So mild-mannered and soft-spoken is Irwin Cotler – onetime Canadian law professor, longtime politician and human rights advocate – that he hardly seems combative enough to have participated in some of the world’s toughest struggles for justice.
Yet, Montreal-born Cotler, now 73, helped free Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky in 1986 and South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in 1990. And today, he has stepped up his fight to free Jonathan Pollard. Cotler is also laboring to advance Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
Not one simply to give speeches and write papers, not one to sit long in any one place, Cotler credits his attorney father, Nathan Cotler, for insisting that he pursue justice. He credits his mother, Fay Dubrovsky Cotler, for explaining to him that in order to pursue justice, he must personally feel the injustice around him. So successful has Irwin Cotler been in drawing media attention to political prisoners and freeing them that Canadian magazine Mclean’s dubbed him “Counsel for the Oppressed.”
We meet in a Jerusalem hotel coffee shop. Cotler has just been to South Africa for the Mandela funeral, as a member of the Canadian delegation. With his plaid brown jacket, open-necked shirt and thin metallic glasses, he looks studious, professorial, and exhibits none of the bombast or flamboyance associated with politicians. On this late December morning, he is incensed that Israel has freed 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of the peace talks. “In Canada,” he observes forcefully, “we don’t free terrorists – period.”
Though he speaks slowly, he has so many anecdotes to impart that he rarely takes a breath. He has served off and on as a member of Canada’s parliament since 1999. His constituents love him. In his first election, he won 92 percent of the vote.
From 2003 to 2006, he served as minister of justice and attorney general. He was selected to both posts for his mental toughness in addition to his wisdom.
When he took up the two roles, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency headlined the article: “Canada’s new justice minister, Irwin Cotler, is no shrinking violet.”
And he proved JTA right. He made the Canadian Supreme Court the most gender equal in the world by appointing two women judges; he initiated the first prosecution under the Canadian War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act for incitement to genocide in Rwanda; and he quashed more wrongful convictions in a single year than any previous minister.
While Cotler studied at a Jewish day school in Montreal his father stressed the need to pursue justice. “As a child,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I didn’t know the profundity of what he was saying.”
From his parents, Cotler came to realize that the best way to implement the Jewish value of justice was to redeem political prisoners who had been unlawfully incarcerated. He received a BA in 1961 from McGill University, graduated from law school there and went on to become a law professor at McGill for the next 30 years. In 1992, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of his country’s highest honors.
Cotler took up the case of Soviet refusenik leader Natan Sharansky in the 1970s. Sharansky was arrested in 1977 on charges of spying and treason, and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in a Siberian gulag. Serving as Sharansky’s counsel, Cotler worked tirelessly to win the Russian’s release, never frustrated by the delays. “I always believed he would be freed,” Cotler says.
Sharansky was released in February 1986, becoming the first political prisoner freed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the late 1990s, Cotler asked Gorbachev, by now out of power, what role, if any, he as head of the USSR, had played in Sharansky’s release. Gorbachev told Cotler that he hadn’t even heard of Sharansky until 1984, when he visited Canada as minister of agriculture. Hoping to negotiate an agriculture cooperation deal with the Canadians, Gorbachev was distracted by demands that the Soviets free Sharansky, before any deal could be made.
A year later, upon taking over as Soviet leader, Gorbachev asked to see the Sharansky file. “Yes,” the Soviet leader told Cotler, “he was a troublemaker, but not a criminal, and it was costing us to keep him in prison – all the demands and protests.”
Parallel to the Sharansky case, it seemed only natural for Cotler to take up the cause of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Cotler visited South Africa for the first time in 1981, as a guest of the South African Union of Jewish Students. By that time, Mandela had been in jail for 19 years of a life sentence, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state.
During a later visit, he was invited to address students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on the topic of “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” Cotler intended drawing comparisons between the two men, both political prisoners, both fighting for their freedom. But mentioning Mandela’s name in public in South Africa was a punishable offense, and hence fraught with risk for the Canadian. As he ended his talk, Cotler was not surprised to find himself detained and taken to a meeting with Roelof “Pik” Botha, the South African minister of foreign affairs.
To Cotler’s amazement, Botha had a photo of Sharansky on his wall. Botha told Cotler he wanted to ask the man who had defended Sharansky, a great hero to South Africans for resisting the Soviet Communists, how he could, in the same breath, speak about Mandela, so obviously a Soviet Communist ally.
