Irwin Cotler: The human rights defender

Defame Israel? Demonize Israel? You’ll likely be hearing from Cotler.

IRWIN COTLER participates in a news conference of the Organization of American States (OEA in French) in May.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
IRWIN COTLER participates in a news conference of the Organization of American States (OEA in French) in May.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel has many friends around the world. Few are like Irwin Cotler.
The former Canadian justice minister, attorney general, parliament member, McGill law professor and overall advocate of human rights is one of the staunchest defenders that Israel has around the world. Defame Israel? Demonize Israel? You’ll likely be hearing from Cotler.
It is a combination of his ideology, staunch Zionism, belief in the right of Jews for self-determination, fierce rejection of the double standard used against Israel on the world stage – and also his Israeli wife, Ariela, who served as Menachem Begin’s assistant in the Knesset.
That is why when I heard Cotler was in Israel this week – he comes often to see his children and grandchildren who live here – I reached out.
My first reason was because of a report I read earlier in the week in the Canadian National Post, which said that Cotler – who today is chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights – has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by none other than Paul Martin, the former Canadian prime minister. The news came as a complete shock to Cotler, who said that he last met Martin a few months ago but that the former prime minister didn’t say a word about his plans.
“Professor Cotler’s work in the name of civil rights defenders has no borders, and his impact is felt throughout Canada and around the world,” Martin wrote to the Nobel Institute when submitting the nomination, which has been endorsed by two of the world’s most famous political prisoners: Natan Sharansky and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian professor jailed by Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Both were represented by Cotler.
THE OTHER reason I wanted to speak to Cotler was to get his take on Israel’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, especially in light of another case of a Saudi national running away from the country. This time it was Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed, who barricaded herself in an airport hotel room in Bangkok to avoid being sent home due to fears of being killed. Mohammed was granted asylum in Canada, and I figured that Cotler must have played a role.
Cotler is persona non grata in Saudi Arabia for his work on behalf Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who has been in prison since 2012, and his sister Samar, who was arrested last summer. While Cotler cannot travel to Riyadh, he is in good company. In August, the kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador and suspended trade with Ottawa after the Canadian Foreign Ministry called for Badawi’s release.
While Cotler has no problem being the first to stand up and fight Saudi Arabia over its human rights record, he also recognizes that Israel has strategic interests in cultivating covert military and intelligence ties with the kingdom. Nevertheless, he thinks that Jerusalem needs to be careful how far it lets those ties grow, and at the same time consider using its leverage over Riyadh to advance human rights issues.
“Israel does not have diplomatic relations and does not belong to the G7, the Council of Europe or the European Union,” he said. “Its relations with Saudi Arabia are effectively covert, so it makes it difficult to do something overt when there are no formal diplomatic relations.”
Nevertheless, Cotler said, “It could be helpful. And because I believe relations on intelligence and security cooperation are good, Israel could maybe leverage that to be helpful and say in its own privacy of communications to the crown prince that it would be in his interest to release the Badawis.”
COTLER TRACES his passion for human rights back to his childhood. In a 2000 profile of him by Elli Wohlgelernter in these pages, Cotler spoke of going to a minor league baseball game in Montreal in 1946 at age six and watching Jackie Robinson – the first African-American to play professional baseball – as being a formative event for him. It led him to a life of struggle on behalf of the oppressed and as the champion of notables like Sharansky, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Raoul Wallenberg and Jacobo Timerman.
It is on this issue of human rights that he thinks Israel has room to improve, and should consider drafting a “human rights foreign policy.”
“Some of the things that have been happening in Israel I find disconcerting,” he said. The list includes the refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide, the Yazidi Genocide and, most recently, the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar.
“Canada was the first to declare that what was happening with the Rohingyas was a genocide, but I have not seen any announcement [in Israel] about what is happening – or regarding the pain, plight, massive atrocities and ethnic cleansing there,” he said.
The second item on the list is the status of the African migrants who have illegally entered Israel over the years and are referred to as “asylum seekers” or “infiltrators” depending on one’s political affiliation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said, did the “right thing” for a few hours when he announced in April that Israel had reached an agreement with the UN to relocate thousands of African migrants. But then, bowing to right-wing pressure, he canceled the deal.
