Irwin Cotler: Human rights crusader retires as MP

| April 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Photos by Dyanne Wilson

Photos by Dyanne Wilson

Irwin Cotler, who has been called the “pre-eminent voice in the fight against oppression,” is retiring after 16 years as an MP, a job he didn’t really want, at least in the beginning. As the tireless crusader for human rights, freedom and democracy, tells Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, he has no plans to change his causes or his work day, except that he won’t be on Parliament Hill quite as regularly.

Diplomat magazine: What are your plans for after you retire as an MP?
Irwin Cotler: The issues — the Holocaust, genocide, human rights and universal lessons — remain. Now there are even more commemorative events. That’s one generic area I’ll be involved in.
I once moved a motion to have a national day of reflection on the prevention of genocide. It was inspired by the Rwandan genocide. We adopted it unanimously in Parliament, but, regrettably, the Rwandans are the ones who are commemorating it every year. So we have to internationalize the advocacy. This year, I’m hoping that on the 20th anniversary, maybe we can do something different. Last year, there was a good forum in Toronto.
Another issue of mine is political prisoners. That will still be with us. My involvement now is with a political prisoner on nearly every continent so as to highlight the globality of the situation. Political prisoners are usually a looking-glass into a country and its situation of oppression. In February, I was in Geneva, at a summit focusing on political prisoners. I was invited to be the guest speaker. We had actual former political prisoners from Vietnam and Burma, just to highlight the situations [there].
The struggle against impunity of bringing war criminals to justice is another one. It’s scandalous that you can have a situation like that of Sudan. [Omar al-] Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide and still, he can move around freely. And the fact is that we didn’t bring most of the Nazi war criminals to justice and that’s an indication they can get away with it.

"We will address racism and anti-semitism."

“We will address racism and anti-semitism.”

DM: Will you continue this work as a lawyer or an activist?
IC: I’ll most likely do it in the way David Kilgour has. He’s managed to do it in part because he’s remained involved with parliamentary groupings that invite former MPs. For example, the Parliamentary Forum for Democracy is one. He also remains active with NGOs. For example, we both sit on a New York-based NGO called Advancing Human Rights. It’s founded by the same person who founded Human Rights Watch. Third, he’s taken on specific causes and given them international resonance — the whole question of organ harvest in China, for example. So I think he’s an example of someone who’s stayed involved. There are outlets for former parliamentarians and the like and when I look back, my human rights advocacy began much before I became a parliamentarian.

"We made international justice a priority."

“We made international justice a priority.”

DM: You had a successful career as a McGill law professor and human rights lawyer — why go into the messy business of politics?
IC: It was an accident — an utter accident. I was a very happy law professor and was happily engaged in human rights and enjoying what I was doing. Sheila Finestone, the sitting member, was appointed to the Senate and there was a vacancy in the riding. A few people asked me to run. Not many. I remember going overseas and speaking and coming back. I found three things: There was an incipient grassroots movement to get me to run, there were already three candidates who’d declared and the deadline was four days hence. The deadline for nominations was the day after Yom Kippur and I was at the synagogue when the rabbi, who is a close friend of mine, got up and said ‘We’re going to draft Irwin Cotler for the nomination. He’s not agreed, he doesn’t want to do it, but you’re invited to his house two hours after the ending of the fast.’
That night, a whole slew of people came to my house. I said ‘No, I’m not interested.’ The next day, someone knocks on the door and says ‘I’m Jonathan Herman. You don’t know me but I’ve come to take you to get your nomination papers. The deadline is today.’ I said I wasn’t running. He said ‘Let’s just go for a drive.’ As we were driving, the three people who were running pulled out, so suddenly there were no candidates. My lawyer told me to see at it as a sabbatical. ‘You can go there for a year. You’ll be a better law professor, you’ll have that experience.’ So I came for a year… 16 years ago. I was professor on leave for 10 years because it was always a thought I’d go back and the intention was real.
After 10 years, I felt embarrassed, so I went to [the administration]. They said they’d make me emeritus, but I could always come back.
One of the things I want to do: Raoul Wallenberg is the first honorary citizen of Canada and my dream has been, for years, to set up an international human rights centre. I was already heading one up at McGill called InterAmicus. I was going to rename it the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for International Justice. Then I got elected, so the whole thing has been put in abeyance. But the motivations are the same.

"Aboriginal people should not be wards of the state."

“Aboriginal people should not be wards of the state.”

