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Irwin Cotler, MP




Posted on February 28, 2014

MP Returns from Delivering Keynote Address at the 2014 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Announces Initiatives on Behalf of Political Prisoners

 Ottawa – February 28, 2014 – Irwin Cotler, Liberal Member of Parliament for Mount Royal and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, unveiled his action plan to advance the case and cause of political prisoners when he delivered the opening address at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy this week.

Cotler has been championing the cause of political prisoners for over 35 years and has been called “Counsel for the Oppressed” by Maclean’s magazine. He has notably served as counsel to Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, Egyptian pro-democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, as well as Nelson Mandela and many others.

Explained Cotler, “In defending Nelson Mandela – and Natan Sharansky before him – I learned that their most important legacies may be the importance of defending political prisoners. Had Mandela not been freed, the whole history of South Africa would have been different”.

Continued Cotler, “I’ve learned through my involvement in two of the world’s great struggles for human rights in the second half of the twentieth century – the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union – that we must speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard; bear witness on behalf of those who cannot testify; and act and advocate on behalf of those who have put not only their livelihoods but their very lives on the line”.

At the Geneva Human Rights Summit, Cotler met with dissidents and former political prisoners, who shared witness testimony regarding ongoing human rights violations in a number of countries, including: North Korea (“the worst totalitarian rights-violating country on the planet”); Syria (“50 000 women raped and assaulted, thousands of prisoners tortured and disappeared”); Eritrea (“a state prison”); Iran (“more executions per capita than any country in the world”); China (“criminalization of dissent”); and Mauritania (“enslavement of political prisoners”).

Accordingly, Cotler announced a series of initiatives to expose and unmask the human rights violators, and to defend political prisoners targeted by these violator regimes, including:

–          Highlighting the plight of political prisoners in Iran – and their executions – through the Iranian Political Prisoner Global Advocacy Project (which Cotler co-chairs);

–          Taking up the case of Swedish-Eritrean political prisoner Dawit Isaak, imprisoned for 11 years without trial and disappeared in an Eritrean prison;

–          Focusing on the increasing criminalization of dissent in China;

–          Introducing a private member’s bill regarding the defence of political prisoners and promoting Canadian advocacy on their behalf;

–          Holding hearings of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Human Rights regarding the horrific sexual violence perpetrated against women in Syria; and

–          Petitioning – in concert with Geneva-based NGOs and Liberal International – for the removal of four major human rights violators (China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia) from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Concluded Cotler, “political prisoners personify the larger struggle for human rights in our time and transform human history through their involvement in that history.”



1)      Legal advocacy within the violator regime: to unmask and expose human rights violating regimes as being in standing violation of their own laws. Professor Cotler’s landmark legal brief on behalf of Natan Sharansky is a case study.

2)      The internationalization of advocacy: to unmask and expose human rights violating regimes as being in violation of their international legal obligations – as was done with the Helsinki Final Act – and their respective undertakings to state parties.

3)      Public shaming: to mobilize governments internationally to shame and sanction human rights violators.

4)      Mobilization of Canadian government action: mobilizing Canadian leadership in the sanctioning of human rights violating regimes – as in the case of South Africa – and combatting the culture of impunity.

5)      Mobilization of Parliaments: to coordinate international parliamentary action in the sanctioning of human rights violating regimes, as in the case of the OSCE Parliaments.

6)      Mobilization of the NGO community: to ensure a comprehensive and effective voice in support of the courageous women and men suffering in the shadows of human rights violations – to stand in solidarity with them and ensure they are not alone.

7)      Petitioning of international courts and tribunals: to pursue international juridical remedies so that human rights violators are held to account.

8)      Invoking the UN system: to ensure that human rights violating regimes are named and shamed by the Special Thematic and Country Rapporteurs (eg. Iran), as well as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Universal Periodic Review.

9)      Mobilization of civil society advocacy: to develop a critical mass of engaged advocacy by women, students, the legal community, scientists, academics, trade unionists, artists and faith leaders – a model used most effectively in the Soviet Union and South African cases.

10)  Mobilization and involvement of media: to ensure that political prisoners are not alone and not forgotten.