Human rights activist and former justice minister Irwin Cotler has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Having nominated him – my cherished colleague, mentor and friend – in the past, I second this well-deserved nomination.
Year after year, the man Maclean’s dubbed the “counsel for the oppressed” crisscrosses the globe, battling for human rights and against so many human wrongs. He retired from Parliament in 2015 and was honoured by his colleagues as the “Parliamentarian of the Year.” But in retirement, Cotler works harder, travels further and accomplishes far more than the rest of us mere mortals do at the peak of our careers. A very busy week for most would feel like a partial vacation for this 78-year-old wonder worker.
Even if he had retired to Florida 20 years ago, Cotler would still be worthy of the Nobel. By 1998, the year before he entered Parliament, he had already saved countless lives worldwide and told “truth to power” in the communist Soviet Union, apartheid South Africa, authoritarian Argentina, dictatorial Indonesia and elsewhere. He defended the famous, from Nelson Mandela to Natan Sharansky, as well as the forgotten. Closer to home, he’s been a constructive, patriotic gadfly within the democracies he supports wholeheartedly, defends eloquently and confronts when necessary – especially his native Canada, the neighbouring United States and the Jewish homeland, Israel.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been producing hundreds of mini-Irwins to shift human rights crusading from something indulged in by random men and women of conscience, to one of the great causes of our time, now practiced by legions of well-trained warriors for righteousness. Educated at McGill and Yale, Cotler served as a professor of law at McGill and directed its human rights program from 1973 until he entered Parliament in 1999. In converting generations of Canadian lawyers to the gospel of human rights, Prof. Cotler served not just as pioneer, but as farmer, planting the ideas, honing the techniques and cultivating the successors who will continue living by his motto: tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice, you shall pursue.
Cotler’s current crusade is the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights – of which I am a fellow. In 2018 alone, Cotler served as one of three independent international experts who exposed Venezuela’s mass repression: murdering over 100 critics, detaining over 12,000 and terrifying many more. Cotler criticized Iranian abuses so effectively that Iran’s state-controlled press designated him and his organization “a top enemy of 2018” – an honour greater than the Nobel itself.
The Raoul Wallenberg Centre helped free the imprisoned Mauritian anti-slavery leader Briram Dah Abeid, hosted the Iranian women’s rights leader Shaparak Shajarizadeh and defended Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, while exposing Saudi Arabian abuses long before Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The Raoul Wallenberg Centre also successfully lobbied Canada to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of her honorary Canadian citizenship, to protest Myanmar’s mass murders of Rohingya innocents.
The Raoul Wallenberg Centre perpetuates the twin pillars of Cotler’s noble career. It helps the silenced find a voice, the abandoned find a friend and the oppressed find justice. And through its lectures, fellowships and networks, it is guaranteeing that human rights work will not be some passing fad, but an ongoing concern. It empowers trained specialists and the broader public – which, thanks to master educators and indispensable agitators like Cotler, has often had a critical role in applying the necessary pressure to save fellow human beings who are suffering thousands of kilometres away.
When I nominated Irwin Cotler, I wrote that were the Nobel committee to honour him, the fair question could not be, “What were you thinking,” but “What took you so long?” This statement was true then and it’s even truer now.