Irwin Cotler is the international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and a former federal justice minister. Amanda Ghahremani is an international human rights lawyer and a research associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in Montreal. Alex Neve is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and former secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
According to the prevailing wisdom, foreign policy does not generally feature prominently during Canadian elections. Unfortunately, the 2021 federal campaign bore that out. The crisis in Afghanistan came up, though far less than it merited; there were also passing references to China, including the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whose return to Canada we now celebrate, as well as the issue of the Chinese government’s genocide against the Uyghur people.
But that’s about it. And there was nothing about the situation in Iran – a major foreign policy issue that is also a significant concern for Canadians, particularly with respect to the continuing fallout from the shooting down of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at Tehran’s airport on Jan. 8, 2020.
Now that the election is over, however, it is vital that this incident becomes a top priority for the new government.
The impact in Canada of the downing of PS752 was devastating. Among the 176 victims, 55 were Canadian citizens and 83 were permanent residents or had other close ties to Canada. A majority of the passengers were travelling to Canada, heading to Kyiv to change planes there. And so across Canada, hundreds of family members and friends of those killed had to cope with the unimaginable pain of this sudden and horrific loss. They are demanding truth and accountability for this terrible crime; they are asserting their right to fair reparations; they are seeking assurances that this will never happen again.
The Canadian government has responded forcefully. Marc Garneau and François-Philippe Champagne, the current and former foreign affairs ministers, respectively, have devoted considerable attention to seeking a resolution, as have numerous Canadian diplomats and other officials. Canada has actively worked with other governments whose nationals were killed in the incident. And in May, the government appointed respected international lawyer Payam Akhavan as a senior adviser on this file.
And yet, more than 20 months since this tragedy, families still have no clear answers.
This is a glaring example of Iran’s long-standing flagrant disregard of its international human rights obligations, which has, for decades, been indulged by governments around the world that have failed to hold Iran to account. PS752 joins countless wrenching chapters in a disgraceful history of persecution, violence, and impunity by Iran.
Indeed, while concerns about politics, Iran-U.S. relations, terrorism and air safety dominate much of the discourse around PS752, let us not forget that the issue is, at its core, all about human rights. That has been made clear by the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Iran and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (among others), who have issued several comprehensive reports and statements about the shooting down of PS752.
Canada’s next minister of foreign affairs should prioritize this file. The RCMP should open a criminal investigation into what happened, given the non-existent prospect of justice and fair trials in Iran. The results of this investigation would be shared with Ukrainian authorities, who are currently pursuing possible prosecutions.
The government should also promptly take all necessary diplomatic and legal steps to launch proceedings at the International Civil Aviation Organization and even the International Court of Justice, unless negotiations with Iran toward a fair resolution immediately show more promise.
There must also be more action taken to protect family members and protesters in Iran who have been targeted by the Iranian government for arbitrary arrest, intimidation and torture simply because they have demanded that there be justice for the victims of PS752. This should include the possible imposition of Magnitsky sanctions (under Canada’s Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials legislation) against Iranian officials responsible for such violations.
Finally, families have called for ways to commemorate those whose lives were so brutally ended on Jan. 8, 2020, including a memorial site and annual day of remembrance. Efforts should be made to put those into place by the time the second anniversary of the tragedy comes around in 2022.
It is regrettable we did not hear much about PS752 during the election. Regardless, we must now see concrete and determined action in pursuit of justice.
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