The two men debated the subject for the next three hours, with Cotler arguing that both Sharansky and Mandela were fighting for freedom and human rights.
Rather than expel Cotler on the spot, Botha sent him on a tour of South Africa to view what the foreign minister called “the true nature of apartheid.”
Returning to Botha after the tour, Cotler said he agreed with the foreign minister that South Africa was a democracy – but only for whites.
Upon hearing of the Cotler-Botha dialogue, Mandela’s attorneys asked the Canadian to become the prisoner’s counselor in Canada, and Cotler agreed.
Mandela was released from jail in 1990.
In 2012, Cotler met in South Africa again with Botha, who admitted to him that he was so impressed with Cotler’s arguments on behalf of Mandela that he became the first South African minister to call for Mandela’s release from prison. He also served in Mandela’s government in the 1990s.
The Sharansky and Mandela cases were far more straightforward for Cotler than that of Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew convicted of passing classified information to Israel while working as a civilian intelligence analyst. In 1987, Pollard began serving a life sentence, but the campaign to free him was slow to gain strength.
Long before anyone had taken up Pollard’s cause, Cotler, who served as Pollard’s counsel, was in constant touch with him. For two years every day, Pollard phoned Cotler from prison at 7 a.m. Of late, Cotler has renewed his effort to get the spy released. He is organizing a letter to US President Barack Obama that will be signed by 15 leading constitutional lawyers calling for Pollard’s release.
In the midst of pursuing justice for political prisoners, Cotler has maintained a long-standing and special personal relationship with the State of Israel.
During the mid-1970s, Cotler decided to spend summers traveling through the Arab world. In 1977, soon after Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, Egyptian colleagues invited Cotler to meet with president Anwar Sadat, who asked the Canadian: Can I make peace with the Likud? Can I make peace with Menachem Begin? Cotler said yes to both questions.
When he was next in Israel, Cotler met with young Likud Knesset Members and Ariela Zeevi, the Likud parliamentary secretary. The Likud MKs arranged for Begin to host Cotler, who told the prime minister of Sadat’s questions, adding that the Egyptian leader had seemed genuine in his hope to make peace with Israel.
Begin appeared pleased.
At first, Zeevi, a close confidante of Begin, thought Cotler might be an Arab spy; after all, though Jewish and proIsrael, he traveled freely through the Arab world, a rare trick. But she overcame her suspicions. They were married on March 26, 1979, the day that Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt. “My wife had such a major presence within the Likud that I truly believed our getting married was a loss for the State of Israel because she left her job and came to live in Canada with me,” Cotler says. Of their four children, two live in Israel.
Ironically when Cotler met recently with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both asked him similar questions to those that Sadat had asked.
Cotler again responded yes to both questions; both leaders and their countries could make peace.
When in 2000 Canada voted to support a UN Security Council resolution urging Israel to use restraint toward Palestinian protesters, he argued that it was unfair to blame Israel for such treatment while exonerating the Palestinians for their violence. His stance earned him a severe condemnation from his own Liberal Party lawmakers.
Today, Cotler has little trouble defending Israel against charges of apartheid. “On the macro level,” he observes, “Israel is a democratic country. It is not right to call Israel an apartheid state because it demeans the struggle against the real apartheid that occurred in South Africa.
This is a free and democratic state. But as is the case in any democracy, there are issues of concern. How does a state treat its minorities, in Israel’s case, the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians? How does it treat the African immigrant community?” Cotler has turned the advocacy of human rights for political prisoners into a formula to be used each time he or others tackle tough cases. “It’s not enough to make representations to the USSR,” he comments. “Numerous other actions must be taken to get the target’s attention. These include getting world leaders involved, mobilizing parliaments and intergovernmental bodies such as the UN, showing how a country has violated international covenants or treaties, getting women’s groups, student movements and the media involved, holding international mock tribunals.”
Often teaming up with Harvard Law School Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Cotler calls his formula “the mobilization of shame against the human rights violator” – in effect, a public relations blitz against a world superpower holding a political prisoner. Dershowitz calls Cotler his mirror image in Canada.
Cotler has been at the barricades for justice for decades; and even today he has a dozen causes with which he is involved – human-rights abuses in Iran and Syria, the Pollard case, the 60,000 Africans in Israel mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. He still travels often; and he is still one of Canada’s most formidable politicians.
He wishes today that he had had the chance to tell his father, who died in 1980, that he had in fact pursued justice and had not done too badly. “I would say to him, if I could, that both he and my mother are responsible for anything good that I have been able to do.”