Iran, the UN, and international law:
by Irwin Cotler

Published: 12 October 2012
Briefing Number 320

Click to Printclick here to print page

Summary: This Briefing summarises the liability of Iran for crimes under international law.  It comprises an article written by Canadian politician, lawyer and human rights activist Irwin Cotler in response to the latest visit to the United Nations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in September 2012.  Cotler concisely summarises

- Iranian support for international terrorism
- Iranian support for Syrian state crimes
- Iranian persecution of religious minorities and other groups
- Iranian incitement to genocide

Cotler not only factually summarises the crimes of Ahmadinejad and the Iranian state.  He compellingly shows that Ahmadinejad’s participation at the UN General Assembly flouts domestic, international and humanitarian law.

Only the USA, Israel and Canada refused to attend when Ahmadinejad spoke at the UN. All European countries took part.
Key message:  Cotler shows that world participation in this latest appearance encourages Ahmadinejad’s extremism and sets back the search for a resolution of the Iranian crisis.  Those who support the Israel in its quest to avert an Iranian crisis need to ask themselves –

“How far is my government colluding in the involvement of Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly? Is my government’s stance helping or hindering a peaceful solution?”          

The background

On 26 September 2012, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  In September each year, over a hundred heads of state gather in New York to address the gathering: this was Ahmadinejad’s sixth annual visit since 2007.

Ahmadinejad’s previous speeches have included calls for the elimination of the Zionist regime, combined with blatant anti-semitism: see Beyond Images Briefing 239, 19 April 2009 – Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitism at the UN: and the deafening silence among Western elites)        

On this occasion, his visit to the UN General Assembly followed a mere few weeks after he publicly called Israel a “cancerous tumour” and an “insult to humankind”. 

Ahmadinejad’s visit prompted Canadian politician, lawyer and human rights activist Irwin Cotler to protest.   We have published Cotler’s published article below.   While it specifically addresses Ahmadinejad’s September 2012 visit, it also conveniently summarises Iranian liability generally under international criminal law.

Cotler’s article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 23 September 2012 (see

The background of Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament, and is the former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada.  He is an emeritus professor of law at McGill University and has written extensively on Iran.  He has previously prosecuted for incitement to genocide. Cotler is currently a co-chairman of the Canadian Inter-parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran.

Cotler wrote as follows:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN, September 2012

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in New York to address the UN General Assembly, a man who should be in the dock of the accused will instead be given an international podium – a cruel parody of law and justice that will put us on the wrong side of history.

Ahmadinejad will enter the US despite being inadmissible under American law. He will address the UN General Assembly despite being in violation of its UN Charter and international law.   And he will be indulged by universities, institutes and the media, thereby sanitising his crimes and mocking the suffering of the Iranian people.

Providing Ahmadinejad with a UN pulpit ignores basic tenets of international law

Let there be no mistake about it: a person who pursues the most destructive of weaponry in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, who incites to genocide, who is complicit in crimes against humanity, who is engaged in a massive repression of the human rights of his own citizens, who assaults the basic tenets of the UN Charter – such a person should be indicted by this international body, rather than have it provide a pulpit.

Simply put, this charade – repeated annually since 2007 – ignores and undermines basic principles of domestic, international and humanitarian law.

Indeed, Ahmadinejad belongs on the US ‘watchlist’ – those who “aid terrorists.... persecute religious minorities.... or are prohibited from entering the US.....”

The evidence of Ahmadinejad’s criminality on each of these counts is compelling.

Iranian support for international terrorism

In the matter of aiding terrorists, the US State department has once again named Iran as the leading state sponsor of international terrorism.  In particular, Ahmadinejad’s Iran recruits, trains, finances, instigates and arms its terrorist proxies, such as Hamas and Hizbollah, whose platforms and policies are themselves replete with genocidal calls for the destruction of Israel.

Indeed, Iran and Hezbollah have their footprints not only in the recent attacks on Israelis in Bulgaria, but in terrorist attacks spanning five continents in 2012 alone.

Iranian support for Syrian state crimes

Moreover, Iran is complicit in the international criminality of Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime.  This criminal support includes sending military equipment, munitions and surveillance technology – involving also Iranian al-Quds special forces – all to help sustain the brutality of the Assad regime. 

Persecution of religious minorities and other groups

In the matter of religious persecution, one need only recall Iran’s massive domestic repression, particularly targeting religious minorities, especially the Bahai – Iran’s largest such group – whose members are subject to harassment, repression, torture, imprisonment and execution. 

Women, students, workers, dissidents, journalists and academics – and those who would defend them – are also routinely persecuted. Moreover, Iran leads the world in per capita executions and the execution of minors, as well as in the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers. 

