Steinberg: The Nobel Prize needs Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler

The Nobel Peace Prize has been through up and down cycles – some of the winners are deserving, (such as Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat) and others (Yasser Arafat comes to mind) are clearly not. But the award continues to have great symbolic significance by highlighting the hopeful and positive side of human nature.

This is why the nomination of Irwin Cotler is important, not only for Canada’s worldwide reputation but more significantly, for the images represented by his dedication to the principles of universal justice and human rights, untarnished by cynical political manipulation.

The former professor from McGill University and later, MP and justice minister, spent many years working intensively to free political prisoners and advocates for democracy from around the world. As a legal advocate, he was active on behalf of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Natan Sharansky (at the time in a Soviet jail), Saad Eddin Ibrahim (held by the Egyptian authorities), jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, and many others. Cotler tirelessly lobbied political leaders, UN officials and diplomats around the world on behalf of each political prisoner, and continues to focus the spotlight on Iran’s human rights abuses.

In his nominating letter (one of three initially submitted to the Nobel Prize committee), former prime minister Paul Martin wrote: “Prof. Cotler’s work in the name of civil rights defenders has no borders, and his impact is felt throughout Canada and around the world.” This sentence concisely summarizes the case for the award. Many current and former MPs from different parties similarly endorsed Cotler’s nomination, recognizing his contribution and continued advancement of universal human rights.

Ibrahim based his letter on personal experience, writing: “His efforts deserve to be held up as an example for others who will come after him … I remain deeply grateful to have had someone of the stature of Irwin Cotler intercede on my behalf. I can think of no greater ‘quiet hero’ to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.”


Similarly, Sharansky wrote about Cotler’s “tireless efforts on my behalf when I was a political prisoner in the former Soviet Union (1977-1986). By bringing my case, like that of many other such victims of injustice whose cases he championed, to the attention of the international community, Prof. Cotler played a direct and central role in my release.”

After Cotler’s 15-year political interlude as an MP and minister, he continues to advance the values that he has stood for all of his life, through the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, named for the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of many Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Wallenberg disappeared, presumably at the hands of the Soviets, and this centre is a means for keeping his memory and mission alive.

Finally, it is important to mention that Cotler rejected the moral compromises that have come to characterize many in the human rights community – his commitment to justice and truly universal human rights remain constant.

Unlike many others who claim to promote these agendas, Cotler never joined the politically correct chorus which has made unsupportable attacks against Israel the sine qua non of human rights. At the same time, in appearances before the Israeli courts and in the Knesset, he has criticized, and continues to criticize the Israeli government when justified, such as on the policies regarding Ethiopian Jews and on mistreatment of asylum-seekers.

But such criticism is specific and substantive, rather than ideological and open-ended, and directed at Israeli institutions, and not as part of an international pressure campaign.

At the end of Sharansky’s letter, he adds that awarding Cotler the Nobel Peace Prize “will have enormous benefit in continuing the fight for freedom and universal human rights.” If the committee heeds these words, they will have done their job.