Irwin Cotler wouldn’t be intimidated.
It was 1978, and the young Canadian law professor was living in the Jewish quarter of Damascus as part of his summer travels across the Middle East. He knew he was being followed by Syrian officials, who surveilled the Jewish minority. One morning, a man knocked on his door.
“He takes me outside and takes me somewhere," Mr. Cotler says, "and two people are hung, dead, in this courtyard.”
Mr. Cotler was taken to a jail cell. Hours later, interrogators showed up. “He says to me, ‘Now you will tell us whatever we need to know, or what happened to those people you saw earlier will happen to you.’”
They told Mr. Cotler his presence in the Jewish quarter, where he attended synagogue, was prohibited. He didn’t deny he was a practising Jew; he questioned why it was a problem.
“I wanted the Jews there to know I wasn’t afraid,” he says during an interview at his home in Montreal.
He was released and told to leave the country.
At the same time, Mr. Cotler was defending another Jewish-rights activist a world away: Natan Sharansky, who was facing trumped-up charges of treason and espionage in the Soviet Union.
While in Syria, Mr. Cotler learned his client – the first political prisoner he’d ever defended – would face trial in what would become a defining case of his career.
In the decades to come, Mr. Cotler transcended the legal world as a lawyer, professor, member of Parliament and justice minister, using his roles to advocate for the release of dozens of political prisoners. At the age of 80, he continues to take on new cases – always for free.
Mr. Cotler’s fight for human rights has taken over his modest split-level house. The living room coffee table is covered in news clippings, legal briefs and reports.
Downstairs, more papers pile up on two folding tables in the den – a temporary measure that appears to have become more permanent as Mr. Cotler works from home during the pandemic.
The global health crisis, coupled with the rise of authoritarianism in countries such as China, Russia and Iran, has him concerned the political prisoners he has spent his life defending will be forgotten.
“The authoritarians can act worse under the cover of the pandemic because the democracies are not united in effective, moral, concerted leadership,” Mr. Cotler says. “That’s what keeps me up at night."
He is urging democracies, including Canada, to speak up against the increasing attacks on human rights and call for the release of political prisoners such as Nasrin Sotoudeh of Iran, whom he calls the bravest human-rights lawyer in the world today. After defending opposition activists, Ms. Sotoudeh was sentenced last year to 148 lashes and 38 years in prison.
“The democracies, which should be at the forefront of standing up for this woman, are dealing, yes, with a global health pandemic, but are ignoring the global political pandemic.”
After his retirement from politics five years ago, Mr. Cotler’s advocacy work found a new home.
In 2015, he founded the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a Montreal-based organization dedicated to promoting human rights, advocating for political prisoners and combatting injustice around the world.
The group works in the memory of Mr. Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved 100,000 Jews during the Second World War by issuing them diplomatic passports and sheltering them in safe houses.
Mr. Cotler is also a member of a panel that advises the Canadian and British governments on how to improve press freedom.
Human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney, a member of the panel, says when Mr. Cotler speaks, people listen.
“He is uniquely positioned to have impact as he combines the fervour and persistence of an activist with the wisdom and standing of a seasoned diplomat," she said in a statement. "He can inspire officials into action and is not afraid to call them out when they fall short.”
The early years
Mr. Cotler, an only child, credits his parents with instilling the importance of justice and ethics at a young age.
In 1946, his father took six-year-old Irwin to a baseball game at Montreal’s Delorimier stadium. Jackie Robinson, who would go on to become the first Black person to play Major League Baseball, was on the field. “For my father, that was a teachable moment. This was to teach me about anti-racism. This was to teach me about civil liberties. This was to teach me about the dangers of segregation.”
Mr. Cotler began his academic career in 1970 as an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He eventually returned to his alma mater, McGill, as a professor and spent his summers travelling the Middle East.
During a stop in Egypt in 1977, a friend introduced him to then president Anwar Sadat. Knowing Mr. Cotler would later visit Israel, Mr. Sadat asked him to deliver a message to newly elected prime minister Menachem Begin. Mr. Cotler insisted he didn’t know Mr. Begin, but the President was adamant he take the message in case they crossed paths.
When Mr. Cotler arrived in Israel, he was invited to lunch with members of the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, where he met a staffer named Ariela Zeevi. Fascinated by Mr. Cotler’s stories about visiting Jews in the Arab countries, Ms. Zeevi insisted he meet her boss – Mr. Begin.
