make no analogies to the Holocaust but what we are witnessing now as we speak are acts that constitute of genocide targeting the Uyghurs. We have a frontal assault on the rule of law in Hong Kong that is not only targeting the democratic movement but targeting democracy itself. We had massive repressions with respect to Tibetans. We have the persecution and prosecution of the Falun Gong, we have increasing menacing and threats to Taiwan, all these constitute what Xi Jinping has called the five poisons who are being targeted in ways I mentioned. But along with that, what is less known, is that China is a leading jailor of journalists in the world today, the worst example of forced organ pillaging and we've had China Human Rights Tribunal that was presided over by Sir Geoffrey Nice demonstrating that crimes against humanity were being committed here as well. I can go on so I think the situation is entirely different.

We are witnessing in Xi Jinping's China today, and I use that term to distinguish it from the people and publics in Mainland China and Hong Kong that are the targets of mass oppression, we are witnessing you know a state orchestrated mass repression, the largest surveillance state in our history that is using all that for the purposes of carrying out genocidal acts, as I said, against the Uyghurs. There's just no comparison. I think what is important is that the democracies begin themselves to mobilize, to renew and to work together because what China has been able to do has been to bully the democracies one by one and to leverage their power, and particularly their economic power, by bullying them, targeting Australia, targeting Canada, targeting Japan so I'm hopeful that if we now have what President Biden has spoken of as multilateral alliance of the community of democracies, of the restoration of the promotion of democracy and human rights to a priority in American domestic and foreign policy, to putting an end to Trump's you know America First and isolationism which undermined not only the democratic alliances or community of democracies, but you had an absurd situation where Trump often treated his allies as adversaries and treated his adversaries like Russia as allies. So this whole thing you know just turned the geopolitical dynamics on their head.

Jon Festinger

And I do think that you've gotten to the core of it and that is that this underlying current, that I'm not sure we've really heard before or at least haven't heard for hundreds of years, that authoritarianism, that how we're relying perhaps in one person at the very top, is actually a positive thing, it's you know for the 20th century and the 21st century, for the most part, we've heard that as a very, or seen that as a very negative thing. Authoritarianism was seen very negatively, but in China and to some extent you could see it creeping with Trump, this undercurrent that somehow authoritarianism could be good. Now we are seeing that unravel in the United States and a deeper understanding but we're a ways away from it unraveling in China.

What we are seeing, as you've alluded to, is China being very aggressive towards other countries. China detained Canadians Michael Kovring and Michael Spavor, the two Michaels as they are sometimes called, and charged them with spying on national secrets and providing intelligence for outside entities; what does this mean to us as Canadians? Has this happened before? Is it happening more frequently? What's your take, Professor Cotler, on the detention of Canadians specifically?

Irwin Cotler

Well, we may forget how the whole thing arose. What happened is that you know Canada responded to its obligations under an extradition agreement with the United States and pursuant to that extradition agreement, you know arrested Meng Wanzhou, the CEO of Huawei Corporation, and in retaliation and engaging in hostage diplomacy, the Chinese authorities you know arbitrarily and illegally imprisoned the two Michaels, they tortured them in detention, denied them any right to counsel, would be denying them any right to a fair trial, denied them any visitation rights, very limited you know consular access, and when you contrast this with the fact that Meng Wanzhou you know has been free on bail, has been living in a mansion, that's fine, has had a right to lawyers, has a right to an independent and fair hearing which is underway as we meet even in British Columbia.

So what the Chinese authorities said on the occasion of Canada implementing its international legal obligations under a bilateral extradition treaty, they called that you know vile, evil, brutal, but what they have done with regard to the two Michaels has been vile and evil and brutal. And it's a looking glass into the way they have been operating both with regard to the phenomenon of hostage diplomacy but also with regard to treatment of other Canadian political prisoners. These are not the only two.

These two have been the focus but I can tell you as somebody who's been representing political prisoners in China, we have Dr. Wang Bingzhang, a leader of the Overseas Democracy Movement who was abducted from Vietnam in 2002 and brought to China in a sham trial, he was tried and convicted of both the charges of terrorism and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement where he's suffered a series of debilitating strokes and where his daughter Ti-Anna Wang, herself now a graduate of McGill Law School, who sought repeatedly to visit him in prison, was consistently denied, finally allowed to do so some, a month after the two Michaels were detained, but when she arrived in Beijing for that purpose, she was not permitted to do so, she was put back on a plane to go back to Canada which - first she went to South Korea then re-landed again in Beijing on the way back to Canada when they boarded the plane took her off with her new infant child and apprehended her at the time and only as the result of international protest was she released and came back to Canada without ever being able to see her father.

