Wayne Cuddington / Postmedia News

Barbara Kay: A testimony to Canada’s human rights superstar

Former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler was feted at a recent dinner in Montreal.

Is there a Nobel Peace Prize in the near future for former Liberal Justice Minister and human-rights luminary Irwin Cotler? There will be if fellow human-rights superstar Alan Dershowitz has his way.

Cotler and Dershowitz are Canada’s two most recognizable names in human rights advocacy. Both are so articulate and passionate about their work that people often confuse them. In fact, recently in Israel, when a woman approached Cotler and expressed sympathy for his experience battling a false allegation of sexual misbehavior, and Cotler explained that she was confusing him with Dershowitz, she retorted, “Cotler. Dershowitz. What’s the difference?”

The anecdote was recounted by Cotler to huge laughs in Montreal at a dinner in Cotler’s honour put on by the Lord Reading Law Society, the collective voice of Jewish jurists of Quebec. Nobody laughed louder than Dershowitz, who had just delivered a warm and similarly-themed address about Cotler, including the observation that their presence in front of the 600 attendees was “proof that we are two separate people.”

Dedicated to the furtherance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the Lord Reading Law Society organized the dinner as a tribute to Cotler’s achievements in general, but in particular to help fund and promote his recently launched project, The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. The Centre will continue the humanitarian legacy of the famously selfless (and famously martyred) Wallenberg, with emphasis on fighting anti-Semitism and genocide, advancing human rights and defending political prisoners.

It was an impressive affair by anyone’s standards, the hall packed predominantly by Montreal Jewish lawyers and spouses, as one would expect. But it isn’t every tribute dinner that attracts five Supreme Court justices, as this one did: Rosie Abella, who introduced Cotler, plus Michael Moldaver, Clément Gascon, Suzanne Côté and Richard Wagner, all there as a mark of their respect and admiration for the honoree.

Dershowitz’s tribute— part serious, part roast (Cotler, Dershowitz said, is always so polite that he is “the Sara Lee of human rights lawyers”) — was the highlight of the evening, which isn’t to disparage the eloquent (and in Abella’s case hilarious) speeches by Abella and appellate judge Nicholas Kassirer. Even the ultra-articulate Dershowitz seemed to struggle to find encomiums worthy of his subject; his evident love for Cotler and his many allusions to their intertwined professional and domestic lives touched the hearts of everyone present. It therefore did not come as a complete surprise to learn that Dershowitz has nominated Cotler for the Nobel Peace Prize.

 It would be hard to find a dissenting voice to the proposition that Cotler is deserving of this award. Cotler has been present at the legal heart of virtually every important human rights challenge to political, racial and religious injustice of the modern era, and his clients’ names encapsulate them. To cite but a few: Russia’s Natan Sharansky, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Argentina’s Jacobo Timmerman, Iran’s Shi’ite Cleric Ayatollah and Venezuela’s Leopoldo Lopez.  More recently Cotler has concentrated his energies on Saudi Arabia’s Raif Badawi, the courageous blogger so brutally punished by the regime for his politically incorrect opinions, and on legislative vindication of Sergei Magnitsky and Boris Nemtsov, martyred for whistle-blowing massive tax frauds by Putin’s government in Russia.

As these names demonstrate, and as Dershowitz noted, “[Cotler] has represented Arabs and Jews, westerners and easterners” without regard to their colour, religion or ideology. Cotler has represented both Israelis and Palestinians; in fact he “never says no” to any claim on his help when justice lies in the balance. Reading from his letter to the Nobel committee, Dershowitz noted the “consistency of [Cotler’s] advocacy,” the fact that Cotler takes “a politically neutral” approach to human rights advocacy “without seeking personal recognition” and that he is not just a “Canadian treasure” (as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in a video greeting) but a “world treasure,” “a modern Abraham” and “the greatest human rights lawyer in the world today.”

Dershowitz also observed that awarding the Peace Prize to Cotler would serve to neutralize some of the more insalubrious recipients of the past, like PLO terror master Yasser Arafat. Dershowitz ended with the poignant question, “How do we make more Irwin Cotlers for the future?”

Cotler has represented Arabs and Jews, westerners and easterners without regard to their colour, religion or ideology.

Dershowitz was a tough act to follow, but Cotler’s response to his old friend’s testimonial was equal to it. He had glowing words for Dershowitz, “the best scholar-advocate I ever had the privilege to witness” and, no matter how unpopular the cause, “the most courageous scholar-advocate.” Then he took us through his travels of the last three weeks alone (everyone commented on Cotler’s insanely peripatetic life; age – he is 76 – has not withered nor endless disappointments staled his infinite appetite for advocacy): a visit to Auschwitz and a legal symposium in Poland with Abella and Dershowitz to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nuremberg race laws; Budapest for a round table on Raoul Wallenberg; a brief stop in Israel, home to one of the Cotler daughters and her family, and Oslo for a freedom forum with a panel devoted to women political prisoners.

Here Cotler took the opportunity to praise the wives of male political prisoners, such as Sharansky’s wife Avital and Badawi’s wife Ensar Haidaar, who has become “[Raif’s] voice…his identity…” and whose “sheer relentless commitment” forced the world to take notice. And once on the subject of brave women, Cotler took the further opportunity to praise his politically dynamic wife Ariela for her stalwart support, and for the pleasure of having her beside him “in the trenches,” though “not admittedly always on the same side.”

If I sound less like a reporter than a groupie – and I admit this is a pretty gushing review of the evening – I can only say in my defence that the combined star power of the evening – the extraordinary intellectual acumen, idealism, courage and integrity on that podium – is something most people won’t witness in their lifetime. “It is such a privilege to be here” was the most-repeated trope of the evening.

To finish on an even more personal note, I am proud to say that I can count Irwin and Ariela as friends, thanks to my husband Ronny, who has known Irwin since they were teenagers. Musing on those long-ago days when they used to play baseball together, Ronny remarked to me, “When he was at bat, Irwin always swung for the fences.” Still does.

National Post