I see it as a unique international consortium of parliamentarians, scholars, human rights defenders, NGOs and students, united in the pursuit of justice, inspired by and anchored in Raoul Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy. It would be organized around four thematic projects that represent that legacy. First, we’d have “Raoul Wallenberg, hero of humanity: acts of remembrance and remembrance to act.” Under that, we’d seek to expand the countries of which he’s an honorary citizen. Right now it’s Canada, U.S., Israel and more recently, Australia, along with his native Sweden. We’d also establish an annual Raoul Wallenberg commemorative day. We have one in Canada, although it’s not that well known. We’d also, in the countries of citizenship, establish a Raoul Wallenberg human rights lectureship. We’ve done that at McGill and I’m hoping now to do it at Yale this April. The last thing under this first theme is determining the fate of Raoul Wallenberg. The person who saved so many was never saved by so many who could have saved him. The answer lies in Russia; that’s where the smoking gun is — in the Russian archives. The Wallenberg family has been working all these years with a wonderful group of research scholars who have a critical mass of evidence about what might have happened. A lot of unanswered questions can only be answered by the Russians. They finally agreed to have a conference on this in December 2013 and at the last minute, they cancelled.
The second theme would be The Holocaust, genocide and human rights: universal lessons for our time. Those are dangers of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide, the dangers of indifference in the face of mass atrocities and the danger of impunity.
The third theme is combating racism, hatred and anti-Semitism. One of the things that came out of Auschwitz was that Jews died there because of anti-Semitism but anti-Semitism did not die. If the Holocaust is a metaphor for radical evil, anti-Semitism is a metaphor for radical hatred. We will address, as did Wallenberg, racism and anti-Semitism.
The fourth, because Wallenberg was a political prisoner himself, by the Russians, will be defending political prisoners.
I’ll do all those things whether or not I do it under that banner, but the banner would hopefully create a network of advocacy.

DM: Then-prime minister Paul Martin appointed you justice minister and you seem to have squeezed a lot into your short time in that portfolio. What do you feel was your major accomplishment?
IC: There were a number of things that struck me then and since. The first was, we enacted the first-ever legislation to combat trafficking in women and children — the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. That was an important piece of legislation, symbolically and substantively.
Second was the civil marriage act, giving equal access to gays and lesbians to civil marriage and also including in it freedom-of-religion protection. I thought that legislation really addressed the importance of [both]. For example, that no priest, rabbi or imam would be forced to celebrate a same-sex marriage if it was contrary to their beliefs. What’s not known is that my wife, [Ariela], who was prone to do these kinds of things, came out against me when I announced the same-sex legislation. By then, people weren’t surprised because she’d done it before. Her position was that gays and lesbians should have equal rights for everything except for marriage. She favoured civil unions. When I went to move ahead with it, she said ‘If you’re really going to do this, put in a freedom-of-religion component.’ So we drafted the legislation with both those principles in mind. When I think about it, I think it’s really model legislation. At the time, I got more angry opposition to that than anything else. But today, it’s accepted as a matter of course.
The third thing was quashing convictions of the wrongfully convicted. That was something that I felt went to the whole question of the rule of law and I was pleased to be able to quash more wrongful convictions in one year than my predecessors. Not that they wouldn’t have done it, but coming in as a law professor, I knew about them.
The fourth thing was that we made international justice a priority. We didn’t look at the justice agenda just being domestic; we saw it as international as well. In that regard, for me, aboriginal justice was a priority but I went to Australia to discuss it. I led the Canadian delegation to the first-ever Stockholm conference to combat genocide.
[My colleague] Charlie [Feldman] always reminds me of the two judicial appointments I made — two women [Louise Charron and Rosalie Abella]. In appointing two women who were superb, we became the most gender-equal Supreme Court in the world. I saw Rosalie Abella last night at a lecture being given by Justice Harry Laforme, the first Aboriginal ever appointed to an appellate court. And I appointed him in 2004. He gave a very moving talk and one of the things he said stayed with me: More aboriginal high school students are in prison than graduate high school. That was true 10 years ago and it’s still true today. It’s an appalling statistic.
That was why I tried to make it a priority. I crafted the seven Rs of aboriginal justice: Recognition of them as the original inhabitants of this country, respect for their distinct and constitutional status, redress for past wrongs such as the racist residential school system, representation or overrepresentation as inmates and underrepresentation as leaders, responsiveness to resource development, reconciliation and renewal. Unfortunately, we’ve not moved much in the last 10 years and by not moving, we’ve actually moved backwards. Aboriginal people should not be wards of the state. We’ve got to treat them with the dignity and the quality and respect they warrant and deserve.

