Text size

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke on Monday at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York and is due to give his main address on Wednesday – Yom Kippur.. He once again seeks the podium of this international body to spew the lies and venom with which the world is now familiar. He is not the first war criminal to seek the world stage and will not be the last. And the U.S. is obliged under the 1947 U.S.-UN "Headquarters Agreement" to issue visas to all representatives of Member States, however bizarre their views and repressive their regimes.

But the U.S. has drawn a line against allowing Member States or other entities to send as their representatives to the UN individuals who are personally responsible for universally recognized crimes for which no form of international immunity may be given. The U.S. refused to issue a visa for Yasser Arafat in 1988 on the ground that he had personally ordered the killing of a U.S. diplomat, an internationally recognized crime, in addition to the crime of murder under U.S. law. In 1987, the U.S. refused to issue a visa to former Secretary General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, on the ground that he had hidden his personal involvement in participating in the killing of Jews during World War II, as a Nazi officer. These precedents surely mandate that Ahmadinejad should be in the docket of the accused in some international tribunal rather than given a visa to attend the UN.

Ahmadinejad's many crimes are well documented. Under his leadership, Iran continues its complicity in state-sponsored terrorism abroad while massively repressing its population at home; it also pursues nuclear weapons in defiance of the IAEA and the UN Security Council. As president of a state actively assisting the Syrian government in committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, Ahmadinejad has all but violated every basic tenet of the UN Charter.

If these heinous offenses are insufficient to justify his exclusion, two specific crimes for which he is also guilty mandate that treatment, as these offenses are not subject to any form of immunity, and allowing him to enter the U.S. potentially subjects him to criminal and civil suit. These are, first, his call for the destruction of Israel, a Member State of the UN, and his clear incitement of and support for genocide, a crime under the Genocide Convention, which is universally adopted and which states are obliged to implement through their criminal laws.

Indeed, the 'jus cogens' norms of international law - including the strict prohibition of crimes against humanity and genocide - supersede any treaty and must be observed by the international community at all costs, the least concern being the potential disruption of UN proceedings in New York were Ahmadinejad to have been denied entry.

Ahmadinejad's violations of the Genocide Convention's prohibition against "direct and public incitement to genocide" - symbolized by the parading the streets of Tehran of a Shiab-3 missile draped with the emblem "Wipe Israel off the map" – should have been cause alone for exclusion from the UN General Assembly meeting. Recently, Ahmadinejad characterized Israel as an "insult to humanity" and "a cancerous tumor" while calling, yet again, for its "disappearance."

Further, under Ahmadinejad, Iran has intensified its oppression and persecution of religious minorities, especially the Baha'i - Iran's largest such group - whose members are subject to harassment, repression, torture, imprisonment, and execution, let alone the wide-spread and systematic assaults on women, students, workers, dissidents, journalists - and those who would defend them.

The international community, led by the U.S., should act in solidarity with the oppressed people of Iran, and should not serve as a shield or platform for their oppressors. Countries like the U.S. and Canada should fulfill their responsibilities under international law - including the Genocide Convention - and refer the Iranian leader's criminal incitement to genocide to appropriate UN agencies. It is astonishing that this criminal incitement has not been addressed by any UN body, though the UN has found it fit to give Ahmadinejad a podium yet again today and on Wednesday.

Inter-state complaints against Iran could be initiated at the International Court of Justice, while Ahmadinejad and his cohorts could be made to answer for their crimes at the International Criminal Court.

Finally, comprehensive, consequential, and targeted multilateral sanctions should be adopted - and enforced - not only for Iran's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, but also for its sponsorship of international terrorism and massive violations of human rights.

History shows that sustained international juridical efforts can sometimes bring dictators like Milosevic and Pinochet to justice. The failure to take such significant, albeit somewhat symbolic, actions will increase the prospects of the deaths and destruction that seem inevitably to result when racist war criminals can exercise sovereign power in breach of established norms of international conduct.

Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and is co-chair of the Inter-parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Rights. Abe Sofaer is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy and National Security Affairs at the Hoover Institution, is a former legal advisor to the US State Department (1985 - 1990) and author of Taking On Iran: Strength, Diplomacy and the Iranian Threat.