Does famed Canadian human rights defender Irwin Cotler have a blind spot… or a hidden agenda?

In 2015, Hon. Irwin Cotler (centre) was honoured in Israel by the World Jewish Congress for his human rights work around the Globe. Cotler is also admired by many Canadian politicians for his human rights work in South Africa, Russia, and Myanmar, among other places. He has recently added the plight of the Uyghurs in China to his list. But there is one area of the globe where he seems much less interested in supporting human rights – ISRAEL. Is this just an oversight, or is his impressive work in other areas really a cover for his main interest? Read more…

Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister, is urging Canada’s Parliament to become the first to define China’s “mass atrocities” against the country’s Uyghur minority as genocide.

Indifference to such mass atrocities, let alone genocide, always means coming down on the side of the victimizer and not on the side of the victims, he said to parliamentarians during testimony before a House of Commons subcommittee studying the reports of abuses, including mass incarceration and forced sterilization, targeting Uighur Muslims and ethnic Kazakhs in northwestern China.

By coincidence, Cotler’s testimony before Parliament came on the heels of another report about human rights abuses and allegations of warcrimes in another country – Israel. On February 5th, the International Criminal Court, of which Canada is one of the founding members, released a judicial decision in which it announced it would investigate potential warcrimes committed by Israel and Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

One might have reasonably expected a committed human rights lawyer and advocate, as Irwin Cotler, to enthusiastically embrace the work of the International Criminal Court.

But alas, no. A google search for statements by Mr. Cotler on the ICC decision yields nothing, either from him or from the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights which he heads.

But doesn’t appear to be just an oversight on his part. In fact, a year ago Mr. Cotler made a submission to the ICC claiming that it did not have the right to examine human rights in the Occupied Territories. In what is legally called an “amicus curiae” submssion Cotler argued that The ICC does not have jurisdiction in relation to crimes allegedly committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip . He argued that Israel is off the hook because Palestine is not really a “state”, and therefore the ICC has no jurisdiction. (The Court subsequently rejected his argument, finding that it does indeed have jurisdiction noting that Palestine is recognized by 138 countries and is an observer state member of the UN.)

Cotler has significant influence in Canada

Cotler has done an excellent job of crafting a “human rights defender” persona for himself in Canada. The list of human rights causes he has taken up is long and extensive ranging from soviet dissident Nathan Sharfansky to imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. (He even claims to have been a member of Nelson Mandela’s legal team, but this is disputed by South African lawyers.) For his work he has received 14 honorary degrees. I even heard former Green Party Leader Elizabeth May describe Cotler as a “mentor”.

As a result, Cotler continues to have significant influence at the political level in Canada. A year ago, the Canadian government mirrored Cotler’s arguments in its own submission to the ICC claiming the court did not have the right to investigate Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian Territories. And they were used yet again by Canada’s foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau to justify Canada’s opposition to the ICC investigation into allegations of Israeli war crimes after the decision of the ICC to go ahead was made public.

Nothing to see here folks, look over there”

What explains Cotler’s enthusiasm for focussing the attention of Canadian Parliamentaians on the Uyghur issue?

Part of it may well be concern for the Uyghurs themselves. But one cannot escape the conclusion that Cotler may have an overriding (and barely hidden) agenda – to protect Israel by diverting attention of Canadians away from allegations of human rights abuses by Israeli forces toward the situation in western China.

In fact, the attempt to focus international attention on China appears to be part of a coordinated Israeli defensive campaign. The argument was picked up by Bnai Brith Canada. At almost the same time, Cotler’s daughter, Michal Cotler-Wunch, a right wing member of the Israeli Knesset launched a similar attack on the ICC itself in Newsweek Magazine claiming the court is unfairly focussed on Israel and should instead be looking other issues like Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang.

Canadians who are genuinely interested in human rights have good reason to recognize and appreciate Cotler’s work in many areas. But they would be justified in demanding of Cotler that his interest in human rights be universal and not selective. He should not be allowed to cynically raise up the cause of one group in order to obscure the cause of any other.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. It would appear the Trudeau goverment has added a new branch to it’s external affairs department and located in Israel from which to studiously ignore the West Bank and Gaza, but enjoying a clear view of isolated parts of China.
    Still badly entangled in a political stumble obeying the wants of a brute who was just ousted in Washington, it seems our leader senses a great future as a “truthspeaker” to yet another troubled foreign politician who wants to shake up China.
    I can only imagine this second poke, however, will seem a shade beyond the pale to China..

  2. A common claim made by Zionists in response to human rights advocacy for indigenous Palestinians iss “why are you picking on Israel?”
    Well Cotler, why are you ignoring their genocidal activities?

  3. Thank you, Peter, for pointing out Mr. Cotler’s bias. He indeed has a great deal of influence in the current government, reflected in Trudeau’s unwillingness to criticize Israel no matter what it does.

  4. When Mr. Cotler, styling himself as a human rights defender, refuses to defend the rights of the Palestinians under Israel’s control, he is implying that he does not consider the Palestinians to be human. Such a racist position should disqualify him as an expert on anything.

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