The Honourable Irwin Cotler, Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, issued the following statement on the occasion of Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day:
Today Canadians join together with the international community in reflecting upon the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg.
A paradigm of moral courage and effective action, this Swedish diplomat rescued some 100,000 Jews in the span of six months during World War Two, singlehandedly saving more lives than did almost any government.
Raoul Wallenberg, in his incredible heroism, may from a justice perspective be said to have presaged today's foundational principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. For example:
First, in the distribution of “Schutzpasses” – diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity on their recipients – and in the establishment of safe houses conferring diplomatic sanctuary on their inhabitants. Raoul Wallenberg is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives by these means alone.
Second, in his singular protection of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust, he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law.
Third, in his organization of hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages – the staples of international humanitarian assistance that provided women, children, the sick and the elderly with a semblance of dignity in the face of the worst of all horrors and evils – Wallenberg symbolized the best of what we today would call international humanitarian intervention.
Fourth, in saving Jews from certain death, deportation and atrocity, he symbolized what today we would call the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
Wallenberg's last rescue was perhaps his most memorable. As the Nazis were advancing on Budapest and threatening to murder the remaining Jews there, he had the Nazi generals put on notice that they would be held accountable and brought to justice for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nazi generals desisted from their assault and countless lives were saved. In so warning the Nazis that they would be held responsible for their war crimes, Wallenberg was a forerunner of the principles that serve as a cornerstone of modern international criminal law.
Indeed, Wallenberg's heroism embodies and symbolizes universal lessons, with their contemporary international resonance and importance for our time:
• The dangers of forgetting – the responsibility to remember – le devoir de mémoire;
• The dangers of state-sanctioned cultures of hate and incitement – the responsibility to prevent;
• The dangers of indifference and inaction – the responsibility to act;
• The dangers of impunity – the responsibility to bring war criminals to justice;
• The dangers of mass atrocities – the responsibility to protect:
• The dangers of la Trahison des Clercs –the responsibility to speak truth to power;
• The dangers of racism and anti-Semitism – the responsibility to confront and combat.
Yet, Wallenberg was not treated as a liberator by the Soviets. Arrested and disappeared into the Gulag – a man who saved so many but was not saved by so many who could – Wallenberg's legacy also highlights the need to stand up in defence of political prisoners.
Anchored in the lessons of this disappeared hero of humanity – whom the UN called "the greatest humanitarian of the 20th Century” – the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights spearheaded the founding of an All-Party Parliamentary Caucus for Human Rights bearing his name. The Caucus is engaged in the honouring and implementation of Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy through the advocacy of global human rights initiatives, including the promotion of democracy, human rights, and international justice, and the combating of the culture of impunity; the combating of racism, hate, anti-Semitism and terrorism; universal lessons for the preventing and combating of mass atrocity; and defending of political prisoners whose freedom can transform history. Members of the caucus will also support the annual Iran Accountability Week, which seeks to stand in solidarity with the Iranian people as it exposes and unmasks the massive domestic repression and criminalization of freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. Other human rights initiatives include the promotion of the Magnitsky Global Justice and Accountability legislation, as well as an international justice campaign seeking to combat impunity in the UN human rights system – all as inspired by Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy.
Indeed, today we pay tribute to the singular heroism of Canada’s first honourary citizen, someone who demonstrates that one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil, prevail, and transform history.
May Raoul Wallenberg Day not only be an act of remembrance – but a remembrance to always act.