Opening Speech: Political Prisoners and The Legacy of Nelson Mandela with Irwin Cotler

Irwin Cotler, Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, former Member of Parliament, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and international human rights lawyer, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.


Full Remarks


Irwin Cotler: Hillel, thank you for your kind words, you’ve provided inspired leadership for the establishment of this UN Summit on human rights, and Elizabeth thank you for your very kind words of introduction. 

I’m delighted to be here, to join, as Hillel said, to join the moral heroes of our time, and barring the Olympic metaphor — the “gold medalists of moral courage” — and to participate in the common cause which brings us together: the struggle against hate, against racism, against atrocity, against false imprisonment, against impunity, against injustice. And this, as part of the larger struggle for human rights and human dignity, for international justice in our time. 

As my father would tell me when I was too young to understand the profundity of this message, he said that the pursuit of justice is equal to all the other Commandments combined, and this must be your life’s credo. But I have to say that it was my mother who, when she would hear my father saying these things, would say to me that if you want to pursue justice, you have to understand, you have to feel the injustice about you. You have to go in and about your community and beyond and feel the injustice and combat the injustice. Otherwise, the pursuit of justice is a theoretical abstraction. 

I suspect that it was because of these teachings that I got involved in the two great struggles of the second half of the 20th century: the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, symbolized there by the struggle for Soviet Jewry. And got involved with two political prisoners who represented the soul and struggle of these two great heroic human rights struggles: Anatoly Sharansky in the former Soviet Union and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. 

And it was the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, sometimes spoken of as the father of the human rights movement, when I took up the Sharansky case said to me that one had to understand that the Soviet Union sought in effect to imprison human rights with the imprisonment of Anatoly Sharansky. As he put it, the trial of Anatoly Sharansky was a trial of human rights in the Soviet Union. They sought to quarantine his speech, to make his human rights advocacy a crime. And as Sakharov said of Sharansky, and as can be said of Mandela, as he put it: “Sharansky is each and every one of us. Sharansky represents us all.” And I would say this is true of each of the moral heroes involved in our meeting today. Each engaged in the struggle for human rights. Each of you represents us all. And, the approach of advocacy, on behalf of these moral heroes, on behalf of the political prisoners, was also given by Sakharov, who said that one has to mobilize shame against the human rights violator. One has to put the human rights violator in the docket. And it is through my involvement, first in the struggle for Sharansky and other political prisoners in the Soviet Union, then afterwards with Mandela, that I developed an advocacy model that I want to share with you with respect to how does one take up the cause of political prisoners? How does one mobilize shame against the human rights violator? How does one stand with the political prisoner to make sure that he or she is never alone, but that we stand in solidarity with them in the struggle and in their just cause? 

The first thing is, as we did in the Soviet Union, was to make legal representations within the human rights violator country itself. As I say, to put the human rights violator country in the docket. Because the violator regimes are themselves preoccupied with their legitimacy, and someone has to expose and unmask their human rights violations. 

I developed an 800-page legal brief which was to be presented in a Soviet court. All had been arranged. One day before I was to appear in the Soviet court, I was arrested, detained, and expelled, driven out to the airport at breakneck speed by any standards, alighted on to a Japanese airliner — which fortunately was going to London and not to the Far East. Just before the plane took off, I mentioned to the airline steward: “advise the Canadian embassy I’m being expelled, advise Dan Fisher,” then the Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, “I won’t be able to meet him for dinner.” Because we were to meet to discuss the Sharansky case. 

When you get expelled as I had, the thing that concerned me most was the plight of those that have been left behind. All my materials had been seized, including names of witnesses, and so on, and I was terribly concerned about what happened with those left behind. When I arrived in London, I phoned my wife and said “Don’t tell anyone I’ve been expelled.” She said, “what do you mean, it’s all over the papers.” Dan Fisher broke the story, and it became front-page news. At that time, Anatoly Sharansky was a celebrated international human rights hero. And so, through him I got, as Andy Warhol would put it, the 15 minutes of fame. 

But we then sought to use that in terms of making the case, generally speaking. I have to say that my own government was terribly effective and assistive,Canada at that time. When I arrived then in London, they held a press conference on my behalf. When I returned to Canada, the Canadian foreign minister at the time, Flora MacDonald, met me at the airport in an important symbolic gesture, and Canada then suspended all bilateral Helsinki agreements with the Soviet Union, sending a message that these kinds of imprisonments and expulsions cannot be undertaken with impunity. 