Cotler knows the issue well. When he served as minister of justice in Canada, Sudanese who fled Darfur came to Canada alongside large numbers of Eritreans. The difference was that in Canada, 97% received refugee status while in Israel, where the African migrants raise security and demographic concerns, only a handful have.
ACCORDING TO Cotler though, this is “not a demographic threat any longer, and we are in a world of global migration. Israel could as a democracy give refugee status to a certain number.” The state, he said, needs to set up a refugee determination process.
Such a move, he argues, would resonate in the very communities where Israel is perceived negatively due to its human rights record. “Even if you don’t think it’s the right thing to do, why give the BDS movement this ammunition?” he asked.
Two other issues in which Cotler believes Israel can do better: arms sales to controversial countries like Myanmar, and the continued delay in bringing the remaining Falash Mura in Ethiopia to Israel.
“There are right now 8,500 Ethiopians who are seeking reunification,” he said. “Some have been waiting 15-20 years, and over 70% have first-degree relatives in Israel – and the government has already taken a decision to bring them – so why don’t they? This is painful on a human level to see.”
What Cotler says is not always easy to hear. On the African migrant issue, the Right will dismiss his criticism and cite the demographic risk to Israel if refugee status is granted to the Sudanese and Eritreans here; regarding arms sales, advocates will explain that Israel needs to forge alliances where it can; and regarding genocide, they will explain that ties with Turkey – however bad they might be – should not be completely gutted due to history.
Both sides are legitimate, but Cotler says the issues should not be dismissed because of politics. There are few like him who care as much as he does for Israel. When friends with the stature of someone like Cotler speak out, listening is the least we can do.
I often get told by people that I am obsessed with the military. Could be. I covered the IDF on behalf of this paper for about a decade, and have written three books on defense and intelligence-related stories. I also served in the military back in the 1990s, and did reserve duty until being recently discharged.
I believe that in Israel, the military plays an important role in society – mostly due to the compulsory military service here. Beyond keeping us safe, the IDF is where Israeli youth learn how to be leaders. It is the place where they become entrepreneurs and acquire the skills we see so often in the tech sector – improvisation, creativity and chutzpah. It is the bedrock of the Start-Up Nation.
Nevertheless, there was something a bit unsettling in the way the change in command was portrayed over the last week in Israel. There were daily TV and radio broadcasts about outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who after four years of monk-like silence suddenly decided to be interviewed almost everywhere. There wasn’t a day when Eisenkot’s voice wasn’t heard booming from the radio or the TV. If it wasn’t Eisenkot, then it was someone he had once served with, who was explaining what a great chief of staff he was, and how he will be remembered as one of the best in Israeli history.
Then came Tuesday, the day of the changeover itself. The TV stations – 12 and 13 – ran live feeds from the Kirya Military Headquarters showing Aviv Kochavi, the new chief of staff, receiving his ranks. The live feed continued later in the day, when the two chiefs of staff went to the Kotel, and then returned to the Kirya for the official honor guard and farewell meeting with the General Staff and Netanyahu.
For a few days, it genuinely seemed like Israel is not a country with an army but rather the IDF is a military with a country. Many people compared the festival to Israel’s version of the royal wedding.
IT IS PERFECTLY fine to be proud of the IDF and its commanders. It is also possible that the reason we in Israel get so excited when there is a new chief of staff is because for the public, the IDF is perceived as a clean and pure entity – unlike the Knesset, the country’s true sovereign authority, which frequently and sadly disappoints.
Nevertheless, such a festival over-militarizes Israeli society. It also raises questions about the role of the chief of staff. Eisenkot was in charge of the IDF for four years; to just interview at the end is undemocratic. His voice should’ve been heard when controversial issues came up on his watch – that was when the media needed the opportunity to ask him tough questions. Not now, when he had a foot out the door and is solely interested in creating the foundation for his legacy.
Don’t get me wrong – a military, and specifically a strong one, is needed to ensure Israel’s continued survival and growth in this volatile region. But we don’t need to get carried away. Once upon a time, for example, we held military parades on Independence Day. There is a reason we don’t do that anymore.
Israel is much more than its military. Let’s not forget that.