Irwin Cotler
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Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler (2017).jpg
Member of Parliament
for Mount Royal

November 15, 1999 - October 19, 2015
Sheila Finestone
Anthony Housefather
47th Minister of Justice
Attorney General of Canada

December 12, 2003 - February 5, 2006
Paul Martin
Martin Cauchon
Vic Toews
Personal details
Born (1940-05-08) May 8, 1940 (age 81)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Political partyLiberal
Spouse(s)Ariela Cotler
ResidenceMontreal, Quebec, Canada
ProfessionLawyer, law professor, Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

Irwin Cotler, PC, OC, OQ[1] (born May 8, 1940) is a retired Canadian politician, Emeritus Professor of Law, and Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.[2] He was the 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.[3]

Early life & education

The son of a lawyer, Cotler was born in Montreal, Quebec. Cotler is Jewish.[4]

In 1961 Cotler received his B.A. (Hons.) from McGill University; where he graduated as a university scholar. He was additionally a member of the Student's Executive Council from the Faculty of Arts and Science; President of the McGill Debating Union and Talbot - Papineau Cup.[5] In 1964 he then received his B.C.L from McGill University Faculty of Law. He was president of the Law Student's Association; Editor-in-Chief of the McGill Daily; and Senior Editor of the McGill Law Journal.[6] In 1966, Cotler then graduated from Yale Law School with an LL.M. For a short period, he worked with federal Minister of Justice John Turner.

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, Sterling Fellow and Yale Law School and is the recipient of fifteen honorary doctorates. He was appointed in 1992 as an Officer of the Order of Canada. He is a past president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. He received an honorary doctorate from McGill University[7][8] on May 30, 2019, and gave the commencement address during the Faculty of Law's convocation ceremony.[9][10]

Human rights activity

Cotler served as Chair of the International Commission on the Fate and Whereabouts of Raoul Wallenberg, which presented its report to the former Soviet Union in May 1990.[11]

Cotler has served on the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and its sub-Committee 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.

He is considered an expert on international law and human rights law. As an international human rights lawyer, Cotler served as counsel to former prisoners of conscience Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Jacobo Timmerman in Latin America, Muchtar Pakpahan in Asia, as well as other well known political prisoners and dissidents. Cotler represented Natan Sharansky, who was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for Jewish activism. After his release, Sharansky went on to become Israeli Deputy Prime Minister.[12] He has worked as counsel to political prisoners and dissidents globally including Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov (former Soviet Union), Peace Medal Recipient Nathan Sharansky (former Soviet Union), Environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin (Russia), Professor KunLun Zhang (China), Dr. Wang Bingzhang (China), Blogger Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia), Human Rights Lawyer Waleed Abdulhair (Saudi Arabia), Leader of Democratic Opposition Leopoldo López (Venezuela), Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni (Venezuela), Leader of Anti-Slavery Movement Biram Dah Abeid (Mauritania), Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran), Human rights activist Narges Mohammadi (Iran), Religious leader Seyyed Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi (Iran), Senator Leila de Lima (Philippines), and Democracy advocate Anastasia Nukzarievna Shevchenko (Russia).[13]

Cotler has been involved for 50 years in teaching, educating, writing, and advocacy, in matters relating to the preventing and combating of mass atrocity. He was the first Canadian Parliamentarian to call the mass atrocity in Darfur as constitutive of a genocide in 2003. He initiated the Parliamentary motion which was unanimously adopted in 2007 and which established a "Day of Reflection on the Lessons of Genocide" referring to the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. He was the co-sponsor of the Parliamentary resolution in 2014 to establish April as "Genocide Prevention Month"; lead Parliamentary hearings into the mass atrocity of the Rohingya in 2013 and 2014. He was the first to call on the Canadian Parliament to recognize these mass atrocities as genocides; the featured lecturer on matters relating to Holocaust remembrance, genocide and human rights, and the prevention of mass atrocity for over four decades.[14]

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist imprisoned by the Egyptian government, was represented by Cotler and acquitted in 2003. He acted as counsel to Maher Arar during part of Arar's imprisonment and supported demands for a public inquiry. 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.[15]

In 1986 he was chief counsel to the Canadian Jewish Congress at the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals.

