Irwin Cotler: one of world’s foremost advocates for human rights

Irwin Cotler

In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.

If there are still Rennaissance men among us, Irwin Cotler would certainly be one.

A former member of Parliament, a justice minister and attorney general, a one-time president of Canadian Jewish Congress, an emeritus professor of law, a human rights advocate whose clients included Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, a tireless advocate for victims of authoritarian regimes, a forceful opponent of anti-Semitism and an early proponent of the responsibility to protect, the doctrine which calls on nations of the world to act to stop mass killings that target minority populations, make up only a partial list of Cotler’s activities and accomplishments.

Possessing boundless energy and a work ethic that would tire people half his age, Cotler remains active even at age 77.

Born in Montreal, Cotler attended McGill University’s school of law and edited the McGill Law Journal. He went on to study at Yale, where he was a classmate of Alan Dershowitz.

Returning to Montreal, Cotler was a professor of law at McGill and served as director of its human rights program from 1973 until elected to Parliament in 1999.


During that interval, Cotler was involved in numerous human rights cases, but he also had a smaller, cameo role in one of the 20th centuries more momentous moves for peace. As a young law professor, he’d spend his summers in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where he lectured at local universities and studied the domestic political culture, foreign policy and attitudes of the people. He’d end his trips in Israel.

During those visits, he made the acquaintance of Tahseen Bashir, a confidant to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a well-connected professor. At one point they sounded out his opinion on the prospects for peace with Israel. Eventually a meeting with Sadat was arranged and the Egyptian leader asked him to convey to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a note outlining Egypt’s conditions for peace. Cotler delivered the message and told Begin he felt the Egyptian leader was sincere in his desire to explore peace. Although skeptical of the proposal, Begin agreed to meet with Sadat, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was also during that visit to Israel that he met his future wife, Ariela Zeevi, who at the time was the parliamentary secretary for Likud and a close confidant of Begin.

While his role in the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations might merit only a footnote, Cotler played a significant role in numerous other developments internationally and in Canada.

As minister of justice and attorney general (2003 to 2006), he initiated the first-ever comprehensive reform of the Supreme Court appointment process, during which he appointed Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron to the High Court. He launched Canada’s first war crimes prosecution against Désiré Munyaneza for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

‘Cotler has received 11 honorary doctorates and numerous awards’

According to his official biography, Cotler appointed the first-ever aboriginal and visible minority justices to the Ontario Court of Appeal; he initiated the first-ever law on human trafficking; he crafted the Civil Marriage Act, which ensured marriage equality for gays and lesbians; he issued Canada’s first National Justice Initiative Against Racism and Hate; and he quashed more wrongful convictions in a single year than any prior minister.

A tireless fighter for human rights as a law professor, he continued that effort as an MP. Cotler chaired the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran; he chaired the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Justice for Sergei Magnitsky (a Russian lawyer and auditor who was killed in 2009 after uncovering fraud and theft by senior Russian officials); and he chaired the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition.

Cotler was chair of the International Commission of Inquiry into the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg.

Dubbed “Counsel for the Oppressed” by Maclean’s magazine, he has been a vocal legal advocate for Chinese Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López, and Iranian cleric Ayatollah Boroujerdi.

In 2014 his colleagues named him parliamentarian of the year.

‘The causes are still there and the struggle for human rights and international justice must still go on’

A tireless worker who could take the most complex legal issue and make it intelligible, he was known to this reporter for his ability to present his case in eight or 10 detailed and multi-layered points.

But that might have been letting me off easy. Maclean’s noted in one of its profiles that he presented “the government with finely honed questions. One filed this spring was a 79-part, 1,785-word interrogation of the issues surrounding the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court.”

Cotler has received 11 honorary doctorates, numerous awards including the Order of Canada, and has been awarded the Canadian Bar Association’s President’s Award, and the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation’s Centennial Medal.

After retiring from Parliament in 2015, Cotler continued his human rights work as founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

In 2016, Cotler told The CJN that 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.

Confronting Iran’s incitement of genocide against Israel and Jews, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its hegemonic ambitions remain high on the centre’s agenda.

“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,” Cotler said.

“The causes are still there and the struggle for human rights and international justice must still go on,” he added.