Irwin Cotler’s life has been a relentless and tireless fight for justice for others.
His has been a life of public service, not only in the usual sense of political service, but also in the broader sense, perhaps even more important, of being a courageous and tenacious warrior for human rights.

In Lawrence of Arabia, during an argument with Lawrence, Sherif Ali, played by Omar Sharif, insists that “It is written”. Irwin Cotler has always refused to accept that determinist view of man’s fate. In a world in which human rights seem to be under attack in so many countries, and to which attacks so many appear oblivious or indifferent, he remains “an eternal optimist”.

Although I have no doubt he might view things differently, I was struck, both during the several hours we spent together and in reading about him, that there was an inevitability to the focus of his life and work. Not inevitable in the sense of “It is written”, but only that he has followed, in all the varied aspects of his career, the passionate search for justice.

As he described his early years, I had a strong sense that his family, with all its individuality, was of a type often associated with the Jewish community. His father, Nathan Cotler, although providing for his family as a lawyer, was more properly an intellectual, whose real interests were poetry and philosophy. As Cotler describes it, his father insisted that justice, and the struggle to achieve it, were more important than the Ten Commandments combined. Among his heroes were David Lewis, Frank R. Scott and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo.

His mother, on the other hand, was of a far more pragmatic bent. Her constant message was that justice, in the abstract, was all very well. However, in order to fight for justice, one had to seek out and learn about injustice, then fight it. Irwin Cotler has learned both lessons well.

At Herzliah, Cotler was deeply influenced by the iconoclastic poet Irving Layton. He of the great leonine head, with its mass of unruly hair, the sonorous voice and the force of nature. At McGill Law School, he had the good fortune to study under Dean F.R. Scott, constitutional lawyer, poet, and one of the founders of what is now the NDP, as well as Dean Maxwell Cohen, another giant of the Canadian legal scene. All three were dedicated to the fight for human rights, in all their various forms.

Irwin Cotler

Irwin and his wife Ariela

At first glance, Irwin Cotler might not strike one as a warrior. He seemed to me remarkably unchanged from his days as a student lawyer. While his intelligence is evident, it is not flamboyant. He is soft-spoken, appears calm and relaxed, a man à l’aise dans sa peau with a self-deprecatory sense of humour. While he is more John le Carré’s George Smiley than Ian Fleming’s James Bond, there have been several cloak and dagger incidents in his past.

To heighten the suspense, it is worth first recounting how Cotler became a Member of Parliament, a story more Peter Sellers than Smiley or Bond. “In 1999, I was very happy teaching law at McGill and had no thoughts of elected politics. Sheila Finestone, the sitting MP for Mount Royal, Pierre Trudeau’s old riding, was named to the Senate, necessitating a by-election. Three candidates had declared and, although some of my friends had urged me to run, I made it clear I had no intention of doing so.”

Although usually attributed to Plato, the truth (almost always honoured in the breach) “Those who seek power should never hold it” would seem to apply perfectly to Cotler. While continuing to express no interest, Cotler was surprised, at a Saturday synagogue service, to hear the rabbi tell the congregation that he would be drafted. On the day that nominations were to close. “Jonathan Herman, who I barely knew, arrived at my door saying he was to drive me to sign my nomination papers. Insisting again that I was not running, he told me that the three other candidates had withdrawn, and that I no longer had a choice.”

Cotler says he is convinced that his wife, Ariela, who had been a political strategist for the Israeli Likud Party, had manipulated the “kidnapping”. “Both she and a lawyer friend of mine said I could view it as a one-year sabbatical and not run again in the next general election.” To ensure that his overwhelming by-election victory would not go to Cotler’s head, his twelve-year-old son remarked, “Dad, if they had run Donald Duck with a red ribbon, he would have done at least as well”. That initiation in 1999 stretched until 2015, when Cotler decided to retire, saying “There is a time to go”. Would that his wisdom were followed by other politicians!