As we speak as well, Huseyin Celil, a Canadian Uyghur himself in 2006, we forget this, before we learned about all the mass atrocities and the Uyghurs, it was arranged that he be deported from Kazakhstan to China and he too, sham trial, convicted, effectively disappeared, no access to family, to consular visits and the like. Sun Qian, a Falun Gong practitioner, recently sentenced as well, forced to renounce her Canadian citizenship. I can go on. I'm only saying these are people that I am personally representing so I know, you know the horror of their arbitrary and illegal detention, torture in detention, trumped up charges and the like.

Jon Festinger

The true state of the rule of law in various countries lives in the facts, the real facts of what's really occurred and not just some you know 40,000 foot notion of you know who's got a better way but how are individuals treated and the contrast to how someone awaiting trial or going through the legal system is treated in Canada and how they're treated in China could not be more stark and that really is the point about the rule of law.

You know the Chinese court system has an almost 100 percent conviction rate. That doesn't speak well for rule of law principles nor for their likelihood of being implemented in the near future. I'm going to turn to kind of  one last situation and that is that most recently, in January, 53 people including former law makers, opposition activists, an American lawyer, John Clancy, were arrested by Hong Kong police. The police said it was for the crime of subverting state power, which is particularly fascinating because that's a very direct statement that state power doesn't have to do with the people, apparently having to do with something else.

Those arrests confirmed many people's fears that Hong Kong legislation and Chinese legislation would be used to target peaceful activism. What's even more concerning perhaps is that the law extends beyond borders, even to Canada apparently. How do you look at this, are we looking at foreign powers and trying to specifically doing things to erode the rule of law in Canada? Please give us your perspective.

Irwin Cotler

Well, I think you have a convergence of the assault, frontal assault on the rule of law in Hong Kong, the mass arrests of the leaders of the democracy movement in China. In effect, this is an assault not only on the democracy movement, it's an assault on democracy itself. The imposition of a national security legislation remains a standing violation of the UK-Sino Treaty which has the status of an international treaty. It involves criminalization of the basic rights under Hong Kong legislation and criminalization of fundamental freedoms.

And so what we're really seeing in China at this point is an attempt, as I said, not only to arrest democratic leadership, not only an assault on the democracy movement but an assault on the democracy itself and an attempt to extend in an extraterritorial fashion, the national security legislation to criminalize people outside of China in Canada who, if they lend their support, can, under the terms of international security legislation, be themselves arrested if they find themselves in a Chinese jurisdiction and the like.

And what worries me is that the Chinese authorities, in their foreign penetration into Canada, have been effectively threatening the rule of law in Canada in the manner in which they have harassed and threatened you know Chinese Canadians or Uyghurs or Falun Gong or Tibetans including in the university arena and the China Coalition for Human Rights of which I'm a, and my organization, Raoul Wallenberg Centre, is a member, you know put out a documented report documenting the manner in which the Chinese authorities had in fact penetrated into Canada.

And it wasn't only our report, we had last March the National Security Committee on Intelligence, the Canadian Parliament Intelligence Security, they reported on the extent of China's penetration as being quote threatening to both Canada's democracy and Canada's national security let along the individual threats to, as I said, Chinese Canadians and others as I have described.

So I believe at this point Canada has to consider certain initiatives that need to be taken in this regard which would include adopting maybe legislation similar to that which Australia has adopted with regard to protecting against foreign interference, setting up a focal point within the government that will in fact oversee this whole set of threats and harassments and stalking you know of Canadians here, Chinese Canadians and others, and provide them with a focal point for information sharing for the basis of intelligence gathering and for combatting this penetration that is in fact not me saying it but our own parliamentary committee saying it, becomes threatening to our democracy, to our national security and to individuals targeted by them.

Jon Festinger

In light of the potential dangers to Canada and to Canadians, in light of the fact that there's 200,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong and many in Canada who have family ties there, what steps can the Canadian government take to deal with China's, and I don’t know any other way of putting this, blatant disrespect of the rule of law?

Irwin Cotler

I think there are a number of steps we can consider here. Number one, Canada should impose Magnitsky sanctions on the major human rights violators in China responsible you know for the mass atrocities that I've described and for the fundamental assaults with regard to the rule of law, indeed democracy itself in Hong Kong and the like. I might add that while we have imposed Magnitsky sanctions on human rights officials from countries like Russia and Venezuela and South Sudan and the like, we have yet to impose any Magnitsky sanctions on any senior Chinese official notwithstanding the fact that Xi Jinping's China is engaged in the most massive violations of human rights of any global authoritarian today. That's number one.

Number two, I think we have to consider enacting as I said protective legislation with regard to protecting against the foreign penetration into Canada and threats and harassments to Canadian citizens.

Number three, I do think that when I mention Magnitsky sanctions, we've not been using Magnitsky sanctions but we should use Magnitsky sanctions with respect to China's assault on the free media. That's an important and Amal Clooney wrote a report for our high level panel of legal experts on media freedom saying it's time to use Magnitsky sanctions to protect journalists at risk abroad.