Iranian incitement to genocide

In the matter of incitement to genocide, the evidence here is particularly compelling and disturbing, as Ahmadinejad’s genocidal incitement is the terrifying and vilifying context for Iran’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Last month alone, Ahmadinejad called to “remove the Zionist black stain from the human society” adding that the very existence of Israel is an insult to humankind and an affront to all world nations....” and requiring the wiping out of this “scarlet letter from the ..... forehead of humanity”.

Indeed, this state-sanctioned culture of hate and incitement to genocide has been persistent, pervasive and pernicious. 

The 21st century began with Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for the “annihilation of the Jewish state”.  It was followed by the parading in the streets of Tehran of a Shihab-3 missile draped in the emblem “Wipe Israel off the map, as the Imam says”.

(See Beyond Images Briefing 237 – 17 March 2009: The speech of Iran’s Supreme religious leader Khamenei, calling for Israel’s destruction)

It has continued with the use of epidemiological metaphors referring to Jews as “filthy bacteria” and Israel as “a cancer that must be removed”, reminiscent of the Nazis calling the Jews “vermin” and the Rwandan Hutus calling the Tutsis “cockroaches”, the whole as prologue to and justification for a genocide foretold.

(For more see Beyond Images Briefing 217, dated 25 July 2008 – Iranian leaders’ incitement to genocide against the Jewish people)

Ahmadinejad should be the object of a criminal incitement

Instead of being granted a podium at the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad should be the object of a criminal indictment.

Simply put, a person who has already committed the crime of “direct and public incitement to genocide” in violation of international law – punishable whether or not a genocide has occurred – who is complicit in crimes against humanity both at home and abroad – has no place at the UN.  Let alone its most distinguished podium.

Indeed, how can a UN forum host one who openly and avowedly seeks the destruction of a member state?  As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said recently in Teheran, “I strongly reject threats by any member state to destroy another or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust” – yet Ahmadinejad continues to call for the destruction of Israel while denying the Holocaust.

UN Treaty protection should not override international criminal law

Despite the clear and compelling evidence of Ahmadinejad’s inadmissibility to the US under both domestic and international law, he is likely to return to the UN because of the 1947 Headquarters Agreement – a UN treaty wherein the US agreed not to impede access of representatives of member states to UN headquarters in New York.

While this agreement is said to trump American domestic law, the fact is that the Vienna Law of Treaties affirms that jus cogens – the pre-emptory norms of international law – such as incitement to genocide and crimes against humanity – override any treaty.  Ahmadinejad’s crimes are such jus cogens crimes.  The Headquarters Agreement should not avail and must not prevail.

Moreover, Article 99 of the UN Charter grants the Secretary-General the power to refer issues that “threaten the maintenance of international peace and security” to the UN Security Council.  This can – and should – be done, as surely there is no greater threat to international peace and security today than Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

Member States should call on the Secretary-General to take pro-active measures to ensure the UN does not provide a forum to one who callously and deliberately defies, mocks and violates the principles and decisions of the UN and its respective agencies, its charter, and American law itself.

If the US nonetheless allows him entry, Ahmadinejad’s travel should be restricted to only those parts of New York under UN authority, the Iranian mission and the airport.  The US government is not obliged to treat him as an innocent tourist: rather, it should isolate and shun him as the war criminal he is.

Practical ways of holding Iran accountable for its crimes

Even if none of these options is exercised, there are ways to break this cycle of impunity and hold the Iranian leadership for its crimes.          

The international community should act in solidarity with the oppressed people of Iran by providing neither shield nor platform for their oppressors.

  • Countries should fulfil their responsibilities under international law – include the Genocide Convention – and refer the Iranian leader’s criminal incitement to genocide to appropriate UN agencies for investigation and sanction.  It is astonishing that this criminal incitement has yet to be addressed by any UN body, though the UN finds it fit to give Ahmadinejad a podium this week.  Moreover, inter-state complaints against Iran could be initiated at the International Court of Justice, while the Iranian leadership could be made to answer for its crimes at the International Criminal Court.
  • Similarly, Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders should be placed on a watchlist by concerned countries, preventing their entrance as “inadmissible persons”.
  • Finally, enhanced comprehensive, consequential and targeted multilateral sanctions must 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 bring dictators like Milosevic and Pinochet to justice.

Ahmadinejad must be held to account for his criminality – not rewarded for it.  Our choice is clear: we can either act or be on the wrong side of history.


Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Briefing 237 – 17 March 2009
The speech of Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei: His call for Israel’s destruction

Briefing 239 – 19 April 2009
Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitism at the UN.... and the “deafening silence” among Western elites

Briefing 217 – 25 July 2008
Iranian leaders’ incitement to genocide against the Jewish people

Briefing 309 – March 2012
“Israel has nuclear weapons.  Why can’t Iran....?”

Briefing 317 – August 2012
Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons: the IAEA’s grim conclusions, in 2012

Briefing 318 – August 2012           
Ahmadinejad and Khameini:
Iran’s latest calls for Israel’s annihilation, August 2012