Acute disasters reveal Canada’s chronic shortcomings
The duty to protect has become a signature expression of Canadian commitment to an international humanitarian-law doctrine. We sponsored the international commission on state sovereignty and humanitarian intervention, to the effect that when a threshold of mass atrocity is reached, of humanitarian catastrophe, there is a responsibility on the part of the international community to intervene and protect the victims of that humanitarian catastrophe.”
                                                                                      --Irwin Cotler, Dec, 21, 2004*

Canadian Arab News
January 20, 2005

One year ago, I wrote the second of several columns about the cabal of government MPs who are subverting Canada’s foreign policy to serve Israel. I focused specifically on the most influential member of this cabal, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, because he meddles directly in Middle East policy and propagates the bigoted nonsense of the “new anti-Semitism.”

Cotler gets away with all this because he is well known as a human rights lawyer, but that reputation is highly questionable, as the column showed:

“If Cotler were a legitimate champion of human rights he would denounce the Israeli-manufactured starvation in the Gaza Strip; the torture of Palestinian detainees; dehumanizing checkpoint searches; and arbitrary housing demolitions. Unfortunately, Cotler doesn’t deem the human rights of Palestinians to be a major concern.

“On Dec. 18, [2003,] he told the Canadian Jewish News that the ‘urgent humanitarian catastrophe’ in Africa should be part of a new ‘Jewish agenda,’ and he has urged Martin and the Liberal caucus to make Africa ‘the most urgent priority for Canadian foreign policy.’

“Translation: If we keep the public focused on ‘hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, armed conflict, violations of human rights and pillaging of resources.’ in Africa, we will distract it from ‘hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, armed conflict, violations of human rights and pillaging of resources’ in Palestine.”

The quote at the top of this column proves the essential accuracy of my analysis one year ago. The telling point is the abominable expression “threshold of mass atrocity.”

How can an atrocity have a threshold? What distinguishes a mass atrocity from a lesser atrocity? If this question does have an answer, and a threshold is not reached, is the international community absolved of its responsibility to intervene to protect the victims? If yes, that means some lives are more worth saving than others.

To the average person, this inevitable conclusion is macabre and odious, but Cotler is anything but an average person. He’s Israel’s main man around the Cabinet table, which means propping up a moral double-standard is integral to his ability to insulate Israel from condemnation over the “lesser atrocity,” in Occupied Palestine, and the U.S.’s total destruction of Falluja with the loss of 100,000 Iraqi lives.

Cotler’s Africa-first policy is directed largely at the murder and dispossession of civilians in Sudan’s western Darfur province. Human Rights Watch describes the conduct of the government soldiers and Janjaweed militias as “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity.”

Cotler is right to offer Canada’s unquestioned support for a humanitarian intervention in Sudan. It is an acute disaster on a par with the death and destruction that the tsunami wrought on South Asia. The only major difference is that one is an act of man and the other an act of nature.

The outpouring of official compassion and aid for the victims of these acute crises is gratifying but also shameful, given the virtual lack of official compassion and aid afforded the victims of Israeli and U.S. atrocities. Darfur and the tsunami are somehow deemed to exceed the threshold for a mass atrocity, but Israel’s Occupation is apparently exempt.

The distinction between acute and chronic atrocities is key to understanding our selective morality. The Occupation is a slow, methodical campaign of murder, bigotry and theft. The best depiction of it comes from the Book of Exodus (23:29–31) where Yahweh lays down the fundamentals of ethnic cleansing.

“I will not drive [the Canaanites and Hittites] out from before thee in one year; lest the land become desolate, and the beast of the field multiply against thee. By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land. And I will set thy bounds from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert unto the river: for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.”

Even though the tsunami crisis demands our immediate attention, the response to it has been so conspicuously large that it cannot be explained by magnanimity alone. Why hasn’t the music industry put on a benefit concert for the Palestinian victims of home demolitions or state torture? No corporation is matching donations to rebuild schools and hospitals. The UN operates in the Gaza Strip, but it is vilified if it condemns the Occupation.

So long as tsunami relief efforts dominate the news, world leaders will be able to burnish their images as champions of human rights and have an excuse not to pay attention to Palestine, where civilians are tortured, killed by aerial bombardment, dispossessed, and forced into refugee camps, just like in Darfur.

In Falluja, meanwhile, the destruction and loss of life from the U.S. bombardment is so horrific and total that it has been equated with the bombing of Guernica. On April, 26, 1937, Nazi airmen leveled the old Basque capital to demoralize the resistance to Franco’s Nationalist forces. Throughout November 2004, U.S. airmen levelled Falluja to demoralize popular resistance to the U.S.-led occupation and its puppet regime in Baghdad. One hundred thousand Iraqi civilians were murdered.

Even an acute atrocity of this magnitude doesn’t seem to meet Cotler’s humanitarian threshold. The survivors of the tsunami can at least be thankful for one saving grace—the world cares.

* Matthew Kalman, “Canada to put own stamp on peace process, Cotler says,” Globe and Mail, Dec. 22, 2004.