Irwin Cotler PC OC OQ[1] (born 8 May 1940) is a retired Canadian politician who was Member of Parliament for Mount Royal from 1999 to 2015. He served as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada from 2003 until the Liberal government of Paul Martin lost power following the 2006 federal election. He was first elected to the House of Commons of Canada in a by-election in November 1999, winning 92% of votes cast.[2]

Irwin Cotler
Member of Parliament
for Mount Royal
In office
15 November 1999 – 4 August 2015
Preceded bySheila Finestone
Succeeded byAnthony Housefather
Minister of Justice
Attorney General of Canada
In office
12 December 2003 – 5 February 2006
Prime MinisterPaul Martin
Preceded byMartin Cauchon
Succeeded byVic Toews
Personal details
Born (1940-05-08) 8 May 1940 (age 84)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Political partyLiberal
SpouseAriela Cotler
Residence(s)Montreal, Quebec, Canada
ProfessionLawyer, law professor, Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Early life and education edit

The son of a lawyer, Cotler was born in Montreal, Quebec to a Jewish family.[citation needed] As a child, Cotler's father brought him to Delorimier Stadium in 1946 where the two saw Jackie Robinson on the field, with Cotler saying this moment inspired his interest in civil liberties as he and his father discussed anti-racism.[3]

Cotler received his B.A. (1961) and BCL (1964) degree from McGill University and was an editor of the McGill Law Journal.[4] He then graduated from Yale Law School with an LL.M.

Career edit

Academia edit

For a short period, he worked as a speechwriter for federal Minister of Justice John Turner in 1968 until 1972.[3] In 1970, he entered academia, beginning his career as an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.[3] Cotler was a professor of law at McGill University and the director of its Human Rights Program from 1973 until his election as a Member of Parliament in 1999 for the Liberal Party of Canada. He has also been a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Yale Law School and is the recipient of eleven honorary doctorates.

Political career edit

Cotler served on the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and its Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Development, as well as on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. In 2000, he was appointed special advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on the International Criminal Court.[5][6]

Minister of Justice edit

Irwin Cotler (left) (11 May 2004, Washington, D.C.)

On 12 December 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed him to Cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He recommended the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court of Canada: Louise Charron and Rosalie Abella, Canada's first Jewish woman Supreme Court justice.[3] Cotler attempted to introduce several bills to decriminalize marijuana.[7][8] As Minister of Justice, Cotler tabled Canada's first-ever National Justice Initiative Against Racism, in parallel with the government's National Action Plan Against Racism.[citation needed] He was tasked with improving relations with the indigenous peoples in Canada and implemented a policy "known as the seven R’s: recognition, respect, redress, representation, responsiveness, reconciliation and relationships."[3]

As Minister of Justice, Cotler presided over many legislative changes concerning national security. This included proposed changes to privacy legislation known as "Lawful Access" to give police and intelligence officers the tools to conduct surveillance of electronic communications for law enforcement and national security purposes.[9][10]

In early 2005, Cotler intervened in the senate review of Canada's 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act, as mandated by section 145 of the bill. This law, adopted in the wake of the September 11 attacks, had been criticized by some human rights groups and defense lawyers, as an unreasonable trade-off between security and freedom.[11] In his speech to the senate committee on the matter, Cotler rejected these concerns, arguing that "there is no contradiction in the protection of security and the protection of human rights".[12]

Liberal Party edit

On 22 February 2006, the Liberal Party appointed Cotler Critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in the opposition shadow cabinet for the 39th Canadian Parliament. On 18 January 2007, Cotler was appointed Critic for Human Rights by newly elected leader Stéphane Dion.

Cotler was re-elected to Parliament in the 2008 election to represent the Mount Royal riding in Quebec with 55% of the vote,[13] In January 2009, Cotler was named Special Counsel on Human Rights and International Justice for the Liberal Party, under Michael Ignatieff, and subsequently Critic for Human Rights.

He was re-elected again in the 2011 election, fending off a serious challenge from former city councillor Saulie Zajdel, a longtime Liberal supporter running as a Conservative who lost by only 2,500 votes. It was only the third time that the Liberals had been seriously threatened in Mount Royal since 1940, and the closest that a centre-right party has come to winning anywhere in Montreal since 1993.

