Coronavirus: This is China’s Chernobyl moment, says Irwin Cotler

'China’s leadership must be held to account for its criminality and corruption,’ renowned jurist and human rights activist Irwin Cotler says

IRWIN COTLER participates in a news conference of the Organization of American States (OEA in French) in May.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
IRWIN COTLER participates in a news conference of the Organization of American States (OEA in French) in May.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The world must hold the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party accountable for covering up information about the coronavirus, former Canadian justice minister and current chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights Irwin Cotler said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Cotler spoke out against the CCP’s “long standing culture of criminality, corruption and impunity.”
That impunity, with the world taking weak action or none at all in response to a broad range of human rights violations by the Chinese government – from being the world’s leading jailer of journalists to internment of Uighurs to repressing protesters in Hong Kong, among many others – left an opening for behavior that likely led to this global pandemic being worse than it may have been if China was a more open society.
“What we have here is the same culture of criminality and corruption, which is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus through their suppression of information; silencing and even imprisonment or disappearing of doctors and dissidents; and a false, misleading global disinformation campaign,” Cotler argued.
“The behavior of the CCP endangers both Chinese citizens and the international community,” he added. “This is China’s Chernobyl moment. It is tragically a self-inflicted wound.”
Cotler spoke on the same day that the Hong Kong Free Press published an open letter from Cotler and over a hundred other public figures, policy analysts and China scholars standing in solidarity with “the real heroes and martyrs who risk their life and liberty for a free and open China.”
The renowned jurist sought to emphasize that he wants to differentiate between the Chinese people and the CCP under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
He cited examples of numerous Chinese whistleblowers who were punished by the authorities, such as Prof. Xu Zhangrun, the leading public intellectual in China who “called on [his] compatriots to rage against this injustice, which cost him his freedom.”
Cotler pointed to doctors like Li Wenliang, the initial whistleblower on the coronavirus who then died of the disease, and Dr. Ai Fen, the director of emergency medicine at Wuhan Hospital, who has not been seen since she spoke publicly about the mishandling of the outbreak. Another seven of her colleagues have since been arrested or disappeared.
“Instead of China heeding the warnings coming from their own medical leaders and scholars, they ended up suppressing the information, imprisoning the dissidents and then engaging in a disinformation campaign that went so far as to say the US military or the Italians caused the virus,” he said.
Cotler called for the international community to support “the brave Chinese citizens imprisoned for seeking to tell the truth,” and for “the Communist Party and leadership [to] be held accountable.
“The international community has to begin to hold Chinese leadership accountable – and stand with the brave Chinese citizens and let them know that they’re not alone, that we stand in solidarity with them,” he stated.
Those leaders should be “named and shamed in the court of public opinion,” he said, adding that Magnitsky Sanctions – the name of a sanctions regime against individual members of the Russian government the US believed were involved in the death of a whistleblower – should be put in place against CCP leaders, “to hold individuals accountable for human rights violations, not just governments.”
Cotler lamented that “China is simply not ever held accountable,” pointing out that, “WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom was affirming and partaking in the misinformation and suppression of information.
“The UN system, which should be part of those exposing this culture of corruption and holding them accountable, has actually been indulging China and even rewarding it,” Cotler lamented. “China sits on the UN Human Rights Council, which is not supposed to be a place for human rights violators. They have more resolutions against Israel than the whole world combined, and none against China.”
He admitted that powerful economic interests have stood in the way of action, but said “don’t ever sacrifice human rights for trade.”
Cotler was optimistic that the world will take action this time, because of coronavirus’s ubiquity.
“I think this may end up becoming a wake-up call for the international community, that the Chinese leadership may no longer be given a free pass,” he stated. “This culture of criminality and corruption can no longer be ignored, let alone indulged. The impunity must end. Accountability for human rights violators will have to emerge.”
Cotler has a long history of providing legal counsel to political prisoners and dissidents, including refuseniks Natan Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein, as well as Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
He has also represented Chinese dissidents for the past 20 years, starting with a former colleague of his at McGill University, Kunlun Zhang, who was a practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice whose adherents are oppressed in China. Zhang visited China and engaged in Falun Gong practices, and was then arrested and tortured; he was released a year later.
Cotler has also represented Dr. Wang Bingzhang since his arrest in 2002. Bingzhang lived in Canada and was the head of the Chinese democracy movement abroad. He was kidnapped when visiting Vietnam and has been in a Chinese prison ever since – and has suffered three strokes. When his daughter Ti-Anna Wang sought to visit him in January 2019, she brought her infant with her to China, and they were arrested as well, though she was eventually released.
“This shows the cruelty of this leadership,” Cotler said. “We have to continue to have relations with the Chinese citizenry, but it is this particular government that has a culture of criminality, corruption and impunity.”