Canada Needs to Support Political Prisoners: Irwin Cotler

March 1, 2014 Updated: March 1, 2014

PARLIAMENT HILL, Ottawa—Canada needs to support the human rights heroes who risk their lives fighting political repression abroad, says Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.

It’s something he has worked on for decades, acting as legal counsel to political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. 

Now Cotler wants Canada to do more for political prisoners who face torture and execution for trying to make their countries better.

To that end, he has devised a 10-point plan which he announced on Tuesday at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. On Feb. 28, back at work on Parliament Hill, he announced a private member’s bill that would support that effort from Canada. 

He said the bill aims to “break the silence” that keeps the plight of many political prisoners out of the public spotlight and “puts a face and a name and an identity on them.”

The bill has four main parts. It would require Foreign Affairs to create a registry of political prisoners detained overseas and report on that list annually. It would also compel the federal government to defend Canadian political prisoners incarcerated overseas by giving them the ability to sue the government if it doesn’t step forward to help them. 

The bill would also amend the State Immunity Act so Canadians can sue foreign governments for torture and terrorism. Cotler has approached this particular issue many times in different pieces of legislation during his time as an MP. 

The final part is establishing an international day of the political prisoner. A commemoration day is an easy and cheap way to highlight a global problem and gives Canadians an additional opportunity to ponder the plight of political prisoners.

Cotler doesn’t have a lot of time to get his bill passed. He announced earlier this month he will not be running in the next election, which means he has just 20 months left in office. He says he is ramping up his efforts to finish his time as an MP with a bang. At 73 years old he remains one of the most active MPs on the hill, and has 44 private member’s bills and motions that he’s worked on in the current session of Parliament.

Unfortunately for Cotler—and the people he wants to help—none of those bills, including his latest one, are likely to get anywhere unless the government adopts them. 

However, Cotler strikes an optimistic tone that that could happen with his effort to help political prisoners. That may explain his reluctance to cash in on the recent controversy over his being barred from an event in Israel in early February after a backbench Conservative MP reportedly had him excluded.

“I am not commenting on what occurred. The reason I gave is that I did not want to detract or deflect away from the emphasis and the priority of the theme of our coming together today … regarding the pain and plight and torture and execution of political prisoners.”

He works closely together on these issues with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and his colleagues in the other parties, Cotler said. 

He noted that cooperation extends to the human rights subcommittee, which rarely gets any media coverage. That includes a powerful report on Iran four years ago that was all but ignored.