Human Rights Lawyer Irwin Cotler to Speak About ‘Retreat of Democracy’

Irwin Cotler is the headliner at the annual “Speaking out for the Voiceless” lecture.
(Photo courtesy of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights)

Internationally renowned human rights attorney Irwin Cotler’s storied career has included serving as counsel to refusenik Natan Sharansky, to South African President Nelson Mandela and to other prisoners of conscience.

In addition, the Montreal-born Cotler served as a member of the Canadian parliament and as Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general. He has helped initiate and craft legislation on a wide range of topics, including human trafficking and marriage equality. And he served on a panel of international experts to determine whether crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela.

Cotler, who now chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, will be featured at the “Speaking Out for the Voiceless” lecture in honor of the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey’s late longtime director Murray Friedman. The event takes place on April 10 at noon at the Pyramid Club in Center City.

Cotler said his talk will examine the resurgence of authoritarianism and the retreat of democracies through the lens of political prisoners.

“I’m going to be discussing the cases of these political prisoners and what they teach us about this resurgent global authoritarianism and about the need for democracies to mobilize, both on behalf of the political prisoners and, in doing so, on behalf of democracy, and to hold the global authoritarians … accountable,” said Cotler, who was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize by former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

AJC Philadelphia/SNJ Regional Director Marcia Bronstein said the chapter connected with Cotler about a year and a half ago, during a visit to the organization’s headquarters in New York. Cotler has been affiliated with AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights for years.

Cotler said that when it comes to the persecution of human rights activists, 2018 was one of the worst years in recent memory.

It is also important, he said, for the international community to respond when authoritarian regimes abuse human rights. Not doing so emboldens their leaders, and the world has been silent on a large range of humanitarian issues, Cotler said, such as the Muslim Uighur concentration camps in China.

Cotler’s dedication to fighting human rights abuses has its roots in his Jewish upbringing. Growing up, he attended a Jewish day school and Hebrew-language camp.

Most importantly, he said, his father would tell him that the pursuit of justice was equal to all the other commandments combined, and he would repeat the famous words, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”

His mother, overhearing his father’s words, would then tell Cotler that if he wanted to pursue justice, he must first understand injustice, otherwise justice would be a theoretical abstraction.

Cotler never forgot those lessons, and it has motivated him to pursue justice on a wide breadth of human rights issues.

He has worked with political prisoners from around the world, whose courage has inspired him and who have shown him the meaning behind some of Maimonades’ teachings, who “said that we should each see the world as being divided between half-good and half-evil,” Cotler said. “Therefore, one good deed by any one of us at any given moment can switch the ledger from evil to good, so we should each see ourselves as having the opportunity and a responsibility, in an almost cosmic sense, to be able to work on behalf of the good and against evil.”

Cotler first participated in human rights movements as a university student. Specifically, he got involved in the Soviet Jewry movement and the fight against South African apartheid.

In both cases, he wound up getting arrested. First, in 1979, the Soviet Union arrested, imprisoned and then expelled him for his work with political prisoners. Then, in 1981, he was arrested for a speech he gave in South Africa, when he mentioned Mandela at a time when doing so was illegal.

His involvement in those two struggles began his career as a defender of political prisoners.

One interesting episode from Cotler’s career was his role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. When he was a law professor at McGill University in the late ’70s, he spent his summers traveling through the Middle East, including both to Israel and throughout the Arab world. Friends at the time questioned why he would go to Arab countries, but he thought it was important to understand their culture.

While in Egypt in 1977, he managed to meet with President Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, who was assassinated in 1981. During their meeting, Sadat asked Cotler if he thought it was possible for Egypt to make peace with Israel and its new prime minister Menachem Begin, to which Cotler said yes.

Sadat then asked Cotler to deliver a note to Begin. When Cotler protested that he didn’t know the prime minister, Sadat told him that he believed he could find a way to deliver the note.

When Cotler arrived in Israel, he was invited to a meeting with young members of the Knesset, where he met the woman who would one day become his wife. She knew Begin and set up a meeting.

When Cotler gave Begin the note — which essentially expressed that Egypt was interested in entering into peace negotiations with Israel — Begin asked Cotler if he thought Sadat was genuine, to which Cotler once again said yes.

“The rest is history,” Cotler said, “including the fact that I ended up getting married to my wife. We just commemorated our 40th wedding anniversary. We got married, not accidentally, on the day of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.”

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