Irwin Cotler, left, with Bob Rae. Cotler is one of four speakers who will participate in FEDtalks, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign launch on Sept. 17. (photo from irwincotler.liberal.ca)
Irwin Cotler, one of the foremost figures in international human rights, will speak here next month on global trends impacting the Jewish community. He is one of four guest speakers at FEDtalks, an innovative new opening event for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign.
When the new Parliament is sworn in after the Oct. 19 election, Cotler’s career as an elected politician will end. He has served as MP for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal since 1999, and as minister of justice and attorney general for Canada. He is not seeking reelection.
His proudest achievements in politics, he told the Independent, include legislation against human trafficking, particularly of women and children. He also cited the legislated equality of marriage for gays and lesbians, which he shepherded through the House. “We were at the time only the fourth country in the world, in 2005, to do so and it was very divisive at the time,” Cotler said of the civil marriage law.
He also takes pride in being the attorney general when Steven Truscott’s conviction for rape and murder was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice. Truscott was a 14-year-old Ontario boy sentenced to death in 1959 for the rape and murder of a classmate. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was jailed for a decade before being paroled, but it was another four decades before his name was cleared and he was acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
In addition to landmark acts, Cotler said his proudest roles in public office have included helping individuals in ways that never make the news. “I think the one [achievement] that remains unheralded and that is true for all MPs is the one in which we try as best we can on a daily basis to act as an ombudsperson for the constituents in our riding,” he said.
After he leaves office, he will devote more time to the defence of political prisoners, he said. In his role as an international human rights lawyer, Cotler has been central to some of the most prominent cases in the world, including those of Andrei Sakharov, Nathan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela. He is currently on the legal team for Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López and the Iranian Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Boroujerdi. He has been recognized with numerous honorary degrees and other awards, including Parliamentarian of the Year by his colleagues in the House of Commons. He chaired the International Commission of Inquiry into the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg.
“I am even exploring establishing a Raoul Wallenberg Centre for International Justice named after the first [Canadian] honorary citizen, a unique international consortium of politicians, scholars and jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs united in the pursuit of justice, inspired by and anchored in Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy,” he said. “Those are some of the things I’m looking forward to.”
At the FEDtalks event, Cotler said he will address “mega-trends” affecting the Jewish people worldwide, foremost being what he calls the “Iranian five-fold threat.”
The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, “both in the process of arriving at the agreement with Iran and the agreement itself, has overshadowed, if not sanitized, the other four threats,” he said.
Those overshadowed or sanitized threats, he continued, include Iran being the leading sponsor of international terrorism, “the hegemonic threat in terms of its destabilization of the Middle East and beyond,” the danger posed by Iran’s state-sanctioned incitement to hate and to genocide, and the “massive domestic repression” in Iran.
“While the nuclear negotiations have been going on, for example, Iran, which already was executing more people per capita than any other country in the world in the time of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, has almost doubled the execution rate and yet we hear very little about it, and that’s only one example,” said Cotler. “I’ll be speaking about the criminalization of dissent, the prosecution and persecution of Baha’is and other religious and ethnic minorities.”
The second mega-theme, he said, will be terrorism, security and human rights, including how we combat terrorism without undermining civil liberties, and a third theme will probably address antisemitism in what he calls its old and new forms. “The old, or classic, antisemitism being the discrimination against, denial of, assault upon the rights of Jews to live as equal citizens within any society that they inhabit,” he explained, “and the new antisemitism being the discrimination against, denial of and assault upon the right of Israel and the Jewish people to live as an equal member among the family of nations or, at its worst, to even to live.”
FEDtalks, the opening event of the annual campaign for the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, takes place Sept. 17 at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. More information is available at jewishvancouver.com and tickets are available at ticketpeak.com/JFGV. Interviews with the other speakers will appear in successive issues of the Independent.