While Cotler explained that he was no political junkie, he enjoyed the decision-making process of governing. When Prime Minister Paul Martin invited him to be Minister of Justice in 2003, he accepted immediately and held the post for several years. One could reasonably argue that he was “to the manner born”, and his term as Minister saw a number of successes.

Perhaps the most significant was the Civil Marriage Act, which provided for civil marriage for gays and lesbians, but also provided that no religious officer would be compelled to celebrate such a marriage against his or her conscience. Cotler explains that, once again, the not-so-invisible hand of his wife, Ariela, could be seen. “Ariela, as her association with Likud would indicate, is far more conservative than I am. She believed only in civil union, not marriage for gays and lesbians. In the end, the legislation provided for civil marriage but contained the freedom of religion exception.”

Other areas in which Cotler was deeply involved as Minister of Justice included legislation to combat sex trafficking, quashing the convictions of the wrongfully convicted, the appointment of two women, Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron, to the Supreme Court, pursuing international justice against war criminals and perpetrators of mass atrocities, and improving aboriginal justice.

With his wry sense of humour, he says, “Perhaps it is my legal training and linear thinking, but I seem to be condemned to making lists to explain things”. One of Cotler’s lists was crafting the seven Rs of aboriginal justice. Without providing all the details, they included recognition as the original inhabitants, respect for their constitutional status, redress for past wrongs, representation, responsiveness to resource development, reconciliation and renewal.

Centuries ago, Edmund Burke wrote about parliamentarians in Britain, “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. In an era where the principal activity of politicians is to demonize their opponents, not merely to disagree with them, it is a tribute to Irwin Cotler’s judgment and respect for Parliament that, in 2014, while the Conservatives were in power, he was named Parliamentarian of the Year.

Following his retirement from elected politics, Irwin Cotler realized a long-held ambition and founded, in Montreal, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who, during the Second World War, primarily in Hungary, saved thousands of Jews from certain death. Tragically, he could not save himself, and the manner and date of his own death, at the hands of the Soviets, remain mysterious. Wallenberg is rightly celebrated in Martin Gilbert’s massive work, The Righteous, which enshrines the names and actions of those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save others.

The Wallenberg Centre, which is funded by private contributions, and of which Irwin Cotler is the heart and soul, is a small team of young, very bright and very passionate defenders of human rights. They revere Cotler, whom they all refer to as Professor.

Space does not permit a proper discussion of the Centre’s work. While its best known activity is advocacy for the release of political prisoners, it is also involved in advocacy for all human rights, education in the history of the Holocaust and other genocides, fighting publicly against current genocides such as the Rohingya of Myanmar and, more generally, promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

While much of its work is done by Cotler and the core team, the Centre also works with its Senior Fellows, including the Hon. Bob Rae, Professor Charles Taylor, the Hon. Michael Ignatieff and Professor Alan Dershowitz. It has also created a “coalition of the willing” working together, including other groups similar to the Centre, the United Nations, NGOs and the media.

Now is the moment for a little cloak and dagger.

In the mid 1970s, while he was not yet forty, Cotler spent considerable time in several Arab countries including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

Irwin Cotler

Irwin receives his 14th Honourary Doctorate

In Egypt, he met, once again, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who subsequently became Secretary-General of the United Nations. Menachem Begin had just been elected Prime Minister of Israel. Boutros-Ghali introduced Cotler to the Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. Inevitably, the conversation turned to relations between Egypt and Israel. As Cotler recounts it, “Sadat asked me whether I thought there was any chance of making peace with Begin. Having never met Begin, I was somewhat stunned by the question, but decided nothing ventured, nothing gained and said that as I considered Begin to be a true democrat, I felt it was entirely possible.”

With a request that he raise matters with Prime Minister Begin, Cotler set off for Jerusalem. Through a friend in the Israeli Labour Party, he was introduced to Begin. “I recounted to the Prime Minister my meeting with Anwar Sadat, his question to me and, somewhat nervously, my brash response. Begin laughed and asked whether Sadat was really serious about negotiating peace. Feeling somewhat more comfortable, I responded in a positive way.”

