Skip to main content

Irwin Cotler is international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada and long-time parliamentarian.

Today we mark Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Day in remembrance of, and in tribute to, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg – Canada’s first honorary citizen – who demonstrated that one person with the compassion to care, and the courage to act, can confront evil, prevail, and transform history. Accordingly, Canada’s pledges at the recent Malmo International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism called for learning about and acting upon Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy.

I first learned of Wallenberg’s heroism from the testimony of Holocaust survivors saved by him, when acting in the 1970s as pro-bono counsel for the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression; from former U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, himself saved by Wallenberg, who inspired the conferral of Honorary U.S. Citizenship on Wallenberg in 1981; from Raoul Wallenberg’s family, whom I have been serving as counsel for close to 45 years; and from former Swedish diplomat Per Anger, who worked with Wallenberg in the rescue of Jews in Hungary in 1944 and later became Sweden’s ambassador to Canada.

I also had occasion as a Canadian parliamentarian to address the Swedish Parliament on the centennial of Wallenberg’s birth in 2012, where I witnessed an international exhibit titled, in Wallenberg’s own immortal words, “to me there is no other choice.” This phrase reflected his singular courage and commitment, his heroic embodiment of the Talmudic principle that “if you save a single life, it is as if you have saved an entire universe.”

In transforming history and saving human “universes,” Wallenberg may be said to have presaged today’s foundational principles of international human rights and humanitarian law.

In distributing “schutzpasses,” diplomatic passports conferring protective immunity, and establishing safe houses, conferring diplomatic sanctuary, Wallenberg is credited with saving 50,000 Jews. These heroic deeds affirmed and validated the principle of diplomatic protection, a foundational principle of international law.

In his protection and rescue of civilians amid the horrors of the Holocaust – including from death camp transports on the way to Auschwitz – he manifested the best of what we today call international humanitarian law.

In his organization of hospitals, soup kitchens and orphanages, the staples of international humanitarian assistance that provided women, children, the sick and the elderly with a semblance of dignity in the face of the worst of all horrors and evils, Wallenberg symbolized the best of what we today call international humanitarian intervention.

In saving Jews from certain deportation, death, and atrocity, he symbolized what we today call the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

Finally, Wallenberg’s last rescue was perhaps his most memorable. As the Nazis advanced on Budapest and threatened to blow up the city’s ghetto and liquidate the remaining Jews, he put the Nazi generals on notice that they would be held accountable and brought to justice, if not executed, for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nazi generals desisted, and some 70,000 more Jews were saved. These actions were a precursor to the Nuremberg principles and what today we call international criminal law.

Yet, while Wallenberg saved so many, he was not himself saved by so many who could have. Rather than greet Wallenberg as the liberator he was, the Soviets imprisoned him, where he disappeared into the gulag. The Soviets first claimed that he died of a heart attack in July, 1947, before changing their story to claim that he was murdered, also in July, 1947.

These contradictory Soviet claims have been refuted by several inquiries, including the 1990 International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, which I chaired, along with Wallenberg’s brother Guy von Dardel, U.S. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Russian scholar Mikhail Chlenov and former Israeli attorney-general Gideon Hausner.

Indeed, in 1985, as our Commission report cited, a U.S. federal court found the evidence “incontrovertible” that Wallenberg was alive in 1947, “compelling” that he was alive in the 1960s and “credible” that he remained alive into the ‘80s.

It is imperative that the international community finally secure for Wallenberg and his family the justice long-denied. The countries where Wallenberg holds honorary citizenship should lead an international consortium calling upon Russia to open its archives and reveal the long-sought truth about this disappeared hero of humanity, whom the UN called “the greatest humanitarian of the 20th century.” For us, there should be no other choice.