In 2017, Cotler was 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.[16]

Cotler is on the Board of Advancing Human Rights (NGO).[17]

Cotler has served as counsel for Coalition of Peace, Women, and Aboriginal Groups in landmark case of Operation Dismantle v. The Queen, [1985] 1 S.C.R. 441. The case established important principal and precedent for the interpretation and application of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms [18]. He additionally worked as counsel for the intervenants (InterAmicus) in a series of landmark war crimes justice cases in the Ontario Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada including Re Federal Republic of Germany and Rauca [1983], 4 C.C.C. (3d) 385 and R. v. Finta, [1994] 1 S.C.R. 701. Cotler served as counsel for the intervenants (InterAmicus) in landmark Supreme Court decisions re freedom of expression in R. v. Keegstra [19], [1990] 3 S.C.R. 697, R. v. Andrews [1990] 3 S.C.R. 870,[20] and Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Taylor [21], [1990] 3 S.C.R. 892. He was counsel for the intervenants in landmark case re freedom of conscience and religion R. v. Big M Drug Mart [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295 [22]. His seminal articles on these issues appeared in the Supreme Court Law Review; the National Journal of Constitutional Law, the American Journal of International Law, Cardozo Law Journal, and in other peer-reviewed publications in Canada and abroad. Several of his other legal cases have been vital to the advancement and promotion of international human rights. This extends to his work as special Counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) re McDonald Commission of Inquiry; Special Counsel for CCLA re submission to Joint-House Senate Committee on the Constitution; Special Counsel to CCLA re briefs and interventions in matters of criminal justice, law reform, and protecting vulnerable communities. He has served as Special Counsel to the Deschênes Commission of Inquiry into Nazi war criminals in Canada, counsel for intervenants -- Association of Ethiopian Jews -- before the Supreme Court of Israel, and counsel for intervenants before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.[14]

Cotler was appointed by the Organization of American States as a Member of the Independent Legal Experts Panel to inquire into whether there is reasonable basis for determining that Crimes Against Humanity were being committed in Venezuela. The Panel determined in May 2018 that there was a "reasonable basis to conclude that seven major crimes against humanity were committed in Venezuela" and recommended the referral of Venezuela to the International Criminal Court. This resulted in the first-ever collective referral in September 2018 of a State Party in the history of the ICC.[23][24][25]

Cotler was appointed by the Canadian and UK governments in July 2019 to the High Level Panel of Independent Legal Experts on Media Freedom. The panel has already published its first "Report on the Use of Targeted Sanctions to Protect Journalists" by the Deputy Chair of the Panel, Amal Clooney.[26]

In November 2020, Canada named the former Justice Minister and Attorney General to a one-year position as special envoy on preserving Holocaust remembrance and combating anti-Semitism.[27]

National security and the law

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

One of the central challenges for Cotler during his time as Justice Minister was to address concerns about terrorism while guarding against arbitrary and unnecessary limits on rights. Part of his work in this regard included a review of Bill C-51, Canada's relatively recent Anti-Terrorism Act. The Anti-Terrorism Act has been criticized by some human rights groups and defense lawyers, as an unreasonable trade-off between security and freedom.[28] Cotler believed that the legislation did, in fact, strike a balance between rights and national security concerns, but understood that further consultation was necessary in reviewing the legislation. On February 21, 2005, Cotler spoke of the important work that Bill C-51 involved, and invited experts and other groups to continue dialogue to improve the legislation in the review process.[29]

Cotler presided over other 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.[30][31]


From November 1999 to October 2015 Cotler was Member of Parliament for the Constituency of Mount Royal in Quebec. He was first elected in a by-election for the constituency of Mount Royal in Quebec (with 92% of the vote - considered "unprecedented" in Canadian electoral history). During this time he chaired major Parliamentary Committees including Justice and Human Rights; was a member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights and International Development; and Committee on Public Security -- each of which issued important reports and legislative initiatives. Cotler also co-sponsored landmark "war crimes, crimes against humanity" legislation in domestic implementation of the Rome Statute for an International Criminal Court, Co-sponsored unanimous resolution establishing Annual Political Prisoner Day in the Canadian Parliament and Initiated a series of Private Members' Bills in the areas of constitutional law, criminal law, international law and human rights law. He served as chair of the first-ever Parliamentary Assembly for an International Criminal Court, Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Justice for Sergei Magnitsky, Chair of the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition, Co-Chair of Global Parliamentarians for Tibet, and Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran. He additionally was a member of the International Council and Chair for the Canadian Section of Parliamentarians for Global Action as well as Co-Founder and Chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism [32]

Co-Chaired Canadian Cabinet Committees on Aboriginal Rights, Public Security, and Criminal Justice Reform.On December 12, 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed him to Cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. In his role as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Cotler took on several successful major initiatives. He Initiated the first-ever comprehensive reform of the Supreme Court appointment process and aided in the creation of the most gender-representative Supreme Court in the world. He further appointed the first-ever aboriginal and visible minority justices to the Ontario Court of Appeal. During his tenure in the position Cotler additionally initiated the first-ever law on human trafficking, crafted the Civil Marriage Act, - the first-ever legislation to grant marriage equality to same sex couples - , and issued Canada's first National Justice Initiative Against Racism and Hate. Cotler turned the pursuit of international justice into a top priority for the Canadian government and quashed more wrongful convictions in a single year than any prior Minister. His other significant achievements while serving in the role included the initiation of the first ever prosecution for genocide in Rwanda under the War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity, and Genocide Act, leading the Canadian delegation to the four Stockholm Conferences on Conscience and Humanity, spearheading the Canadian leadership re the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine.[33][14][34]

Co-Chaired Canadian Cabinet Committees on Aboriginal Rights, Public Security, and Criminal Justice Reform.