And so the second important model: get your own government involved, actively, in making representations on behalf of the political prisoner where that is possible to do so. 

The third: to mobilize governments internationally. And here I learned a very important message: The families of political prisoners, where that is possible, play such an important role. Anatoly Sharansky’s wife became the face of Sharansky while he was in prison. And through her, opened doors to meetings with governments. In the same way Winnie Mandela became the face as well for Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned. And so the importance of the families, bringing a personal involvement and that kind of human resonance to the political prisoners. 

A fourth issue that is very important: to get parliaments involved. For example, we got the Congress of the United States in the Jackson-Vanik amendment to sanction the Soviet Union at the time. The Canadians to sanction South Africa’s. 

Fifth: to petition international courts and tribunals using legal briefs, again providing international resonance for the case and cause. 

Sixth: invoking the UN system, and we discussed this yesterday in our meeting. There are now a variety of instruments available within the UN system. We should use it. The thematic reporters, the country reporters, the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention – which I found has been very valuable in exposing and unmasking the arbitrary and illegal detentions of the human rights violated – the Universal Periodic Review. You know these things, but use them. Use the UN system. And I want to pay tribute to the Canadian ambassador at Geneva, Elissa Goldberg, who yesterday hosted our meeting for her involvement in this struggle on behalf of political prisoners, as well as my own government. One thing I can say is, I may be in the opposition, but on these issues, we stand together in common cause. 

Number seven: to work with and mobilize the NGO community, as we did with Helsinki watch groups at the time, as we did with groups with regard to South Africa.

Eight: to mobilize and develop a critical mass of civil society advocacy: women, students, scientists, academics, trade unions, legal community, and the like — a critical mass of civil society advocacy. Have each of them engage with their counterparts in the human rights violator community in order to create that critical mass of advocacy. 

Let me give you one example of how this thing can work. In 1986, after Sharansky was released and shortly thereafter, I had occasion to meet with Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union. I was always wondering what role he played in Sharansky’s release. And he said to me something very interesting, which I think is a lesson that would apply for all of us in our struggles for human rights and in defense of political prisoners. He said: “You know, you may not believe this, but I had never heard of Sharansky while he was in prison. My first trip I made was to Canada in 1984, as a minister of agriculture at the time, I was not yet president of the Soviet Union. I appeared before the Canadian parliamentary committee on agriculture,” he said, “but instead of having questions on agriculture, people were asking me questions about this Sharansky, and I had never heard of this Sharansky. I left the Canadian parliamentary buildings, and there was this huge demonstration with respect to Sharansky and human rights. And when I met with the Canadian Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Whelan, and he spoke to me about Sharansky. When I became president,” he said, “shortly thereafter, I asked for the file.” And he said “I looked at the file of Sharansky,” and he said, “yes, he was a troublemaker, but he wasn’t a criminal,” he said. 

But most important, here’s the lesson, he said, “And it was costing us to keep him in prison. It was costing us economically, politically, morally, and the like, and so I ordered his release.” And so the importance, thereby, of mobilizing shame against the human rights violator, of mobilizing a critical mass of civil society advocacy, which joins together with NGOs, with governments, with parliaments, with petitioning of courts, and the like. 

And so it was, that in South Africa, we worked the same kind of model and there had the advantage of an indigenous movement within South Africa, a great and courageous anti-apartheid movement within South Africa. In 1981, I was invited — and here the two cases come together, interestingly enough — the Sharansky and the Mandela case, and say something about the defense of political prisoners. And with this, I move to a close. 

In 1981, I was invited to be a guest of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; invited to give a lecture at the University of Witwatersrand on the topic “If Sharansky,” (who was then in prison), “Why Not Mandela?” The problem was that Mandela was a banned person. The mere mention of his name could subject you to a criminal offense. But the courageous Union of South African students nonetheless wanted to go ahead with that topic. After I gave my talk, I was again detained. My young children at the time began to think of their dad, as I understood it later, as they shared with me, as being a criminal — within a short period of time, arrest in South Africa, arrest in the Soviet Union. 

And I was asked to meet with the then-foreign minister of South Africa, “Pik” Botha. When I entered his room — and I had no idea why I would be invited to meet with him. When I entered his office, he pointed to a picture on the wall, and he said, “You know who that is?” and I said “Yes, that’s Anatoly Sharansky.” He said “Right. I could not understand how someone could represent this great defender of human rights, Anatoly Sharansky, against our enemy, the communist Soviet Union, and speak in the same breath about the communist Nelson Mandela.” 

