At a gala event at which he was honoured, Irwin Cotler emphasized the connection between his Jewish values and his lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice.
Cotler, an international human rights lawyer as well as former Quebec MP, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, stressed that his devotion to fighting for the release of political prisoners in a number of global conflict zones has been underpinned by Jewish teachings.
“The release of political prisoners in Jewish tradition is such an overriding commandment that you’re allowed to breach the Sabbath if you bring about their liberation,” he said, to great applause at the Omni King Edward hotel in Toronto.
Called “The Pursuing Justice Gala,” the March 31 event hosted by The Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy, marked the official launch of The Pearson Centre’s new Pursuing Justice Project, which will focus on advancing justice, diversity and inclusion in Canada by convening forums with what the centre calls “key opinion leaders” and stakeholders, as well as conducting seminars and research.
The Pearson Centre is a centrist think-tank that addresses policy issues related to justice, democratic participation and health and social services. Its stated goal is to engage Canadians in dialogue about a progressive future for Canada.
Introductory speeches were given by Liberal MPs Jim Carr and Catherine McKenna, former prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin and Liberal MPP Madeleine Meilleur.
Indira Naidoo-Harris, Liberal MPP for Halton, Ont., served as the night’s moderator, directing a conversation with Cotler, who was the evening’s keynote speaker.
The various speakers lauded Cotler for fighting for human rights and freedom on a global scale; he is notable for having served as counsel to a number of high-profile political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Jacobo Timerman in Latin America and, in the former Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, a Jewish activist who later become an Israeli politician.
Cotler said both Mandela and Sharansky embodied “the hope and inspiration…of two of the great human rights struggles of the second half of the 20th century.”
Both were heroic figures who stood for freedom, equality, democracy and peace and transformed, respectively, “the face of South Africa and the former Soviet Union,” Cotler noted.
He added: “I shudder to think what might’ve happened if they had not been freed.”
He described visiting South Africa in 1981 as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement; he was, at that time, working as a lawyer on behalf of Sharansky.
He said he gave a speech to a group of South African law students with the message, “If Sharansky [should be freed], why not Mandela?”
Immediately following the talk, Cotler was arrested, he said, and brought to speak to South Africa’s then foreign minister Roelof Frederik Botha.
“Botha asked me how I could speak in the same breath about Sharansky, who was fighting against Communism and Mandela [who was a Communist]. I said, because they’re both fighting for freedom and human rights,” Cotler recalled.
He said he told Botha that apartheid was a racist philosophy and a “racist, illegal regime” and that he planned to “fight until it’s dismantled.”
Cotler was subsequently released, and said that several years ago he heard from Botha, who ended up becoming an opponent of apartheid and the first prime minister in the South African government to call for Mandela’s release.
“The model here is that, at the end of the day, anyone can be taught to pursue justice,” Cotler said.
Cotler went on to speak about the importance of Canada recognizing the rights of its Aboriginal people and fighting for Aboriginal justice at all costs.
Further, he said that the pursuit of justice and human rights must serve as the organizing principal of Canada’s policymaking, and emphasized the dangers of “indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity.”
He noted that this year marks the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, and that what was particularly horrifying about the event was that it was preventable.
“Nobody could say we didn’t know. We knew but we didn’t act. Just like with Darfur.”
These historical lessons, Cotler said, must be applied by Canada to the current global refugee crisis.