He recommended the appointment of numerous women and aboriginal judges, including of two women to the Supreme Court of Canada in August 2004: Louise Charron and Rosalie Abella.

Cotler attempted to introduce several bills to decriminalize marijuana.[35][36]

On February 22, 2006, the Liberal Party appointed Cotler Critic for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in the opposition shadow cabinet for the 39th Canadian Parliament. On January 18, 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,[37] 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. In the 2011 election, Cotler fended 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 have been seriously threatened in Mount Royal since initially winning it in 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[]. 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.[38]

In 2013, Cotler was chosen to represent the Liberal Party of Canada at the Funeral of Nelson Mandela in deference to the work he did for and with Nelson Mandela in fighting Apartheid. Party Leader Justin Trudeau gave up his seat for him.[39]

On February 5, 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."[40]

Cotler was one of thirteen Canadians banned from traveling to Russia under retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2014.[41] He replied through his official Twitter feed, "I see my travel ban from Russia as a badge of honour, not a mark of exclusion."[41]

Cotler is an advisory board member of United Against Nuclear Iran and the Counter Extremism Project.[42][43]

Anti-discrimination work

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. Cotler has worked with a group of international jurists to indict Iranian President Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide under the UN Charter and the Genocide Convention.[44] 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 has been 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.[45][46][47][48][49][50][51]

He separated six categories of anti-Semitism and found thirteen indices of discrimination against Jews that characterizes the "new anti-Jewishness".[52]

Cotler is a member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors.[53]

Cotler is an Honorary Member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.[54]

Cotler serves as a member of the Advisory Board of the Genesis Prize Foundation.[55] Cotler has spoken at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on several occasions.[56]

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.[57][58]

Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights

After retiring as an Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University and longtime Member of Parliament, Professor Cotler founded the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which has become one of the global leaders in the pursuit of justice. In particular, this includes the struggle for the preventing and combatting of mass atrocity and genocide; the struggle against the resurgent global authoritarianism and need for democratic renewal; advocacy for the global empowerment of women; and for its work on behalf of political prisoners worldwide, which has already achieved notable achievements and international resonance in the release of political prisoners, including Biram Dah Abeid, the imprisoned leader of the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania, now recently elected to the Mauritian Parliament after his release, though still subjected to threat, harassment and intimidation. The Centre also established the first-ever Raoul Wallenberg All-Party Parliamentary Caucus for Human Rights which has pursued a series of all party initiatives, including the unanimous adoption of Global Justice for Sergei Magnitskylegislation; the inaugural Nelson Mandela Political Prisoner Day -- an event held to highlight the plight and pain of political prisoners around the world -- on December 10, the Annual Commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Media Freedom Project established in conjunction with the High-Level Panel of Independent Legal Experts for Media Freedom of which Professor Cotler is the Canadian member; and a recent initiative for the promotion and protection of democratic freedom established in partnership with the Parliamentarians for Global Action.[59][60]

Involvement with Nelson Mandela

At the request of Nelson Mandela's South African legal team, Cotler took on the role of "Canadian counsel" to Mandela in 1981, participating in anti-apartheid activities in Canada and advocating on Mandela's behalf.[61]


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.[62]

His step-daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, is an attorney and was a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She became a Member of the Knesset for the Blue and White Party in the 23rd Knesset, June 2020.


In 1992, prior to Cotler's many Parliamentary and Ministerial achievements, his legal scholarship and human rights advocacy were recognized in his investiture as an Officer of the Order of Canada. "He is a distinguished legal scholar at McGill University who has greatly influenced international peace and human rights. A human rights advocate and a pioneer in the development of peace law, he is engaged in the search for justice and peace for all. His efforts have been recognized by his appointment to major human rights organizations in Canada and abroad." [63]

In 1994, Cotler was the first recipient of the Justice Walter Tarnopolsky Memorial Medal, awarded jointly by the International Commission of Jurists, Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Judges' Conference, and the Canadian Association of Law Teachers - reflective and representative of bench, bar and academe - for his "outstanding contribution to human rights, domestically or internationally" [64].