In May 2011, Cotler was named Justice and Human Rights Critic by interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.[citation needed] Cotler also chaired the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran, the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Justice for Sergei Magnitsky, and the All-Party Save Darfur Coalition.[14]

In 2013, Cotler was chosen to represent the Liberal Party of Canada at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in deference to the work he allegedly did for and with Mandela in fighting Apartheid. Party Leader Justin Trudeau gave up his seat for him.[15]

On 5 February 2014, Cotler announced he was not running in the 42nd Canadian federal election. He said he would remain "active in public life, lecturing and writing on the issues of the day, advancing the causes of human rights and international justice, and advocating on behalf of political prisoners."[16]

Cotler was one of thirteen Canadians banned from traveling to Russia under retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2014.[17] He replied through his official Twitter feed, "I see my travel ban from Russia as a badge of honour, not a mark of exclusion."[17]

Activism edit

Human rights edit

Cotler is on the Board of Advancing Human Rights (NGO).[18] Cotler Cotler spoke at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on several occasions.[19]

Jewish and Israel activism edit

Cotler is a past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, a member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors,[20] an Honorary Member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation,[21] serves as a member of the Advisory Board of the Genesis Prize Foundation[22] and is a board member of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.[23] Studying antisemitism, Cotler separated it into six categories and found thirteen indices of discrimination against Jews that characterizes the "new anti-Jewishness".[24]

In 1986 he was named chief counsel to the Canadian Jewish Congress at the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on Nazi war criminals.[25]

Cotler worked with a group of international jurists to indict Iranian President Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide under the UN Charter and the Genocide Convention, saying that the Iranian government used anti-Jewish rhetoric similar to the Nazi Party.[26] Cotler chaired a commission called the "Responsibility to Prevent Coalition", which released a petition in 2009 entitled "The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition". The petition was signed by Elie Wiesel, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, and the former Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Per Ahlmark, and historian Yehuda Bauer.[27][28][29][30][31][32][33] Cotler is an advisory board member of United Against Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project.[34][35]

In 2012, Cotler advised Canadian foreign minister John Baird on rejecting the recognition of the State of Palestine during a United Nations meeting.[3]

Cotler is a close friend of American lawyer Alan Dershowitz;[36] the two met at Yale University in the 1960s.[3] Dershowitz's book Abraham was dedicated to Cotler, who Dershowitz described as "a modern-day Abraham."[36] In 2016, the two were named by The Jerusalem Post as "perhaps, the two most eloquent international advocates for Israel and human rights."[36] Dershowitz nominated Cotler for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year.[36][37]

In 2016, Irwin Cotler drafted the "'Never Again' Declaration", which has been signed by justice ministers, parliamentarians, jurists, and Luis Moreno Ocampo, former International Criminal Court prosecutor.[38][39]

Cotler has been criticized as being anti-Palestinian, though he denied the description, saying he supports a two-state solution and criticized the Palestinian National Authority, saying "unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity."[3]

In January 2024, he criticized South Africa's ICJ genocide case against Israel,[40] saying that "Israel consistently seeks to minimize harm to civilians [in Gaza] using measures including leaflets, messages and phone calls to urge civilians to evacuate targeted areas, creating humanitarian zones and corridors, and facilitating humanitarian aid."[41]

Prisoner representation edit

Cotler began representing notable prisoners with the Natan Sharansky case, who was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for Jewish activism. In 1977, Sharansky's wife asked Cotler to represent Natan when the two met in Israel.[3] Cotler went to the Soviet Union in 1979 to represent Sharansky, though he was deported.[3] Sharansky was released in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev and went on to become Israeli Deputy Prime Minister.[3][42] According to Cotler, the case taught him that "[i]t was very important for mobilizing public opinion" and that "[t]he tipping point for the release of political prisoners is not necessarily the injustice of the case, ... It’s when you can make the case that it’s in their self-interest to release the prisoner because it’s costing them."[3]

In 1981, Cotler visited South Africa after being invited by anti-apartheid activists. He has claimed he was arrested after giving the speech titled "If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?"[3] Cotler also claims that, at the request of Nelson Mandela's South African legal team, he took on the role of "Canadian counsel" to Mandela at the end of the visit, participating in anti-apartheid activities in Canada and advocating on Mandela's behalf with Amnesty International.[3][43] The claim that Cotler was arrested or ever represented Mandela in any capacity has been disputed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and two prominent South African lawyers, including the last surviving member of Mandela's legal team.[44]