These visits led to two results. Cotler refuses to take any credit for the first, which was the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, signed while Jimmy Carter was President. The second result, for which he takes full credit, is that he met his wife, Ariela Ze’evi, who was a legislative assistant to the Likud Party, and who suspected that Cotler was a spy.

Irwin Cotler came to public prominence, in 1979, as one of the international team of lawyers defending Anatoly Sharansky, the Russian Jew imprisoned by the Soviets for his work in defense of Soviet Jewry, other dissidents and human rights generally. This also led to his first detention by the police.

“It was arranged that I would appear on Sharansky’s behalf in a Russian court in Moscow. The evening before my appearance, I wanted to visit his family. Together with Anatoly’s brother, and a friend of mine, Adam Lerner, we were stopped by a menacing black car, from which emerged two very large, very grim-faced men. With few words exchanged, they basically frogmarched me to the airport and put me on a Japan Airlines flight to London. To my astonishment, when I landed in London, the news was already out that I had been deported as a criminal spy in collusion with other criminals.”

“It was only later, after Sharansky had been released, that I learned why. Mikhail Gorbachev had visited Canada in 1984, while he was Russia’s Minister of Agriculture. Everywhere he went he encountered demonstrators in support of Sharansky, of whom he had never heard. Gorbachev told me, ‘The protests continued at an international level for years and when I became President I decided to have Sharansky released. He was a trouble-maker, but it was costing more, both in roubles and reputation, than it was worth to keep holding him.’” A clear example of self-interest at work.

The Professor also had an encounter with the police in South Africa. Invited to speak in 1981 at Witwatersrand University, and with the enthusiastic support of the students, he used the title If Sharansky, why not Mandela? “At the time, speaking of Mandela was banned and, shortly after I finished speaking, I was, once again, detained by two burly policemen and taken before Pik Botha, then Foreign Minister. On the walls of his office were photographs of Sharansky and other Soviet dissidents. Botha berated me, saying, ‘How can you represent Sharansky, a freedom fighter against tyranny, and also praise Mandela, who is nothing but a terrorist?’”

After a discussion lasting several hours during which Botha vaunted the merits of South African society and Cotler challenged him at every point, Botha said, “You are a very brash young man. However, I will not keep you in detention. I want you to spend ten days educating yourself about South Africa. We will meet again on your return.”

“We did meet again, and I said to the Foreign Minister, ‘You are right. South Africa is an open, pluralist society – if and only if you are a white man.’ Although he could have arrested and charged me, Botha graciously sent me on my way.”

The story ends many years later, when Cotler was in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Botha, who died recently but who was then in a residence, and, having learned of Cotler’s visit, arranged that they speak by telephone. In essence, Botha acknowledged that the Professor had been right many years before. He went on to say, “I was the first minister to call for Mandela’s release. Later, I joined the ANC and served as a minister in Mandela’s government for two years.”

When I asked Cotler how he viewed the current human rights situation, he replied, “The world is in a very dark place. In too many countries, democracy is in retreat. In too many others, authoritarians are taking even more control. Although one could cite many examples, Iran is one of the worst offenders against human rights. Executions are on the rise in many countries; dissidents are imprisoned without trial; journalists are assassinated and the rule of law abandoned. Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is truly appalling but, sadly, not unique. The United States has abdicated from its leadership role and too many other countries are silent.”

When I suggested he must feel like Sisyphus rolling the stone uphill, only to have it roll back on him, he replied, “I can’t allow that to happen. We have to be even more determined, even more committed. The fight for justice is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”

One can wonder whether Irwin Cotler is right, in a world in disarray, to be an eternal optimist, but thankfully he is one. Otherwise, he could not do his invaluable work to achieve justice, from which we all benefit.

To learn more about Irwin Cotler’s current activities, please visit the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights: