Irwin Cotler founds Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights

“Never Again” means human rights for all, Cotler tells men’s club. Photo: Charles Eklove“Never Again” means human rights for all, Cotler tells men’s club. Photo: Charles Eklove

You might think that after a distinguished career as an activist law professor at McGill University and human-rights crusader, then an activist Member of Parliament, including a stint as Liberal justice minister, Irwin Cotler might settle into a comfortable retirement.

But that would not be Irwin Cotler, who at 76 continues his lifelong pursuit of justice and is continuing that work as the founder earlier this year and full-time chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights.

This new role, following his retirement as MP for Mount Royal, fits right in with Cotler’s life at the forefront of various campaigns, to enable the emigration of Soviet Jews, and against Apartheid in South Africa. He has acted as counsel for former prisoners of conscience Andrei Sakharov in the former Soviet Union, Nelson Mandela, Jacobo Timmerman in junta-ruled Argentina, and trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan in Indonesia.

Cotler is doing this work pro bono, for the public good, so that the proclamation Never Again, as applied to the Holocaust, is more than just a catch phrase.

The mission of the Wallenberg Centre, he recalled in a speech last month to the Côte-Saint-Luc men’s Club, is to gather a “unique international consortium” of Parliamentarians, scholars, jurists, human rights defenders, NGOs and students in pursuit of justice, inspired by Wallenberg’s humanitarian legacy.

Wallenberg was a Swedish business executive and diplomat credited with issuing protective passes and other efforts that saved the lives of as many as 100,000 Jews in Hungary from extermination by the Germans until his arrest by Soviet forces in January 1945. He is believed to have died or been killed in 1947, but there is credible evidence that he was alive in prison after that date.

The consortium that Cotler has gathered includes groups from Sweden, and the countries where Wallenberg has honorary citizenship – Canada, the U.S., Israel, and Australia. All are committed to the Never Again Declaration, inspired by the late Elie Wiesel, and adopted at the International Legal Symposium at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland in May, co-chaired by the Wallenberg Centre and the March of the Living.

It states: “Never again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate. Never again will we be silent in the face of evil. Never again will we indulge racism and anti-Semitism. Never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable. Never again will we be indifferent to mass atrocity and impunity… We will speak up and act.”

“We are seeking now to get government leaders, Parliamentarians, and leaders of civil society to sign on to that Never Again statement,” Cotler said in an interview.

At next year’s March of the Living visit by Jewish young people to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, Cotler says he’s hoping to have 100 representative Parliamentarians and government leaders participate and underline their commitment to the Never Again statement.

This month, Cotler will be meeting in Ottawa to set up the first Raoul Wallenberg all-party Parliamentary caucus on human rights with co-chairs from each party to among other things “affirm and sign on to the Never Again declaration.”

“We also are co-sponsoring a meeting in Moscow to determine the fate of Raoul Wallenberg,” he added.

The centre also carries on Cotler’s advocacy work on behalf of such political prisoners as the Saudi blogger Raïf Badawi, the leader of the Venezuelan opposition
Leopoldo López, leaders of the Baha’i religious community in Iran, and the Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi, who advocates separation of religion and state also in Iran.

Cotler said he hoped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will become more active in helping obtain the release of Chinese political prisoner Wang Bingzhang. After obtaining his PhD from McGill University, Wang started several opposition parties, including in China, where he was exiled and expelled. According to his brother, writing in the Globe & Mail, four years ago Wang was kidnapped in Vietnam and taken to China, where he was held incommunicado for months, then convicted in a one-day, closed-door trial where he was not allowed to present evidence or mount a meaningful defence.

Cotler said he had met with Trudeau about these political prisoners; their fate would remain “a primary focus” of the Wallenberg Centre. “The idea is that we can provide more effective advocacy for these political prisoners as well for the other objectives — combating racism and anti-Semitism, countering violence, extremism, and terrorism.”

Funding is a work in progress, he said, and several individuals have made contributions including a former law student who contributed $25,000. These funds help maintain a two-person staff.

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