Cotler helms new Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Stephane Dion, left, and Irwin Cotler, right
Stephane Dion, left, and Irwin Cotler, right

Irwin Cotler and Stéphane Dion are friends and former parliamentary colleagues, so it was no surprise the current foreign affairs minister met with the former minister of justice Feb. 5 to discuss issues on Cotler’s mind, including, human rights, Iran, and terrorism in Israel.

Cotler, who left parliament last fall after a distinguished career that included time as justice minister and attorney general, raised issues that are high on the agenda of the new organization he’s created, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

The centre is named for the wartime Swedish diplomat who saved hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. Wallenberg was arrested by Soviet forces in 1945 and disappeared in the Soviet camp system. His fate remains unknown.


Cotler said the centre will continue Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy and pursue justice. Its mission statement includes opposing anti-Semitism and genocide, promoting human rights and defending political prisoners. The organization is an international consortium of parliamentarians, scholars, jurists, human rights advocates, NGOs and students. Its honorary co-chairs are Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel; Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella; former Swedish prime minister Goran Persson; and Meir Shamgar, former president of Israel’s Supreme Court.

During their meeting, Cotler briefed Dion on several upcoming centre initiatives and raised the issue of Iranian human rights violations. A longstanding advocate of Iran sanctions, Cotler acknowledged that with the nuclear deal, “automatic” Security Council sanctions are being lifted by western countries.

But the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program is only one of five problematic aspects of that country’s policy, he told Dion. Iran remains a highly repressive state that last month set a new record for executions – greater than its usual number, which still gave it the dubious distinction of being the world leader, per capita, in state executions.

Iran continues to incite genocide against Israel and Jews, it sponsors terrorism, and its hegemonic ambitions are a threat to its neighbours, Cotler said. For those reasons, he urged Dion to maintain sanctions.

Cotler also briefed Dion about his personal familiarity with terrorism. When visiting his children in Israel recently, he learned of a terror attack in the town where his daughter lives. She was safe, but she knew the woman who had been assaulted and who drove off her attacker. Terrorism is widely reported in Israel, but barely any mention is made in the Canadian press of frequent attacks or of the constant incitement to violence by Palestinian leaders, he said.

Cotler also extended an invitation to Dion to participate in a symposium scheduled for May 4 to 6 at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, sponsored by the centre in conjunction with the March of the Living. The gathering will examine the legacy of the Nuremberg war crimes trials on their 70th anniversary, along with the Nazi-era Nuremberg laws that preceded the Holocaust.

Cotler told The CJN the centre is embarking on several major initiatives in only its first few months in operation. On Feb. 17 and 18, it will launch the Raoul Wallenberg all-party parliamentary caucus for human rights in Ottawa; on Feb. 23 and 24 it will co-sponsor the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, featuring human rights heroes from around the world; on Feb. 25, it will sponsor “Justice for Sergei Magnitsky rule of law project” in Ottawa (Magnitsky was an accountant who died in jail after uncovering massive fraud and theft by Russian officials); from March 13 to 17, the Centre will hold the Wallenberg lecture at the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism; and from May 16 to 18, it will sponsor Iran Accountability Week in Ottawa, which, it is hoped, will turn attention to Iranian political prisoners.


It’s an ambitious agenda, but Cotler is excited about the prospects for affecting change. “I’m devoting myself full time to this. The demands at this point of the pursuit of international justice is as great as it has ever been.”