I said “well both Sharansky and Mandela are fighting for the same thing. They’re both fighting for freedom. They’re both fighting for human dignity.” Pik Botha tried to give me a lecture in how apartheid was an exercise in pluralism, the separate but equal, etc. And at the end of the discussion I said to him, because he kept pressing how the Soviet Union was a human rights violator, I said “You’re right, the Soviet Union is a human rights violator. But South Africa is the only post-World War II government that has institutionalized racism as a matter of law. Apartheid is not just a racist philosophy, it’s a racist legal regime. And for so long as it is necessary, from wherever I am, I will fight against this racist legal regime.”

In 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged after 27 years in a South African prison, much of it in solitary confinement and the like. Emerged to not only preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to become the president of a democratic, egalitarian, non-racial South Africa. As I said at the time of the conferral of honorary Canadian citizenship on Nelson Mandela — he visited Canada in 1990, one of the first countries he visited after his release, addressed the Canadian parliament in 1998, made an honorary citizen in 2001 — that Nelson Mandela embodied the three great struggles of the 20th century. The struggle for freedom, the struggle for equality, the struggle for democracy, symbolized and anchored in his personal struggle and in the anti-apartheid struggle. He represented tolerance, healing, reconciliation, and spoke of the importance of education as the most important transformative of agent for a culture of peace. His emergence after 27 years in prison, not only to dismantle an unjust regime, but to build and govern a renewed nation, a rainbow nation, is the ultimate expression of hope and antidote to cynicism. 

I returned to South Africa two years ago and was asked to meet with Botha again. I found something that was astonishing. Botha revealed to me that he had become the first South African minister to call for Mandela’s release. That he had become a minister in Mandela’s government. That he had become a member of the African National Congress. This to me was yet another profound example of Mandela’s capacity to convert adversaries into allies; to convert prison wardens into the struggle against apartheid; an amazing capacity to build bridges. And, as his lawyers in South Africa would say to me, without any hate, without any rancor, without any sense of revenge, after being 27 years in a South African prison. And he bequeathed a great legacy of how to stand up against injustice, of how to confront state sanctioned cultures of hate, but not to hate, yourself. Of how to unify a rainbow nation, of how to institutionalize a post-apartheid South Africa as a model of constitutionalism. If you want to see a model bill of rights, go to South Africa. If you want to see a model independent constitutional court, go to South Africa. This is part of the Mandela legacy.

But his most important legacy may be the importance of defending political prisoners. Think about it. If Mandela had not been freed, the whole history of South Africa would have been different. The whole inspiration that we take from Mandela for us today would have been different. And this was brought home to me when I attended the funeral of Mandela in December in South Africa. And there was a young woman standing near his casket when we went for the visitation of his casket. And I asked her about what did Nelson Mandela mean to her. And she said to me, “Nelson Mandela means to me that I have to live every day in such a way as to make it better for somebody else.” And then she added, “You know, I’m free. I’m a free person. I was born in a post-apartheid South Africa. But I have to live my life every day so as to never betray the legacy that Nelson Mandela gave us; to always do everything I can to live up to that legacy.” And it was those remarks which recalled to me the importance of the defense of political prisoners. 

Because the political prisoners symbolize and bring about the larger struggle for human rights in our time, and in the cases of Sharansky and Mandela, not only were they the soul and substance of those struggles, but they transformed human history by their involvement in those struggles. And so, since then I’ve devoted the last 25 years to working with the great political prisoners of our day, whether it be Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt; whether it be some of the great Iranian political prisoners, like Nasreen Sotoudeh; whether it be political prisoners still in Africa, such as Isaac Dawit in Eritrea — and Eritrea is one of the places where prisoners are not only suffering, but have in fact disappeared. It has been called a prisoner state. 

And so, it’s our responsibility at this point, as I’ve learned from the work with political prisoners, and as Mandela’s life has taught us, to speak on behalf of those who cannot be heard. To testify on behalf of those who themselves are unable to bear witness. To act and advocate on behalf of those who are putting not only their livelihood, but who have put their lives on the line, as Mandela did again and again. As each of the moral heroes with us today have been putting their lives on the line, again and again. And as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, and as the political prisoners in their struggles have proven, and I quote, “At the end of the day the arc of the universe will bend towards justice.” And we can come out of the shadows of darkness into the torch of freedom inspired by these great moral heroes of our time. Thank you.


Speakers and Participants

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada


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