By Gil Troy, McGill University, Montreal Gazette, 2-6-10
Earlier this week, to make the February 1 deadline, I asserted my few powers as an historian and nominated my colleague and friend, the human rights activist, former Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General, and current Member of the Canadian Parliament, Professor Irwin Cotler, for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. For decades, Professor Cotler has been crisscrossing the globe, defending human rights, fighting racism, opposing apartheid, trying to prevent genocide. As educator, legislator, advocate and activist, he has been steadfast in his commitments, pursuing justice all over the world, never fearing to speak truth to power. He has not only been an enemy of dictators the world over, but a spur to democrats, never fearing to criticize Western “free countries” when they fail to treat each and every individual with dignity. No one alive today more embodies the Canadian commitment to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which leading Canadians jurists — Cotler’s mentors — helped draft just over sixty years ago. Maclean’s magazine has referred to him as “Counsel for the Oppressed”; I consider him Mr. Human Rights.
Cotler was born in 1940, when the world was in the throes of the Nazi evil. He recalls the lesson his parents taught him growing up, in the wake of the Holocaust, was that some events “in Jewish history, in world history, are too terrible to imagine, but not too terrible to have happened.” His life has been an attempt to ensure that unimaginable evils never occur again. But rather than viewing it as a defensive mission, a reactive mission, he has taken as his motto the Biblical motto, “Justice, justice, ye shall pursue.”
And in pursuit of said justice, Irwin Cotler has been tireless, relentless, and impressively effective. Educated at McGill University and Yale University, he served as a Professor of Law at McGill and the director of its Human Rights Program from 1973 until he was elected to the Canadian Parliament in 1999. While converting generations of Canadian lawyers to the gospel of human rights, Professor Cotler practiced what he preached. When Andrei Sakharov or Anatoly Sharansky needed defending from the Soviet Union, Professor Cotler was there for them. When Nelson Mandela needed help in South Africa, Professor Cotler was there for him. When Jacobo Timmerman suffered under Argentina’s military dictatorship, Professor Cotler was there for him. And when Muchtar Pakpahan was unfairly imprisoned in Indonesia, Professor Cotler was there, as usual, for him too. In 1992, he was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada, a remarkable honor for an activist who has not always toed the government line in his fair and consistent push for justice.
More recently, even as a Member of Parliament, Professor Cotler has defended KunLun Zhang against the Chinese oppression of the Falun Gong, Saad Edin Ibrahim from persecution as a democracy activist in Egypt, and Maher Arar, the Canadian swept up in the American War against Terror who endured torture in Syria for over a year. With the courage of his convictions, Professor Cotler has been an ardent defender of Israel’s right to exist, but has taken full advantage of his free rights to criticize Israel too, even appearing before the Israeli Supreme Court to oppose the government line on some key cases and never fearing to stand up for individual Palestinians and the collective rights of Palestinians as well.
A popular and effective parliamentarian, repeatedly re-elected with high margins by his grateful constituents since entering politics in 1999, Cotler served as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General from 2003 to 2006. As Canada’s highest elected legal official, Cotler supported gay marriage, helped advance aboriginal rights, and appointed two women to the Supreme Court of Canada, making Canada’s Supreme Court the most gender-balanced in the world. Since the Liberal Party lost its majority, Cotler has served as Critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, Critic for Human Rights, and, since January 2009 as Special Counsel on Human Rights and International Justice for the Liberal Party.
Most recently, Professor Cotler has spearheaded the fight against the rising tide of global anti-Semitism, has assembled an array of international jurists to sign a petition demanding the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide, and has founded all-party Parliamentary groups seeking to end the bloody genocide in Darfur. As he approaches his 70th year, Irwin Cotler is more formidable than ever in standing up to evil in the many forms it takes in the world.
Tragically, too many people have reduced international law to their political plaything, using it to advance partisan or national interests rather than applying it consistently, honorably, judiciously. In honoring Professor Cotler with the Nobel Peace Prize, the Committee would be honoring international law, and particularly human rights law at its purest, applied with due regard to the rights of the individuals in need, regardless of the political rights and wrongs of the moment.
Let us be frank. Last year, the Nobel Committee was criticized for granting President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize prematurely, for his potential more than for his accomplishments. Were the Committee to honor Irwin Cotler this year, the fair question could not be “what were you thinking,” but “what took you so long”?
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University.