Four Burning Questions for the Honorable Irwin Cotler, M.P. for Mount Royal

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2013

Irwin Cotler, Law Professor, Constitutional and Comparative Law Scholar, International Human Rights Lawyer, Counsel to prisoners of conscience, NGO Head, Public Intellectual, Peace Activist, Member of Parliament, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada – has been variously described in these roles and responsibilities as being “at the forefront of the struggle for justice, peace and human rights.”

Cotler is Professor of Law Emeritus at McGill, and has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Yale Law School, and is the recipient of nine Honourary Doctorates, including from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose various citations refer to him as “a scholar and advocate of international stature.” A constitutional and comparative law scholar, he litigated every section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including landmark cases in the areas of free speech, freedom of religion, women’s rights, minority rights, war crimes justice, prisoners’ rights, and peace law. He has testified as an expert witness on human rights before Parliamentary Committees in Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Israel, and has lectured at major international academic and professional gatherings in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. From March 21-23, he will be conference co-chair of the Echenberg Family Conference, “Democracy, Human Rights and the Fragility of Freedom. For more information, go here.

You recently spoke at McGill on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What do you think are the most critical ways that Bill C-36, the Anti-Terrorism Act, strikes a balance between the protection of civil rights and national security concerns?

In the years since 9/11, Parliament has debated terrorism in many ways – be it the enactment of criminal offenses, the provision of new police powers, or the expansion of immigration remedies to deal with new realities and threats. As Parliamentarians, we must be mindful not only of the terrorist threat, but of the Charter and related legal obligations that we must uphold. While the Courts and Parliament have engaged in an on-going dialogue over questions such as security certificates or most recently the legality of warrant-wiretapping, the changing landscape will continue to inspire new legislative efforts that test the limits of our constitutional framework. Whether its ensuring adequate due process protections, appeals, record-keeping, notice requirements, etc. there are methods to ensure rights are respected while at the same time giving law enforcement and security services the tools they need to keep Canadians safe.

Discourse around human rights has received lots of attention both in academic circles and within the general public. However, it is often connected with large scale crimes, such as genocide and torture. Is it possible to bring in another perspective on human rights by linking it with environmental concerns as a human right?

My mother – who was really instrumental in forming my understanding of human rights – told me, “If you want to pursue justice, you must go into your community to find and feel the injustice.” It is a lesson that sticks with me to this day. While it is true that the case and cause of human rights is often linked to discussions of mass atrocities far away, we forget what we can do here at home. Parliament’s recent debate on missing and murdered aboriginal women illustrates this – here is an issue in our own backyard that we have yet to address in a meaningful way. Even the international community has chided Canada for its inaction. We can do so much more than we are on human rights – whether its questions on the environment – such as access to safe drinking water – or even access to justice and ensuring that those with a grievance can come before our tribunals. It’s important that we treat human rights as a concern for everyone, everywhere – which it is and ought to be – and that our actions match our rhetoric.

You are the honorary co-chair of the upcoming Echenberg Family Conference in Human Rights, hosted by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and the Faculty of Law. Could you speak to the global phenomenon of peoples movements calling for democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms?

The Arab Awakening has brought the struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms back to the fore; societies long under dictatorship are hoped to blossom into democracy, though our support and continued attention to them is required in this fragile period. I think as well we are seeing this struggle for survival in Syria – in part fuelled by social media and the ability of persons in previously closed societies to connect in ways never before possible. It is often easy to become complacent and take our rights for granted or to assume there is nothing we can do to help those seeking what we enjoy here in Canada. We must ensure that we have as a key element of our policies – both foreign and domestic – the promotion and protection of human rights, particularly at a time when these rights are increasingly under assault.

On February 7, you made a statement in the House of Commons congratulating the McGill Law Students’ Association on their centennial. Why was it important to you to mark that occasion in Parliament?

It is hard to believe that some 50 years ago I lead the LSA, an organization still going strong today. I thought the momentous milestone of this centenary deserved recognition in Parliament, among whose ranks we find former LSA Executives in the both in the Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative bench. It was also a nice break from the often hyper-partisan atmosphere to highlight and celebrate the storied history of this cherished student association.

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