DM: The National Post described you as “the pre-eminent voice in the fight against oppression and arbitrary measures of autocracies around the world.”
IC: I was a bit humbled by that description. All I can say is that if you want to know the basis for that involvement in the struggle against oppression, you have to go back to my parents. That’s where it all began. My father taught me, when I was a young boy, that the pursuit of justice is equal to all the other commandments combined. I never understood then the profundity of what he was saying, but he would repeat it. As I got older, my mother would hear my father still repeating it and she’d say ‘If you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice in your community. You have to feel the injustice and combat the injustice. Otherwise, it [is] a theoretical construct, just an abstraction.’ So I think that combined teaching of pursuing justice and combating injustice led me to get involved in some of the great human rights struggles of the 20th Century: Human rights in the Soviet Union and the struggle against apartheid.
Those teachings from my parents combined with others. There is in the Jewish tradition an important priority placed on what’s called the redemption of captives, what we’d call today political prisoners, such that you’re allowed to transgress the Sabbath to do it. That involved me with political prisoners. It’s not accidental that I would focus on political prisoners in the Soviet Union, like Anatoly Sharansky or, in South Africa, Nelson Mandela.
The two things converged, you know. In 1979, when I was already counsel for Sharansky, I was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union. I was referred to as a criminal consorting with other criminals.
In 1981, I go to South Africa as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement. Some Wits University students asked me to give a lecture. I suggested I talk on ‘If Sharansky, why not Mandela?’ They said perfect. I said ‘but Mandela is a banned person so I don’t want to get you guys in trouble.’ But they liked it and said that’s what they wanted. I gave the talk and after I was detained.
One of the police said ‘Do you know [Foreign Minister Roelof Frederik] Pik Botha?’ I said ‘No, why?’ They said ‘He’s asked us to bring you to him.’ So this is where things converge. I come into his office and on his wall, there’s a picture of Anatoly Sharansky and some other Soviet prisoners of conscience. He said ‘You know who that is?’ I said ‘Yes’. He said ‘I wanted to see you because I couldn’t understand how someone like yourself, who represents that great hero Sharansky, who’s fighting against the Communist Soviet Union, can, in the same breath, defend Nelson Mandela, who’s also a communist and our enemy.’ I said I thought Sharansky and Mandela were both fighting for freedom, human rights and democracy. He went on to tell me how I didn’t really understand South Africa. The talk went on for about three hours. I told him I thought the Soviet Union was a great human rights violator, but I said South Africa is the only post-World War II government that has institutionalized racism as a matter of law. I said ‘Apartheid is not just a racist philosophy, it’s a racist legal regime and so, for as long as is necessary, from wherever I am, I’m going to fight against this racist legal regime.’
Two years ago, I’m back in South Afica for a meeting with some human rights lawyers. They asked if I’d been in touch with Pik Botha and suggested I give him a call. He wasn’t near where I was, but we had a long talk [on the phone]. He said he never forgot that exchange we had in 1981, and that I’d spoken to him in a rather blunt fashion. He told me that he became the first South African minister to call for the release of Mandela; he became a member of the ANC [Mandela’s party]; and that he actually served in Mandela’s government. Political prisoners are the face, the identity of the larger repression.

DM: My next question actually refers to Nelson Mandela and Anatoly  Sharansky, both of whom you worked with. There are many others. What fight was most rewarding?
IC: They were all rewarding. To me, these were inspirational figures. I would come away, always, inspired from the involvement in the struggle. Of course, in the case of Sharansky, I had a much more sustained and deeper involvement because Mandela at least had a wonderful legal team in South Africa. I was really kind of a cameo presence. But Sharansky didn’t have any lawyers — they wouldn’t permit him any. So the struggle there was very engaged, very sustained.
I was talking to Sharansky the other day about Mandela. There was a very profound moral fibre that they both had and a kind of moral courage and a physical courage. Mandela survived 27 years in an African prison, to come out and not only preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but also to be responsible for the establishment of a democratic, non-racial, egalitarian South Africa. It is a remarkable historic achievement, almost without parallel in the 20th Century. And Sharansky, helped bring about, if I can use a Marxist metaphor, the withering away of the Soviet Union.
There’s Saad Eddin Ibrahim, whom I represented in Egypt. He was a very courageous Egyptian democrat who’s seen almost three revolutions in the hopeful transition to democracy in Egypt. The initial hope of Tahrir Square has not yet been realized but I believe that because of people like him, it will  be eventually.