Cotler went on to represent other imprisoned individuals, including Jacobo Timmerman in Latin America, Muchtar Pakpahan in Asia. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist imprisoned by the Egyptian government, was represented by Cotler and acquitted in 2003.[45] He acted as counsel to Maher Arar during part of Arar's imprisonment[46] and supported demands for a public inquiry.[47] He has also defended both Palestinians and Israelis against their own governments, and participated in a minor role in the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.[48]

Imprisoned Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López chose Cotler to serve as an attorney on his defense team in 2015.[49] In 2017, Cotler was then asked to join a panel of independent international experts designated by Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, to determine whether there was reasonable ground to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela.[50]

Personal life edit

Cotler's wife, Ariela (née Ze'evi), is a native of Jerusalem and worked as a legislative assistant to Likud members of the Israeli Knesset from 1967-79.[51] The two met at a lunch with members of the Knesset in 1977; Cotler was asked to deliver a letter from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, a letter that included peace negotiation proposals.[3] The two married on 26 March 1979, the day that the Egypt–Israel peace treaty was signed.[3] Cotler became a step-father to Ariela's daughter Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who he adopted when the couple moved to Montreal, and the two had three other children; Gila, Tanya and Jonathan.[3] His step-daughter Cotler-Wunsh is an attorney and a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was a Member of the Knesset for the Blue and White alliance during the 23rd Knesset, from 2020 until 2021.

Awards and achievements edit

Cotler was appointed in 1992 as an Officer of the Order of Canada.[3] He received fifteen honorary doctorate degrees.[3] Cotler received an honorary doctorate from McGill University on 30 May 2019,[52][53] and gave the commencement address during the Faculty of Law's convocation ceremony.[54][55][56] In 2022, he was profiled in the documentary film First to Stand: The Cases and Causes of Irwin Cotler.[57] In 2023, he was awarded Israel's Presidential Medal of Honour by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.[58] Also in 2023, he was awarded the Lantos Human Rights Prize.[59]

