It would be the crowning achievement of Irwin Cotler’s lifetime of human rights advocacy and the pursuit of justice: the Nobel Peace Prize.
The retired member of Parliament and McGill University law professor will be ascending the stage at Oslo city hall if Alan Dershowitz, the prominent Harvard law professor, criminal defence lawyer and author, has his way.
Dershowitz, who described Cotler as “the most important human rights activist in the world today,” has nominated his longtime friend and colleague for the prize, he announced at a tribute dinner for Cotler, hosted by the Lord Reading Law Society (LRLS) on May 25 at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
Before the sold-out audience of more than 600, Dershowitz read the letter he sent to the Nobel committee.
He cited Cotler’s “apolitical, non-partisan” approach to advocacy, which has seen him defend people across the political and geographical spectrum.
Unlike many others working in human rights, Dershowitz contends Cotler espouses “no ideological agenda.”
“His human rights agenda remains pure, and not hijacked or diluted by any political group,” he said, and that has been the case for over 50 years. Activists today commonly have “hidden agendas” and only “pretend to be neutral,” he claimed.
Cotler acts without seeking remuneration or personal recognition, added Dershowitz, who first met Cotler a half-century ago at Yale.
“He speaks truth to power and, because he is Canadian, he does it politely; he is so nice.”
This was no swan song for Cotler, who stepped down from politics after the federal election in October, after serving as MP for Mount Royal for 16 years, and is now professor emeritus.
Cotler has founded and heads the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, through which he continues his advocacy, notably in the defence of political prisoners, genocide prevention and combating anti-Semitism and racism.
Part of the evening’s proceeds will go to the centre.
Also paying homage were Nicholas Kasirer, a justice of the Quebec Court of Appeal and former McGill dean of law, who was a student of Cotler’s; Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, and, in absentia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Paul Martin, who appointed Cotler justice minister and attorney general in 2003.
In case the Nobel doesn’t come through, the LRLS, “the collective voice of Jewish jurists” in Quebec since 1948, sent an “express mandamus” to the government of Canada requiring it to appoint Cotler to the Supreme Court. There will be a vacancy when Thomas Cromwell retires in September.
Abella, also a longtime friend of Cotler, had the sad duty of delivering the unanimous decision of the High Court that, while Cotler “in theory would be an outstanding justice,” it had to dismiss the application.
In a parody of legal lingo, tongue firmly in cheek, she enumerated the reasons: he is not from the Maritimes, at 76 he is past the mandatory retirement age, and his international experience in attempting to free political prisoners would contribute little to the Supreme Court’s current preoccupation with “standard of review jurisprudence.”
In summary, the High Court did not buy the LRLS’s argument that putting Cotler on the bench would have “a discriminatory effect on 76-year-old Jewish lawyers from Montreal with a passion for human rights.”
Abella was one of five Supreme Court judges attending the event.
In a more serious vein, Abella praised Cotler for turning his “profound commitment to his Jewishness… into a crusade of tolerance for all,” and, on a personal note, characterized him as both “a legal sophisticate and a schmaltzy mensch.”
In his remarks, Cotler reiterated his belief that Canada should enact a so-called “Magnitsky” law to punish Russian officials believed to be responsible for the death of whistle-blowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.
Magnitsky was arrested and tortured to death in prison after investigating tax fraud involving senior people in government.
In 2012, Cotler was unsuccessful in getting a private member’s bill accepted by the House of Commons that would penalize the perpetrators by such means as denying them visas and seizing their assets. The U.S. Congress had just passed a bipartisan bill to that effect.