Canadian Statesman Shares Wisdom


Matt Boulos talks with Irwin Cotler

Canadian law students were filled with rapture Tuesday as one of their own abandoned the cooler climes of home to address the diaspora. The remarkable Irwin Cotler spoke of a just, compassionate, and humane society founded upon a mature conception of equality that that allowed justice to reach to its every member. He began with an illustration of a rabbi and his students. The followers declared their love to the old man who gave an unusual reply. “Do you know what hurts me?” he asked. The youths were saddened. Looking to them he asked, “If you do not know what hurts me, then how can you love me?” The story illustrates a simple message: we must know the pain of others before we can be their comfort. Cotler explained how this idea permeated his agenda while the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

As Professor Philip Heymann complained in his opening remarks, men like Cotler are rather difficult to introduce. He studied law at McGill University and a finishing school in New Haven, and has been Professor of Law at McGill since 1973. He was called to the Order of Canada in 1992 and was elected to parliament as a member of the Liberal party in 1992. In 2003 he was selected by the Prime Minister as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, a post he left when the government changed this January. While this resume would make any politician impressive, Cotler’s continuing legacy arises from his commitment to human rights. An expert on international and human rights law, Cotler served as counsel for Nelson Mandela and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, among many others. He is an advocate for the International Criminal Court and expanding notions of justice to include the suffering everywhere.

After words of praise from Laurier Turgeon, the William Lyon Mackenzie King Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies, Professor Heymann, and Alex Mazer of the Canadian Law Society, Cotler took to the podium to expound a practical conception of justice as laid out in a series of priorities. He first spoke of judicial appointments and the necessity of representing the populace in the courts; workers, attorneys, and judges ought to be a mirror of the people they serve. Recently Canada appointed two women to its Supreme Court, bringing the balance to five men and four women.

Cotler believes that justice must be internationalized. It is not enough to decry atrocities; they must be combated and their perpetrators brought to justice. Where law finds no home national justice systems must rise to give it shelter, explained Cotler, so that the wretched of the earth may find their relief and redress. Rwanda then and Darfur now exemplify this need.

Americans in the crowd perked up when he told of his exchanges with John Ashcroft.

The former Attorney General had expressed his sympathy for such a vision, but believed that his role was too narrowly prescribed to allow him such a stance. It is troubling that at the time of that exchange, only two other G8 justice ministers were aware of the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

For Cotler, there is no contradiction between security and rights, the one is in the service of the latter. Terrorism is a grave threat because it challenges the exercise of liberty and the freedom to live without fear. The fight against terror is in defense of human security. However, Cotler believes it makes little sense to pursue the goals of security at the cost of human rights, the very thing sought to be protected. He again pointed to Canada for a demonstration of a principled approach to preserving the rights and freedoms of citizens in the face of genuine danger.

Turning even closer to home, Cotler set out the test of a just society: how it protects its most vulnerable. He trotted out Canada’s shameful history of mistreating its aboriginal people and moves toward reconciliation. His prescription is prevention, protection, and persecution. The United States, rather quietly, has led the world in its response to human trafficking, the evil that Yale Law Dean Harold Koh describes as the contemporary slave trade. It is imperative that those three methods find their application in further causes.

The talk was sponsored by the Canadian Law Society, Torys LLP, International Legal Studies, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Canada Program, and the Human Rights Program.

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