References edit

  1. ^ "Les nominations à l'Ordre national du Québec 2017" (PDF). Retrieved 3 March 2020.
  2. ^ Historical 301 Electoral Districts Database Archived 2012-02-24 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s "For Irwin Cotler, neither a pandemic nor retirement from politics can slow his fight for human rights". The Globe and Mail. 3 October 2020. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  4. ^ "Masthead". McGill Law Journal. 10. 1964.
  5. ^ "Panel discussion | General Assembly of the United Nations". Retrieved 6 September 2023.
  6. ^ "Irwin Cotler". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved 6 September 2023.
  7. ^ "Drug & Alcohol News Items Archive - Where Families Find Answers on Substance Use - Partnership for Drug-Free Kids". Where Families Find Answers on Substance Use - Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
  8. ^ Canadian Government Tries Anew to Decriminalize Marijuana (
  9. ^ "Michael Geist -". Michael Geist.
  10. ^ "Lawful Access FAQ". Archived from the original on 19 August 2003. Retrieved 22 March 2006.
  11. ^ "Defence of Canadian Liberty Committee". Archived from the original on 26 April 2006. Retrieved 22 March 2006.
  13. ^ 2008 re-election to Parliament,; accessed 20 June 2015.
  14. ^ "Irwin Cotler: one of world's foremost advocates for human rights". The Canadian Jewish News. 30 June 2017. Retrieved 7 June 2018.
  15. ^ CTV News Network, "Memorial of Nelson Mandela", airdate 10 December 2013 circa 4:30am EST
  16. ^ Marissa Newman (5 February 2014). "Renowned Jewish Canadian MP, law scholar to retire". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  17. ^ a b Susana Mas (24 March 2013). "Russian sanctions against Canadians a 'badge of honour'". CBC News. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
  18. ^ Robert Bernstein "Why We Need A New Human Rights Organization" Archived 2011-03-07 at the Wayback Machine. 24 February 2011.
  19. ^ "Speaker - Irwin Cotler". Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
  20. ^ About The Middle East Media Research Institute Archived 2011-04-30 at the Wayback Machine,; accessed 20 June 2015.
  21. ^ "Honorary Members: Government Officials". The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. 16 April 2012. Retrieved 25 March 2014.
  22. ^ "Mayor Bloomberg Selected as Inaugural Genesis Prize Laureate",, 21 October 2013.
  23. ^ "Israel Council on Foreign Relations".
  24. ^ "Irwin Cotler: Defining the new anti-Semitism | National Post". Archived from the original on 5 August 2013. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  25. ^ Government of Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada. "Information archivée dans le Web" (PDF). Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  26. ^ "Comment: Ahmadinejad: Criminal non grata - Iranian Threat - Jerusalem Post". 23 September 2012.
  27. ^ Cotler, Irwin (2009). "The Danger of a Nuclear, Genocidal and Rights-Violating Iran:The Responsibility to Prevent Petition" (PDF).
  28. ^ Lazarus, David (17 December 2009). "Cotler organizes petition on Iran's genocidal incitement". The Canadian Jewish News. Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  29. ^ Martin, Patrick (14 July 2010). "Iranian regime a threat to the world and itself: human-rights activists". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  31. ^ Susser, Leslie (27 July 2010). "The Four-fold Threat". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  32. ^ Lemberg, Izzy (14 July 2010). "International group urges action against Iran -". CNN. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  33. ^ Lazaroff, Tovah (14 July 2010). "Cotler releases 18-point 'road map' against Iran". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  34. ^ "Leadership". United Against Nuclear Iran.
  35. ^ "Leadership". Counter Extremism Project.
  36. ^ a b c d "Jerusalem Post 50 Most Influential Jews: Number 38 - Alan M. Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler". The Jerusalem Post. 29 September 2016. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  37. ^ "The Montreal Lawyer | Alan Dershowitz nominates Irwin Cotler for Nobel Prize". Le Monde Juridique. 13 June 2016. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  38. ^ Halon, Eytan (2 May 2019). "In Krakow, young Jewish leaders vow to make 'Never Again' a reality". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  39. ^ Cotler, Irwin (22 January 2020). "The 'Never Again' Declaration: A model for remembrance and action". Times of Israel. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  40. ^ "12 ways South Africa weaponized the Genocide Convention against Israel". The Times of Israel. 26 January 2024.
  41. ^ "Irwin Cotler: South Africa is inverting reality by accusing Israel of genocide". National Post. 10 January 2024.
  42. ^ "Irwin Cotler's secret: calm amid the chaos". Maclean's. 2 May 2012. Archived from the original on 5 March 2014. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
  43. ^ "A remarkable man, a remarkable legacy". 6 December 2013.
  44. ^ Mastracci, Davide (28 March 2024). "'No Evidence' For Irwin Cotler's Mandela Claims, South Africans Allege". The Maple. Retrieved 30 March 2024.
  45. ^ "Ex-PM Paul Martin recommends Irwin Cotler for a Nobel Prize". The Canadian Jewish News. 10 January 2019. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  46. ^ Lunman, Kim (17 January 2004). "Cotler withdraws from Arar case". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  47. ^ Galloway, Gloria (2 October 2006). "Cotler wants independent review of Arar case". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  48. ^ Byers-Lane, Brett (29 July 2015). "Robin Sears in Inside Policy: Irwin Cotler and the pursuit of justice". Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  49. ^ "Former Mandela lawyer to join defense of Venezuela's jailed activist". Reuters. 5 February 2015.
  50. ^ OAS (1 August 2009). "OAS - Organization of American States: Democracy for peace, security, and development". Retrieved 7 June 2018.
  51. ^ Suburban, Mike Cohen The (18 August 2021). "SJN: Ariela Cotler to assume duties as national president of CFTAU". The Suburban Newspaper. Retrieved 22 July 2022.
  52. ^ Spring 2019 Convocation – Honorary Degree Recipients
  53. ^ Irwin Cotler to receive honorary doctorate from McGill University
  54. ^ Law The Honourable Irwin Cotler
  55. ^ McGill Publications
  56. ^ "Law professor: Hamas is a war crimes 'case study'". The Jerusalem Post | 13 January 2009. Retrieved 26 December 2023.
  57. ^ Brownstein, Bill (9 December 2022). "Brownstein: Irwin Cotler's many fights for human rights detailed in documentary". Montreal Gazette.
  58. ^ "Irwin Cotler, who advocated for Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela, awarded Israel's Presidential Medal of Honor". 7 September 2023.
  59. ^ Skrypnek, Jane (13 August 2023). "Canadian Irwin Cotler, who helped free Mandela, given prestigious human-rights award". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 19 March 2024. Cotler has been named the recipient of the 2023 Lantos Human Rights Prize

External links edit

27th Ministry – Cabinet of Paul Martin
Cabinet post (1)
Predecessor Office Successor
Martin Cauchon Minister of Justice
Vic Toews
Parliament of Canada
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Mount Royal
Succeeded by
Other offices
Preceded by President of the Canadian Jewish Congress
Succeeded by