Irwin Cotler – Freedom’s Counsel

The common cause which brings us together: against hate, impunity, injustice. And this is part of the larger struggle, for human rights, for justice. My father used to say to me, the pursuit of justice is equal to all the other commandments combined: this is what you should teach your children, this should be your life’s credo. And my mother said, if you want to pursue justice, you must go into your community to find and feel the injustice. You must feel it to combat against it, to act against it.

I suspect because of this, I became involved in two of the world’s great struggles: against apartheid in South Africa, and for human rights in the Soviet Union. I became involved in defending Anatoly Sharansky, who was tried for the classic trumped up chares of sedition and anti-Soviet slander.

Sakharov put it well: the trial of Sharansky was the trial of human rights in the Soviet Union. Sharansky’s only crime was to tell the truth, and to tell it in English. And so the Soviet Union had to quarantine this speech.

In the course of my work, I developed an advocacy model which has become my guiding framework to this day.

1) The internationalization of advocacy.

2) Legal briefs: unmask and expose the Soviet Union as a violator of its own laws, since it was so preoccupied with legitimacy.

3) Take the historic Helsinki agreement, and show the Soviet Union was not just in violation of its own law, but in breach of international treaty.

4) Getting my own country, Canada, to be a leader in sanctioning the Soviet Union.

5) Get parliaments involved, for example, the Congress in the US conditioned trade with Russia on human rights.

6) Mobilizing the nascent human rights organizations and community. Involve a critical mass of civil society advocacy: women, students, the legal community, scientists: mass demonstrations.

7) The involvement of the media. The day before I was to present the Sharansky case, I was arrested, detained, and expelled. I said, I have two messages: tell the embassy, and tell Dan Fisher, correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, that I won’t be able to meet him for dinner. When you are expelled, you think of those you left behind, and you worry about them. So when I arrived in London, the first thing I did was call my wife, and I said, don’t tell anyone. She said, ‘What do you mean, don’t tell anyone, it’s all over the front of the evening news!’ And when I returned to Canada, in 1979, they suspended all Helsinki agreements as a result of my expulsion.

In 1986, Sharansky was released, 9 years after our advocacy campaign began, one year after Gorbachev. And later I asked Gorbachev, ‘What was our role in all this?’ And he said, ‘You might not believe this, but I had never heard of Sharansky before I came to Canada. And I came before the parliamentary committee on agriculture, and they asked me about Sharansky. In every meeting, everywhere I went, it was all about Sharansky. So when I returned, I looked at his file, and I saw he was a troublemaker, but not a criminal. And I saw it was ‘costing us’ to keep him in prison.’ So it was not just the mobilization of state shame, but the economic cost.

In 1981, I was invited to give a talk in South Africa. And I said, if I am to talk about Sharansky, why not Mandela? And at the time, he was a taboo topic. And I was arrested right after the talk. And the police said, I don’t know why, but the foreign minsiter wants to see you. And Pieter Botha, the foreign minister, said to me, ‘I don’t know why someone like yourself, who represents this great hero, Sharansky, a fighter against communism, how could you speak of this communist, Nelson Mandela?’

And I said, they are fighting for the same thing: Freedom. And I told him: South Africa is the only government since the Nazis that has institutionalized racism as a matter of law. And I will fight this with my whole career. Two months ago, I went back, and Pik Botha told me that at the end of the day, it became in the South African’s economic interest to liberate Nelson Mandela.

After Mandela was freed, my daughter came to me, and said, ‘Face it Daddy, you have nothing to do. Sharansky is free, Mandela is president.’ And I told her, the struggle is not over. The same people are fighting, all over the world.

And in the last decade, my fight has been in Egypt, beginning a decade ago with Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and now with Mikael Nabil, who is among us here today. Mikael went on a 120 day hunger strike, he is a great leader.

And I recently got involved with China. A McGill professor, Kunlun Zhang, went home to China in 2000 and was imprisoned as a Falun Gong practitioner. And finally, I’ve been involved with Iran. There’s a lot about the nuclear threat in the media, but under the radar screen, there is a persistent assault on human rights, imprisoning the leaders of the opposition. So now, we’ve developed an inter-parliamentary group, to mobilize parliamentarians all over the world, to each take up the case of one prisoner, to create a critical mass of advocacy.

What I’ve learned from these political prisoners: it is essential to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard, act on behalf of those who cannot act, mobilize shame against those that violate human rights. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently said, ‘At the end of the day the arc will bend towards justice,’ and we will come out of the shadows into freedom.