By Ben Cohen
Few politicians in North America can boast Irwin Cotler’s pedigree as a human rights advocate. A former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, Cotler, who represents the Mount Royal riding of Montreal in the Canadian parliament, has spoken out on behalf of dissidents and democracy activists on almost every continent in the world. Among those to have benefited from his counsel are Natan Sharansky, the famed Soviet Jewish refusenik who now heads up the Jewish Agency, the late South African president, Nelson Mandela, and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian democrat who ran afoul of former leader Hosni Mubarak, in the process becoming one of Egypt’s most well-known political prisoners.
After several decades immersed in the worlds of parliamentary politics and international law, Cotler is set to retire from parliament in 2015, though he says he’ll remain active in public life. And he remains a thorn in the side of the world’s authoritarian regimes; in March of this year, Cotler was one of thirteen Canadian officials banned from entering Russia by Vladimir Putin’s regime, something he dubbed as a “badge of honor.”
When I spoke to Cotler yesterday, his mind was very much focused on last week’s terrorist attack on the Canadian parliament in Ottawa. “I was walking towards our Liberal Party caucus meeting on Wednesday morning when I was stopped by a guard who said, ‘you’ve got to turn back,'” Cotler related. “The shooting had already begun. I came back to my Department of Justice office, which is adjacent to the parliament building, where I was in a lockdown for the next ten hours.”
Together with his legislative assistant, Michael Milech, Cotler monitored the various news broadcasts, trying to figure out if one or more assailants was involved in the attack. He and his parliamentary colleagues, Cotler observed, were fortunate to have avoided a massacre. “If the shooter had turned right or left off the corridor where the caucus meetings were taking place and started shooting, that could have been a bloodbath,” Cotler said. “So we were fortunate to be saved from what could have been a much worse tragedy.”
Cotler pointed to the critical role played by Kevin Vickers, the parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, who shot the attacker, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, soon after he arrived at the parliament building from the National War Memorial, where he murdered the soldier on guard, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. “He’s a person of imposing stature,” said Cotler of the 6ft4 Vickers, “and clearly one of great physical and moral courage.”
While he was stuck in his office waiting for the all-clear, Cotler received a call from his Israeli-born wife, Ariela, who was anxious to learn whether her husband was safe. “After speaking to her for about five minutes, I asked her, ‘Ariela, was there a terrorist attack in Jerusalem today? Didn’t a three month-old baby die?’ And she said, ‘yes, but there it’s a way of life. In Canada, this is an exceptional occurrence,'” Cotler said.
As the dust settled on the Ottawa attack, Cotler told several of his colleagues about his conversation with his wife. “I alerted them to those two things, one that there had been this terrorist attack in Israel, and two, as my wife expressed it, the existential situation that Israel lives with all the time,” Cotler said. Among those he spoke to was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told Cotler that he had earlier conversed with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s constant, daily struggle with terrorism was, said Harper, a theme that had also been emphasized by Netanyahu.
Cotler was frank that the coincidence of two terrorist assaults on the same day, one in Ottawa and one in Jerusalem, did not result in deeper sympathy for Israel’s predicament among many of his colleagues, in part because they were understandably preoccupied with the drama unfolding in the parliament building. “In Israel, it’s a matter of ongoing attacks, so people aren’t always paying attention,” Cotler explained. “Then the narrative coming out of Operation Protective Edge was one in which Israel was doing the attacking, and the Palestinians were the victims, which ignored the Hamas war of attrition and the stated aims of the Hamas Charter.” As a result, Cotler said, there is a greater focus on Israeli settlement activities rather than upon the human cost to the Jewish state of constant terror attacks, while the Palestinians are regarded more as the “victims of Israeli bombing, rather than those who started the terrorist assault on Israel itself.”
Turning to the future of Canada’s anti-terror policies in the wake of the Ottawa attack, Cotler stressed that a “rare solidarity” had taken hold. “Prime Minister Harper is not given to emotion,” Cotler said. “But the day after the attack in parliament, he made a very moving gesture. After he finished his own remarks, he walked over and hugged the leader of our party, Justin Trudeau, as well as the leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair. I don’t think I’ve seen that in the nine years he’s been Prime Minister.”
Even before the attack, Cotler said, there were plans afoot to enhance Canada’s anti-terrorism laws “with respect to investigation, detection, monitoring – we have some 90 Canadians who are under surveillance because they might seek to travel abroad to fight. So the question is, do the security services need greater surveillance powers? That’s going to be one part of the government’s anti-terrorism initiative. The person who carried out the attack on parliament was known to the authorities, in fact his passport was taken away, but he wasn’t arrested. So the feeling is that maybe the security services need greater powers of arrest and detention. And in another initiative, because social media is playing a role in radicalization, we’re looking at what we can do to counter the radicalization on social media. This is what’s being mooted at this point, and the legislation will be introduced probably before the end of this week.”
As a former Minister of Justice, Cotler believes that Zahaf-Bibeau could have been subjected to preventative detention. But, he added, the police officers he’d consulted with didn’t think that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Zehaf-Bibeau was about to carry out an attack. The issue, Cotler said, is whether they are going to change the “evidence threshold” to make it easier to detain terror suspects.
I asked Cotler why he’d abstained, earlier this month, from a House of Commons vote on Canada’s joining U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq. “My party voted against it,” he answered. “I would have supported it, but the government limited it to Iraq. I think they should have gone further, and gone into Syria. But I abstained because the prime minister made a very surprising statement in which he said we would only go into Syria if Assad agrees. For three and a half years now, I’ve been saying that we need to protect the innocent Syrian civilians and opposition under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine. I’ve been calling for leadership to hold Assad accountable long before the jihadis came on the scene. Assad gave birth to the jihadis. When the prime minister made Canada’s involvement contingent on Assad’s permission, I said, ‘sorry, I can’t go along with that.'”
Ultimately, Cotler insists, what is needed is a more coherent strategy that casts its net much wider than IS. There remains, as he points out, the threat from groups like Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front, Hamas and Hezbollah and, of course, “their patron,” Iran. “I’m saying, ‘look guys, IS is getting a lot of attention because of the depravity of its killings.’ But it’s only one – admittedly important – terrorist grouping. We have to have a comprehensive appreciation of the nature of this radical evil. I don’t think we have that yet. We need an integrated approach of diplomatic, military, economic and legal measures that target all the actors, whether its those who are involved in finance, like Qatar, or those who are providing other forms of backing, as Iran is doing with Hamas and Hezbollah.”