DM: That’s what Egyptian Ambassador Wael Aboul-Magd keeps promising.
IC: Two years ago, I was representing a political prisoner from Tahrir Square named Maikel Nabil [Sanad]. He went on a hunger strike for close to 130 days. I went to see the ambassador about him. I was there to see what he could do about releasing him. I told him ‘Not only should he be released in the interest of justice, but it’s also in your self-interest.’ I told him that I’d met Gorbachev years after Sharansky was released. I pointed out to [Gorbachev] that Sharansky was released within a year of Gorbachev taking power and I asked if there was any connection. He said: ‘You remember I visited Canada as minister of agriculture in 1984 to speak to your parliamentary committee on agriculture? They were asking me questions about Sharansky, but I’d never heard of him. I left the Parliament buildings and there was a big demonstration for Sharansky. Everywhere I went in Canada, people were talking about Sharansky. I came back [to the Soviet Union] and ordered up the file. He was a trouble-maker, but it was costing us to keep him in prison, so it became in our interest to let him go.’
I told the Egyptian ambassador that it was the same thing with Maikel Nabil. We’d organized a group of parliamentarians for Maikel Nabil. I said ‘You don’t need this.’ They did release him.

DM: For Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Justin Trudeau gave up his seat on the prime minister’s plane for you. How important was that?
IC: I was going to the funeral anyway. I felt that I wanted to be there. This was something that had been part of world history and not just my own. It is very much part of my family. You could call my four-year-old  granddaughter right now and she’d tell you lots about Mandela. My daughter used to get taken to demonstrations as a kid. I remember when Mandela was released and Sharansky was released, she said ‘Face it, Daddy, you have nothing to do anymore.’ [He also points to a photograph on his desk of his newest grandchild, Zachary, doing a Nelson Mandela arm pump shortly after he was born. ‘It’s baby Madiba,’ he says, laughing.]
What happened was that I got the invitation to go on the prime minister’s plane and after that, I found out that Justin had ceded his place. I think it says a lot about Justin. He had an opportunity as the leader of our party to really have international presence and resonance in South Africa in a way more than I would have had. And that he ceded it and that I didn’t even know he’d done it, says something about the kind of person he is. When you look for a political leader, you look for qualities of character and that generosity of spirit is something. It’s utterly selfless and the exact opposite of any self-aggrandizing of any political leadership.

DM: You were a special adviser to the foreign minister on the International Criminal Court (ICC). What are your thoughts on the court? Is it a success?
IC: I thought the establishment of the ICC was the most important post-Nuremberg international criminal justice development, that this was going to be the embodiment of the struggle against impunity. I regret that some of the hopes some of us had for the ICC playing a more major role in the struggle against impunity have not been fully realized, but, in part, it’s not the ICC that is to blame. It’s because we still have not had the major powers become signatories to the ICC. I think we need to make the ICC the centrepiece of our international criminal justice agenda in the struggle against impunity and enlarge the number of countries that become members and try to get a kind of inclusivity about it. It shouldn’t be that so few of the countries in the Middle East are signatories. I think Jordan is the only one.

DM: What do you think of the Harper government’s much-discussed policy on Israel?
IC: I’m supportive of the position as a matter of principle and policy, but I don’t like when a position becomes a wedge issue. I don’t like when it’s said, ‘If you care about Israel, then you must vote Conservative.’ If Israel is a just and principled cause, it’s not just a cause for Conservatives. It’s a cause for all men and women who care about justice and principle. I think it’s undercutting of the principled nature of the cause by attaching a Conservative label to it.

DM: One last question: Bill C-36. You spent a lot of time trying to achieve the balance between the rights of individuals and national security. Do you feel you achieved that?
IC: Anne McLellan was minister of justice when it was introduced in Parliament and I got up the day after and said I had 10 civil libertarian concerns about the legislation, whereupon John Manley said ‘Irwin, whose  side are you on?’ Anne McLellan and I were academic colleagues, so we hammered out some changes and seven of the 10 concerns I had were adopted, but I still was raising the other three. And finally, she told me ‘You’re no longer a law professor. We have to make a decision and we have to act and we need your support.’ And she was right. I gave my support. The government did respond to a lot of my concerns and then when I became the minister of justice, I worked on the other three concerns. I tried to enunciate what was my whole approach to anti-terrorism law and policy, which was organized around two foundational principles.
The first was that terrorism constituted an assault on a democracy like Canada and an assault on the individual and collective rights of its inhabitants. In that sense, anti-terrorism law and policy was intended to protect the security of a democracy and to protect the lives of its inhabitants. To that extent, I was fully in favour. The second principle was that law and policy must always adhere to the rule of law. It must always comport with the strictures of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Minorities must be protected against being singled out in any kind of profiling or against any targeting.

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