Number four, we should set up within the framework of our immigration and refugee system the fast tracking of those who are increasingly under threat in China and who may wish to you know return to Canada as returning Canadians or others who may be seeking refuge here.

Five, I think we should work together with the other democracies. It's hard for Canada to act alone for the reasons I've mentioned, CCP will target Canada and bully it and leverage its economic power. But we have established in June an interparliamentary alliance on China, I'm co-chair from Canada, but since we've established it, we have exposed and unmasked a lot of the mass atrocities to which I've been referencing and also have called for Magnitsky sanctions etcetera. What we need now is a parallel intergovernmental alliance on China so that the convergence of an intergovernmental alliance, an interparliamentary alliance and the mobilization of civil society can begin to invert what has been an asymmetrical relationship of bullying by China to a relationship whereby the community of democracies at a governmental democratic level, civil society begin to turn that asymmetry on its head. So these are some of the things that I think we can do and that we should start working with our fellow democracies for that purpose.

Jon Festinger

Professor Cotler, I want to give you the last word on I think in some ways the most crucial point that can be made here, but before I do give you that last word, I want to thank you for joining us yet again for a third podcast and a running commentary in very interesting times, at the least very important times, that we're going to look back at, on democracy, on the threats of authoritarianism, and on the rule of law and its role in protecting democracy. So the final question, you've just talked about state action and you talked about it in regards to China but it would apply more broadly, want to take it to us as individuals, as lawyers and as ordinary citizens, and not about any particular country or state but how do we as individual lawyers, how do we as ordinary citizens, stand up against authoritarianism effectively? This has been your life's work and what wisdom can you give us? What can you remind us of that we need to do when we see authoritarianism, what can we do, how do we do it? I know it's a complex question and I'll just leave you with the last word on that subject and we'll fade out from there.

Irwin Cotler

As I think we said in an earlier broadcast, you know we're witnessing and living through a COVID 19 pandemic but there are a number of other pandemics that we need to address and confront. There is what I would call the global political pandemic that's characterized by a resurgent global authoritarianism, the retreat or silence of the democracies, the assault on human rights, the particular assault on media freedom and political prisoners as a looking glass into all of the above.

And I might add that political prisoners regrettably are increasing dramatically as we speak. And when I say that, in Russia, we hear about Navalny but we may have ignored the fact that the number of political prisoners in Russia has increased sevenfold in the last five years alone. The number of political prisoners in Communist China I've been addressing, has been increasing dramatically including the imprisonment of lawyers and human rights defenders and this is true amongst the other resurgent global authoritarians like Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and the like.

So I think in terms of what we can do in that regard is apart from exposing and unmasking this resurgent global authoritarianism as I've described it, we need to be engaged in the promotion and protection of democratic renewal and resilience. We need to be standing up for the brave human rights defenders and protestors, whether they be in Belarus or Venezuela and let them know that they are not alone. We need to take on the cases of these political prisoners who, as I said, are a looking glass into what China referred to what Canada was doing under the rule of law as being vile and evil, but we need to in fact shine the spotlight onto the vile and evil behaviour engaged in the imprisonment, detention and torture of these political prisoners, many of whom are languishing in COVID infested prisons.

So we should take up their cases and causes and who better than lawyers who have a repository of experience and expertise for that purpose and you know there are a number of political prisoners that we at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre and myself have taken up their cases and causes but I would like to see lawyers either take up and join us in these cases or some others I'm referring, we discussed is iconic Iranian women's rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh in Iran and as I'm speaking you know Iran is intensifying its persecution and prosecutions of the Baha'i in Iran, for example. There are other women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia who very much need the help and assistance. I'm representing the imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi there but there are others that need representation and there's been an assault on press freedom in Saudi Arabia.

So I think lawyers can come together and using and working together with law students in that regard, this would be an excellent clinical training exercise as well for lawyers working together with law professors and law students and creating a critical mass of advocacy on behalf of these political prisoners who are a looking glass into this resurgent global authoritarianism and at the same time these political prisoners are at the forefront of the struggle for democratic renewal and resilience today.

Jon Festinger

Thanks for listening. Professor Cotler covered a lot of ground with us today. We talked about recent events in the US, the mob attack on the Capitol building, and the rule of law implications. He also spoke about his time as special advisor to former attorney general John Turner during the October Crisis in Canada in 1970 and the rationale for enacting the War Measures Act at the time. We then contrasted this Canadian historical event to what is happening right now in China where Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are currently detained. Professor Cotler warned against foreign influences that are infiltrating right here close to home. Lastly, Professor Cotler outlined specific steps we can take as a country to combat authoritarianism.

If you want to learn more about the rule of law, visit the Law Society's website at lawsociety.bc.ca. If you liked today's episode, please subscribe and leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts. We've also set up an email to receive your feedback. If you have suggestions or comments, please email us at podcast@lsbc.org. Vinnie Yuen is our producer today. This is your host, Jon Festinger, signing off.