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Irwin Cotler

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Title: Irwin Cotler  
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Subject: Mount Royal (electoral district), International law and the Gaza War (2008–09), 3D Test of Antisemitism, Canadian Jewish Congress, Côte-Saint-Luc
Collection: 1940 Births, Academics in Quebec, Anglophone Quebec People, Attorneys General of Canada, Canadian Human Rights Activists, Canadian Jewish Congress, Canadian Legal Scholars, Harvard Law School People, Jewish Canadian Politicians, Lawyers in Quebec, Liberal Party of Canada Mps, Living People, McGill University Alumni, McGill University Faculty, Members of the House of Commons of Canada from Quebec, Officers of the Order of Canada, People from Côte-Saint-Luc, Politicians from Montreal, Yale University Alumni, Yale University Faculty
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Irwin Cotler

The Honourable
Irwin Cotler
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for Mount Royal
In office
November 15, 1999 – October 20, 2015
Preceded by Sheila Finestone
Succeeded by Anthony Housefather
Minister of Justice
In office
December 12, 2003 – February 5, 2006
Prime Minister Paul Martin
Preceded by Martin Cauchon
Succeeded by Vic Toews
Personal details
Born (1940-05-08) May 8, 1940
Montreal, Quebec
Political party Liberal
Spouse(s) Ariela Cotler
Residence Montreal
Profession Lawyer, law professor
Religion Judaism

Irwin Cotler, PC, OC (born May 8, 1940) 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 Canadian House of Commons in a by-election in November 1999, winning 92% of votes cast.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Human rights activity 2
  • National security and the law 3
  • Politics 4
  • Anti-discrimination work 5
  • Involvement with Nelson Mandela 6
  • Family 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

The son of a lawyer, he was born in Montreal, Quebec, studied at McGill University there (receiving a BA in 1961, a law degree, and working as an editor at the McGill Law Journal)[2] and then continued his education at Yale University. 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 and is the recipient of ten 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.

Human rights activity

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.[3]

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.

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

Cotler is on the Board of Advancing Human Rights (NGO).[4]

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, has 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7][8]


On December 12, 2003, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed him to Cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

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.[9][10]

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,[11] 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.

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.[12]

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."[13]

Cotler was one of thirteen Canadians banned from traveling to Russia under retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2014.[14] He replied through his official Twitter feed, "I see my travel ban from Russia as a badge of honour, not a mark of exclusion."[14]

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.[15] Cotler released a petition in 2008 entitled The Danger of a Genocidal and Nuclear Iran: A Responsibility to Prevent Petition. He separated six categories of anti-Semitism and found thirteen indices of discrimination against Jews that characterizes the "new anti-Jewishness".[16]

Cotler is a member of MEMRI's Board of Advisors.[17]

Cotler is an Honorary Member of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.[18]

Cotler serves as a member of the Advisory Board of the Genesis Prize Foundation.[19] Cotler has spoken at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on several occasions.[20]

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[21]

On February 5, 2015, Carlos Vecchio, coordinator of the Venezuelan party Popular Will, announced during his visit to Ottawa and Montreal that "Mandela's attorney" was to offer services to the Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, incarcerated in Ramo Verde military prison.[22]

Although South Africa's Ambassador to Venezuela, Pandit Thaninga Shope-Linney, subsequently stated that "Irwin Cotler was not Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and does not represent the Government or the people of South Africa in any manner,"[23] Cotler has never claimed to have represented Mandela in court.


Cotler's wife, Ariela, is a native of Jerusalem and worked as a legislative assistant to Likud members of the Israeli Knesset from 1967-79.


  1. ^ Historical 301 Electoral Districts Database
  2. ^ "Masthead".  
  3. ^ "Irwin Cotler’s secret: calm amid the chaos".  
  4. ^ Robert Bernstein "Why We Need A New Human Rights Organization". February 24, 2011.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Michael Geist - Here Comes Lawful Access
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Canadian Government Tries Anew to Decriminalize Marijuana (
  11. ^ 2008 re-election to Parliament,; accessed 20 June 2015.
  12. ^ CTV News Network, "Memorial of Nelson Mandela", airdate 10 December 2013 circa 4:30am EST
  13. ^ Marissa Newman (February 5, 2014). "Renowned Jewish Canadian MP, law scholar to retire".  
  14. ^ a b Susana Mas (March 24, 2013). "'"Russian sanctions against Canadians a 'badge of honour. CBC News. Retrieved March 24, 2014. 
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ About The Middle East Media Research Institite,; accessed June 20, 2015.
  18. ^ "Honorary Members: Government Officials". The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. April 16, 2012. Retrieved March 25, 2014. 
  19. ^ "Mayor Bloomberg Selected as Inaugural Genesis Prize Laureate",, October 21, 2013.
  20. ^ "Speaker - Irwin Cotler". Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. 
  21. ^ "A remarkable man, a remarkable legacy". Dec 6, 2013. 
  22. ^ "Abogado de Nelson Mandela anuncia visita a Venezuela para constatar situación de Leopoldo López".  
  23. ^ "The Hypocrisy of Leopoldo Lopez's New Lawyer".  

External links

  • Official site
  • Interview with Irwin CotlerVoices on Antisemitism from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Irwin Cotler McGill University Biography
  • "Irwin Cotler: A Canadian Anti-Apartheid Activist" - Interview from 1997
  • "Is the war on Iraq illegal?" - Article by Cotler in "The Globe and Mail" 21 March 2003
  • Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler comments about same sex marriage
  • Human Rights and the New Anti-Jewishness in "" 16 February 2004
  • How'd They Vote?: Irwin Cotler's voting history and quotes
  • Order of Canada citation
  • Irwin Cotler – Parliament of Canada biography
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
Other offices
Preceded by
Gunther Plaut
President of the Canadian Jewish Congress
Succeeded by
Milton E. Harris
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