Irwin Cotler

The Irwin Cotler Institute for Democracy, Human Rights and Justice celebrates and advances the legacy of one of the greatest and most respected jurists and advocates of justice in our time.

Born in 1940 in Montreal to a Canadian-Jewish family, Irwin Cotler currently serves as the International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. He is an Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and longtime Member of Parliament, constitutional and international human rights lawyer and counsel to prisoners of conscience.

Cotler is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Independent Panel of Legal Experts on Venezuela, and the High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom. He is also Canada’s first Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism; and the Special Envoy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Community of Democracies on the case and cause of imprisoned Russian democratic leader Vladimir Kara-Murza.

As a parliamentarian from 1999 to 2015, Cotler was at the forefront of the struggle for justice and human rights, both domestically and internationally. He served as chair of the first-ever Parliamentary Assembly for the International Criminal Court; chair of the Parliamentarians for Global Action (Canada); chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran; chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group of Justice for Sergei Magnitsky; chair of the All-Party Save Darfur Parliamentary Coalition; co-chair from Canada of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance for China; and co-chair of the International Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism.

As Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada from 2003 to 2006, Cotler launched Canada’s first National Justice Initiative against Racism and Hate; initiated the first-ever prosecution for the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act; initiated the first- ever law on human trafficking; crafted the Civil Marriage Act, the first-ever legislation to grant marriage equality to gays and lesbians; quashed more wrongful convictions in a single year than any prior Minister; initiated the first-ever comprehensive reform of the Supreme Court appointment process and helped make it the most gender-representative Supreme Court in the world; appointed the first-ever Indigenous and visible minority justices on the Ontario Court of Appeal; and made the pursuit of international justice a government priority.

An international human rights lawyer, Cotler has served as counsel to high-profile prisoners of conscience, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov and leading human rights dissident Nathan Sharansky (former Soviet Union); Nelson Mandela (South Africa); Jacobo Timmerman (Argentina); Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim (Egypt). He was a Member of the International Legal Team of Chinese Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo.

More recently, Cotler has served as international legal counsel to imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi; Venezuelan political prisoner Leopoldo López; imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh; and Swedish-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak.

Feature articles referred to Cotler as “Counsel for the Oppressed,” while the Oslo Freedom Forum characterized him as “Freedom’s Counsel.”

A constitutional and comparative law scholar, Cotler is the author of numerous publications and seminal legal articles and has written upon and intervened in landmark Charter of Rights cases in the areas of free speech, freedom of religion, minority rights, peace law and war crimes justice.

Cotler is the recipient of sixteen honorary doctorates, where he has been recognized as “a scholar and advocate of international stature.” He is a Privy Councillor, an Officer of the Order of Canada, an Officer of the National Order of Quebec, and the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He has been awarded the Canadian Bar Association’s President’s Award; was the first Canadian recipient of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation’s Centennial Medal; the first recipient of the Romeo Dallaire Award for Human Rights Leadership; the recipient of the Sir Zafrullah Khan Award for Distinguished Public Service; the recipient of the Dalhousie University 2015 Ethical Leadership Award; and was the first recipient of the 2015 Sergei Magnitsky Global Human Rights Award.

In 2014, Cotler was awarded Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year by his colleagues, and in 2015 received the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Inaugural Human Rights Award. In its citation, the Law Society recognized “The Honorable Irwin Cotler’s tireless efforts to ensure peace and justice for all. In his varied roles as a law professor, constitutional and comparative law scholar, international human rights lawyer, counsel to prisoners of conscience, public intellectual, peace activist, Member of Parliament, and Minster of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Mr. Cotler has been a leader and role model. Through his advocacy work both in Canada and internationally, he has transformed the lives of many.”