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Canada’s New Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, is No Shrinking Violet

December 22, 2003
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Irwin Cotler, Canada’s newly appointed justice minister and attorney general, is not shy when it comes to speaking his mind.

Directed in support of Israel, that outspokenness has won the famed human rights lawyer accolades from Canada’s Jews, but it has not endeared Cotler to Canada’s pro-Arab camp.

While Cotler has been applauded widely for his work representing such renowned figures as Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and Jacobo Timmerman, his outspoken views on Israel and civil liberties have generated some criticism.

Since his election to the Canadian Parliament in 1999, some have accused Cotler of a pro-Israel bias. His Montreal district has a large Jewish population and a rapidly burgeoning Arab one.

Cotler frequently speaks out against what he sees as his government’s lackluster criticism of anti-Israel terrorists. He makes regular appearances at pro-Israel rallies and breaks ranks with his own Liberal Party when necessary.

When Canada voted on Oct. 7, 2000, in favor of a Malaysian-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to use restraint in dealing with Palestinian protesters, Cotler criticized his own foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, and his own party.

“This kind of resolution, which singled out Israel for discriminatory and differential treatment and appeared to exonerate the Palestinians for their violence,” Cotler said, “would tend to encourage those who violently oppose the peace process as well as those who still seek the destruction of Israel.”

Cotler’s condemnation prompted five Liberal lawmakers to issue a joint statement against Cotler’s public criticism – – and a sixth criticized him in front of 3,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators in front of the Israeli Consulate in downtown Toronto.

Israel is not the only issue Cotler cares about. Democracy, specifically civil liberties, is dear to Cotler’s heart.

When former Prime Minister Jean Chretien pushed an anti-terrorism bill through Parliament after the Sept. 11 attacks, Cotler, then chairman of the government’s civil liberties committee, ensured that six of his 10 amendments to the bill protecting civil liberties were adopted.

Civil libertarians said Cotler did not go far enough, but Cotler responded he would “rather have an imperfect law than no law at all.”

Cotler is well-respected by members of Canada’s Jewish community.

Cotler’s appointment by new Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin is an “inspired choice,” said Jack Silverstone, longtime national executive director and legal counsel of the Canadian Jewish Congress, in Ottawa. “At this juncture in our country’s legal history, I can’t think of anyone better qualified.”

Silverstone has had many opportunities to work and socialize with the man often referred to as the “Canadian Alan Dershowitz.”

“Speaking from personal knowledge, as he was one of my law professors at McGill University, he was highly respected by his students and colleagues,” Silverstone said. “He tangibly influenced and inspired many of those around him, including me.”

Some pro-Palestinian activists are not thrilled with Cotler.

In 2002, several Jewish and Palestinian protesters occupied Cotler’s Montreal office to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and to demand that Canada take a tougher stand against Israel. They also said they wanted to see Cotler champion human rights when it came to the Palestinians.

The four men and three women, all in their 20s, were arrested and charged with trespassing after barricading themselves in Cotler’s office.

Cotler blasted the takeover of his office, calling it an “illegal occupation” and accusing the protesters of intimidating his staff.

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