Winnipeg human rights lawyer David Matas was selected as the recipient of the Walter S. Tarnopolsky Award on Monday, August 13. Administered by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the annual award was given to Matas in recognition of his outstanding contribution to both domestic and international human rights.
"David has a long and impressive track record of advocating for human rights, both on the national and international levels," said Paul D.K. Fraser, Q.C., president of the Canadian section of the International Commission of Jurists.
"He has worked tirelessly at promoting the Canadian vision of human rights abroad and defending of those rights at home."
For three decades, Matas has maintained a private practice in which all his case work has, in his words, "revolved around human rights." During this time he has also served as the Director of the International Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa in Canada, Director of Canada-South Africa Cooperation, Director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, and Director of the Manitoba Association of Rights & Liberties.
He was part of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Conference on the International Criminal Court in 1998, and has also been actively involved with Amnesty International, B'nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Canadian Council for Refugees.
This list of associations and positions reflects what Matas believes to have been the major human rights issues of the last few decades: apartheid, war crimes, refugees, torture, and the crimes of communism, to name but a few.
Yet Matas explains his devotion to human rights causes in simple terms. "I feel I have a contribution to make," he says.
Among some of his more notable legal efforts, Matas has taken on the government of Iran over torture and incitement of genocide, and filed a criminal lawsuit against the former president of China for sanctioning the torture of a Canadian citizen.
But none of Matas' efforts have garnered as much attention as a report he co-authored last year with former Liberal Cabinet Minister David Kilgour. That report, released in July 2006, investigated and confirmed allegations that the Chinese regime had been removing and selling the organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience, killing them in the process.
Since the findings were released, Matas has spent much of his time traveling the globe in a campaign to bring pressure to bear on China to stop the practice of organ harvesting. In the process, he has established himself as a champion for the Falun Gong, a Buddhist meditation discipline that has been violently persecuted in China for eight years.
Yet the process of securing human rights for the world's disenfranchised remains an uphill battle. The international system remains largely anarchic, and international human rights laws are often toothless when it comes to combating injustices. Yet the biggest challenge, Matas says, is indifference.
"There is a massive problem getting people engaged. For example, Canada is far away from many of these issues, so it is tough to get the public's attention drawn."