They met the following day, where he delivered Mr. Sadat’s message: Egypt was prepared to enter into peace negotiations with Israel, which didn’t have relations with any Arab countries at the time.
Ms. Zeevi and Mr. Cotler stayed in touch, and as their relationship developed, so did peace negotiations between Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat. Mr. Cotler and Ms. Zeevi married on March 26, 1979 – the day the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed.
“It was intentional, because the relationship was forged in that way,” Mr. Cotler says of their wedding date.
Mr. Cotler adopted Ms. Zeevi’s daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, when they moved to Montreal. The couple had three more children – Gila, Tanya and Jonathan – and have nine grandchildren. Ms. Cotler-Wunsh, now a member of Israel’s Knesset, said human rights were a constant theme in their household.
“We knew who the Hutus and Tutsi were around our dinner table," she says. "We knew what was happening in Rwanda before the rest of the world identified what the Responsibility to Protect doctrine was.”
The fight for rights at home and abroad
One book towers above the piles of papers in Mr. Cotler’s living room. He has to use both hands to pick up the 900-page legal brief titled “The Sharansky Case.” The book, covered in coffee stains, symbolizes his relentless defence of political prisoners.
It analyzes how the Soviet Union violated its own constitution, identifying 20 violations of Mr. Sharansky’s rights, from arbitrary arrest to torture and detention.
Mr. Sharansky was a refusenik – one of many Soviet Jews denied an exit visa to Israel for security reasons. He became an outspoken human-rights activist, engaging in Zionist activities. He was arrested in 1977 and accused of spying for the United States (which the Americans denied). Mr. Sharansky’s wife, Avital, asked Mr. Cotler to take on her husband’s case during his visit to Israel that year. A year later, Mr. Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years of hard labour in a Soviet gulag.
Mr. Cotler travelled to the Soviet Union in 1979 for Mr. Sharansky’s appeal, but officials kicked him out of the country before it started, confiscating the legal brief. Luckily, Mr. Cotler had copies back in Canada, which were used to drum up support for Mr. Sharansky’s case.
“It was very important for mobilizing public opinion,” Mr. Sharansky says.
After nine years of pressure, he was the first political prisoner released by Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1986.
Mr. Cotler learned a valuable lesson about human-rights violators during his years on the case. “The tipping point for the release of political prisoners is not necessarily the injustice of the case,” he says. “It’s when you can make the case that it’s in their self-interest to release the prisoner because it’s costing them.”
Mr. Sharansky emigrated to Israel and went on to serve as Israel’s deputy prime minister. He and Mr. Cotler remain close friends. “He is the most idealistic – and at the same time professional – defender of human rights in the world,” Mr. Sharansky says.
The case served as a launching pad for Mr. Cotler’s work with other political prisoners, including the late South African president Nelson Mandela.
In 1981, Mr. Cotler travelled to South Africa as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement. He was briefly detained after delivering a speech titled “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” At the time, the mere mention of Mr. Mandela’s name was prohibited. Mr. Cotler was released after a brief time and continued travelling the country, witnessing the effects of apartheid firsthand. He was asked to join Mr. Mandela’s international legal team at the end of the trip.
Mr. Cotler led advocacy efforts for Mr. Mandela in Canada, participating in the launch of an anti-apartheid initiative with advocacy groups including Amnesty International.
Mr. Mandela was released in 1990 and made Canada his first state visit, after then prime minister Brian Mulroney called for an end to apartheid and Mr. Mandela’s incarceration. Mr. Cotler met him during that visit, and as a member of Parliament, he spoke in favour of granting Mr. Mandela honorary citizenship in 2001.
While taking on international cases, Mr. Cotler was also fighting for the protection of human rights in Canada. As president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, he appeared before a Parliamentary committee in 1980 to advocate for the enshrinement of fundamental rights. Mr. Trudeau’s government enacted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms two years later.
Justice Rosalie Abella recalls following Mr. Cotler’s early support for the creation of the Charter. “We say in the legal profession that the constitution is a living tree – a concept we got from the Privy Council in England in 1929 that guides Canadian jurisprudence," she says. "Irwin is probably one of the best waterers of that tree we’ve had in this country.”
An accidental political career
Mr. Cotler got his first taste of politics in 1968, when John Turner, then justice minister in Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, hired him as a speechwriter. In his four years working for Mr. Turner, Mr. Cotler learned an important lesson that would inspire his eventual political career: “Parliament is a trustee of the people.”
