March 19, 2009 08:45 Age: 5 yrs

World Must Hold Iran Responsible for Threats of Genocide

Iran’s highest officials should be held legally accountable by the international community for their language of “genocidal incitement” toward Israel, said Canadian Parliamentarian and former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, who spoke at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) this week.

“These hateful messages emerging from Tehran are not benign, are not mere rhetoric, and are anything but harmless. And instead of abating, this language has been intensifying,” says Cotler, a world-renowned human rights advocate, legal scholar, and international human rights lawyer.

Cotler has been described as being “at the forefront of the struggle for justice, peace and, human rights.” Among his numerous successes are securing the release of Natan Sharansky from the Soviet gulag in 1986, his service as Counsel to prisoners of conscience, including Nelson Mandela, and issuing Canada’s first ever National Justice Initiative Against Racism and Hate.

The lecture is available via CSLR’s website and through Emory on iTunes U (go to Topics/Community/When Law and Religion Meet album).

Cotler said that Iran’s possible nuclear threat increases exponentially when paired with its leaders -- including President Mahmūd Ahmadinejād and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- publicly calling for the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state. “It is a toxic convergence of the genocidal and the nuclear,” he says. “To focus on the nuclear threat but ignore the genocidal almost sanitizes it.”

Genocide is the most “ferocious and horrifying of all human crimes . . . a word we should shudder to mention,” he said, adding that any incitement to genocide is prohibited under international law and state parties to the United Nation’s Genocide Convention, including the United States, have the obligation to take action to prevent genocide.

The repeated incendiary threats from Iran -- such as Khamenei’s statement that “there is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Jewish state” -- require an immediate and passionate response from the United States and the international community, Cotler told the crowd that filled Emory Law’s Tull Auditorium. Instead, he says, these statements are being met by the media and the rest of the world with a “silence that borders on acquiescence.”

“In all other cases of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide -- the Holocaust, Rwanda, the Balkans, Darfur -- the genocides have already occurred. Such crimes cannot be reversed, those killed cannot be brought back to life,” he said. “Only with respect to Iran can we still act so as to prevent a genocide foretold.

“As one involved in the prosecution of Rwandan genocidal 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,” Cotler said.

Cotler outlined the “precursors to genocide,” all of which are apparent in Iran’s attitude toward Israel: delegitimization, in which potential victims are made to be seen as illegitimate and unworthy; dehumanization, through metaphors that liken the intended victims to corpses, animals, insects, vermin, cancer, bacteria, or a “stain” upon the earth; demonization, which portrays would-be victims as evil incarnate and Satanic; denial of victims’ “false” claims (such as Holocaust denial); and accusation of diabolical plans of the victims’ own (the “Zionist threat”).

Cotler released a “Responsibility to Prevent” petition late last year urging that “Ahmadinejad’s Iran” be held to account for its genocidal incitement. The petition has been signed by a host of renowned jurists, scholars, law school deans, genocide survivors, and human rights activists. Its distribution coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (also known as the “Never Again” Convention).

“I take care to distinguish Ahmadinejad’s Iran from the peoples of Iran, who are themselves increasingly the target of the Iranian regime’s massive repression of human rights,” Cotler says.

The petition urges, among other possible courses, state parties of the Genocide Convention to hold Iran to account through an application to the U.N. Security Council, or to launch an inter-state complaint against Iran before the International Court of Justice. “Only this sort of action will give meaning to the Charter of the U.N. and will end a culture of impunity.”

He also encourages civil society – students, women’s groups, labor unions and more – to forge international alliances to hold Iran accountable.

Cotler delivered the inaugural Harold J. Berman lecture as part of CSLR’s “When Law and Religion Meet” lecture series. Berman (1918-2007) was Emory’s first Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law and is considered the father of the modern study of law and religion.


The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University ( is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.

Emory University ( is known for its demanding academics, outstanding undergraduate experience, highly ranked professional schools and state-of-the-art research facilities. Perennially ranked as one of the country's top 20 national universities by U.S. News & World Report, Emory encompasses nine academic divisions as well as the Carlos Museum, The Carter Center, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory Healthcare, Georgia’s largest and most comprehensive health care system.

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