The Honourable Professor Cotler was the first academic to receive the Medal of the Bar of Montréal in 1999, conferred by the Council of the Bar of Montreal after consultation with the Conference of former Bâtonniers, for his "remarkable contribution to the cause of justice".[65]

In 2003, Cotler became the first recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for his leadership in the "creation of a beloved community".[66]

Following this in 2004 he was the recipient of the Honorary Frederick Johnson Award from the Centre for Research-Action and Race Relations for his exceptional contribution to the rights of the Black Community.[67]

In 2005, Professor Cotler was the first recipient of the - F.R. Scott Award for Distinguished Service, presented by the Law Faculty of McGill University to "recognize those alumni who have made a significant contribution to law and to the life of the Faculty, and provided exceptional service and leadership to society".[68]

In the following year he was awarded the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, presented by the Institute for Global Leadership, Tufts University "In recognition of a lifelong passion and concern for human rights; for the determination to defend the most illustrious and the most anonymous; for a distinguished career of integrity in international law and in the administration of justice, one dedicated to the dignity of the individual, with compassion for the oppressed and unrepresented".[69]

In 2014, Cotler was recognized by the Alliance of South Asian Communities which read as follows: "Thank you for your continued commitment and support needed to achieve excellence in numerous community projects. You made the difference in many peoples' lives from South Asian Communities".[70] Also in 2014, he received the Canadian Bar Association President's Award - presenting an example of his rayonnement as a role model for the legal community - wherein the award read as follows: "As a teacher, practitioner and lawmaker, Irwin Cotler has made significant contributions to how lawyers view law, how law can be used as a vehicle for social change and how our laws can be improved... Over the course of a long career, the effects of his contributions can be seen close to home in the law offices of the students he taught, and as far away as the halls of the United Nations and South Africa." [71]

In 2015, Cotler received the Sir Zafrullah Khan Award for "distinguished public service" in the promotion and protection of human rights, peace, and international law.[72] In the same year he became the first ever recipient of this Law Society of Upper Canada Human Rights Award. Recognized for "His long and illustrious career as an outspoken advocate for human rights -- both at home and abroad." [73] Also in 2015, Professor Cotler received the Dalhousie University Ethical Leadership Award for his contributions to the pursuit of justice. The award made express reference to his role as "Moral compass - ethics in action".[74] He additionally became the first recipient of the Sergei Magnitsky Global Justice Award in 2015. The honor was presented in a ceremony in the UK, recognizing him "For International Leadership in the Global Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Movement in U.S., Canada, and Europe and for leadership in Chairing the Inter-parliamentary Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Coalition".[14]

For his advancement of human rights for Venezuelan people, he received the Special Award by the Standing Committee on Foreign policy, Sovereignty and Integration of the Venezuelan National Assembly in 2016.[75]

In 2016, Cotler was honoured by the Province and University of Saskatchewan for his lifetime scholarship and work in human rights, where he was presented with the first Ariel F. Sallows Award by the University of Saskatchewan; and the first Tikkun Olam Award for "Champion of Human Rights" by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission -- the whole in the presence of bench, bar and academe in Saskatchewan.[76]

Cotler received the Excellence in Advocacy Award from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in 2017. He was recognized for his "varied roles as academic, parliamentarian, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, counsel for political prisoners, and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. Irwin Cotler has been driven by, and given expression to a singular paradigm: pursuing justice".[77] Also in 2017, Professor Cotler was inducted as an Officer into the Ordre national du Québec whose citation reads as follows : "Citoyen du monde, Irwin Cotler a fortement marqué les débats portant sur la paix et les droits de la personne. Il a oeuvré pour l'harmonie universelle, luttant pour le respect de la liberté d'expression et de la liberté de religion, cherchant à fortifier les droits des minorités et combattant pour la primauté de la justice lors de crimes de guerre et autres abominations graves. Ses efforts inlassables lui ont valu d'être coopté par de grands organismes de défense des droits et libertés au Canada et à l'étranger. Sa détermination inflexible l'a poussé à accompagner juridiquement les prisonniers d'opinion ou de conscience." [78]

In 2019, Cotler became the first Canadian recipient of the Heinz Memorial Award for Humanitarian Achievement, awarded by former International Justices and Prosecutors of the Robert H. Jackson Center.[79]


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External links

27th Ministry - Cabinet of Paul Martin
Cabinet post (1)
Predecessor Office Successor
Martin Cauchon Minister of Justice
Vic Toews
Parliament of Canada
Preceded by
Sheila Finestone
Member of Parliament for Mount Royal
Succeeded by
Anthony Housefather
Other offices
Preceded by
Gunther Plaut
President of the Canadian Jewish Congress
Succeeded by
Milton E. Harris

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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