Mr. Cotler was approached by the Liberals to run in Montreal’s Mount Royal riding in 1984 but declined. Fifteen years later, with a by-election looming, they came knocking again. Mr. Cotler still wasn’t interested, but organizers kept encouraging him to consider it. When the other two candidates dropped out and threw their support behind Mr. Cotler, he suddenly became the only prospective Liberal candidate. “The whole thing was an accident – an utter, utter accident,” Mr. Cotler recalls.
Voters ended up sending Mr. Cotler back to Ottawa in six consecutive elections. He held his seat from 1999 to 2015.
When Paul Martin succeeded Jean Chrétien as prime minister in 2003, he appointed Mr. Cotler justice minister. Mr. Martin ordered his cabinet to prioritize Indigenous affairs, and he says Mr. Cotler took that order even further, setting up a department-wide strategy known as the seven R’s: recognition, respect, redress, representation, responsiveness, reconciliation and relationships.
“He made it very, very clear that … their rights had not been fully recognized, and this was a gap, and it had to be dealt with,” Mr. Martin says.
Mr. Cotler went on to appoint the first ever Indigenous and visible-minority justices to the Ontario Court of Appeal. He also takes pride in his involvement in the passage of Canada’s same-sex marriage legislation and reform of the Supreme Court appointment process. When he appointed Justice Louise Charron and Justice Abella (the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court), the process included publicly announced criteria, an expert advisory selection panel and a Parliamentary committee where he took questions about his choices.
Mr. Cotler developed a reputation for working effectively across the aisle. He made a particularly strong impression on former Conservative MP John Baird, who served as foreign minister from 2011 to 2015. Mr. Baird said he relied on Mr. Cotler’s guidance in 2012 when he delivered a controversial speech at the United Nations opposing recognition of Palestine as a non-member state. At the time, Canada was among a handful of countries that voted against the motion. Mr. Baird said he considers the speech one of his most important ministerial addresses. Mr. Baird also said Mr. Cotler helped him write the speech, though Mr. Cotler denies that he did so.
Critics have painted Mr. Cotler as anti-Palestinian, but Mr. Cotler maintains he has long supported a “two states for two peoples” solution. He’s hopeful peace will come to the region in his lifetime, but he’s skeptical about the Palestinian Authority’s track record. “At a certain point, unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
A lasting legacy
U.S. civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz calls Mr. Cotler the hardest-working lawyer he knows. The pair met when Mr. Cotler was studying at Yale University in the late 1960s and Mr. Dershowitz was teaching at Harvard Law School. They eventually teamed up to defend Mr. Sharansky and Mr. Mandela. In both cases, Mr. Dershowitz says Mr. Cotler did most of the primary work.
Half a century later, they remain close despite what appears to be an unlikely friendship. While Mr. Dershowitz has represented celebrity clients including Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, Mr. Cotler has taken on what Mr. Dershowitz calls “invisible” political prisoners.
“He and I have equally controversial cases, but everybody likes him and nobody likes me," Mr. Dershowitz says. "He’s just a nicer person.”
Alongside his many international human-rights awards, Mr. Cotler is the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates and is an Officer of the Order of Canada. He has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – in 2016 by Mr. Dershowitz and in 2019 by Mr. Martin, who cited Mr. Cotler’s leadership role in establishing Canada’s version of the Magnitsky Act, which passed in 2017. Mr. Cotler introduced the original legislation, which allows the government to impose sanctions on human-rights abusers around the world. Seven countries have now adopted versions of the law, inspired by the late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
Mr. Cotler turned 80 in May and had been dealing with some health problems, including diabetes, kidney disease and a blood clot. His health has stabilized since the pandemic because he has been forced to stop travelling.
But retirement is not on the table. The political prisoners he defends give him the energy to keep working. “If they can suffer and advocate from prison, I can certainly advocate from the luxury of a free and democratic country,” he says.
The legacy of Mr. Cotler lives in the changes he made to Canada’s justice system, in the legal community he inspired and in the political prisoners he defended. For Justice Abella, he’s not just a man of his times – he’s a man who changed the times.
“He’s our gift to the world,” Justice Abella says. “If we didn’t have Irwin Cotler, we’d have to invent him.”
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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Amal Clooney was a former member of a press-freedom panel with Irwin Cotler. In fact, Ms. Clooney is still on the panel. As well, the caption to a photo of Mr. Cotler in his youth said the two people with him were his parents. In fact, the two adults are Moe and Esther Fine.