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Syrian Civil Defence volunteers rescue children from a damaged building following a reported airstrike that targeted the Idlib bus station on Jan. 18, 2017.


Renowned international human-rights lawyer Irwin Cotler is nominating Syria’s famed White Helmets, a group of volunteer humanitarian workers Canada helped rescue from the war-torn country, for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Cotler, a former Liberal cabinet minister who helped co-ordinate last summer’s rescue effort with Israel, said he plans on nominating the White Helmets for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. The civil-defence organization, which has been credited with saving more than 100,000 civilians during Syria’s ongoing civil war, has been nominated for the international award before, but never won.

“They’re such an unlikely group of heroes. They’re ordinary men and women – bakers, teachers, students and pharmacists – who have banded together to save lives,” Mr. Cotler said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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“They are the embodiment of what heroism and hope and the search for peace and our common humanity is all about.”

Mr. Cotler said he plans to seek support for the White Helmets nomination from parliamentarians, law professors, former Nobel Peace Prize laureates, non-governmental organizations and humanitarian groups around the world. He has until February, 2019, to submit the application to the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.

Mr. Cotler nominated the civil-defence group in his capacity as a law professor. Only a handful of individuals, including professors, members of national assemblies or governments, and members of the Nobel Committee, qualify under the Nobel rules to nominate people or organizations for the Peace Prize.

The White Helmets, formally known as Syria Civil Defense, got their nickname from the white hard hats members wear. Mr. Cotler says they constitute the only civil-defence group in Syria, which has been engulfed in civil war for more than seven years.

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Canada sparked a daring overnight mission in July to evacuate 422 people – members of the White Helmets and their families – from Syria, where they faced increasing danger as the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad encircled them this summer. The Israel Defence Forces led the rescue effort, which was done at the request of Canada, Britain and Germany, who all committed to resettling evacuees. The United States also supported the operation.

A senior Canadian government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed Friday that some of the refugees have already resettled in Canada. The government declined to say exactly how many White Helmets have already arrived or the total number Canada plans to welcome, citing security concerns for the Syrian refugees.

In a joint statement Friday morning, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said more White Helmets are undergoing immigration processing overseas and security screening will be completed before the refugees are allowed to fly to Canada.

“As first responders, the White Helmets have witnessed firsthand some of the most appalling crimes committed by the murderous Assad regime,” the ministers said.

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“We have a moral obligation to assist the endangered members of this civil-defence group and their families.”