Venezuelan opposition figures were quick to gloat about their latest international ally. Irwin Cotler, a long-time Canadian member of parliament for the Liberal Party, reportedly signed on to become part of the legal team for former Venezuelan politician Leopoldo Lopez, who is currently jailed for his role in the deadly rioting that rocked Venezuela in early 2014.
Carlos Vecchio, a leading member of Lopez’s political party Popular Will, boasted that, “(Nelson) Mandela’s lawyer in considering going to Ramo Verde”, the jail where Lopez is being held. Quickly, the international press – who have been exceptionally busy of late printing any stories that puts the Venezuelan government in a bad light – picked up the story, also referring to the Canadian lawmaker as the lawyer for the famed South African liberation movement head.
Virtually no media picked up the declarations from South African leaders negating a connection between Cotler and Mandela.
"Irwin Cotler was not Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and does not represent the Government or the people of South Africa in any manner," the Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa to Venezuela Pandit Thaninga Shope-Linney said Thursday.
While these statement may make Cotler’s role in the struggle against South African apartheid hazy, his role in defending another country that has been accused of creating an apartheid system is clear.
Cotler has long been one of the most vocal defenders of Israel in the Canadian Parliament and has deep connections to numerous Israel lobby organizations in Canada and the United States. The lawyer was one of three founders of the Liberal Parliamentarians for Israel group and was also the former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress which in recent decades has devoted an increasing amount of its focus towards Israel advocacy and painting pro-Palestinian activism as tantamount to anti-semitism.
In Parliament Hill, Cotler has been active in using his post to influence Canada’s foreign policy positions in favor of Israel. Cotler worked to undermine the credibility of United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, otherwise known as the Goldstone Report – ironically drafted by a South African judge – which accused both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas of war crimes in the 2009 attack on Gaza.
“You can’t have a situation where you have special sessions targeting Israel and the rest of the world has immunity,” Cotler said. “Within the U.N. system, there is a basis now to alter what is the source of the problem: the singling out of one member state for differential and discriminatory treatment under the existing legal framework.”
More recently, following the devastating attack on Gaza that left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead and over 10,000 injured, Cotler placed the blame on Hamas.
“Hamas is a uniquely evil expression of genocidal anti-Semitism,” said Cotler.
While paying lip service to preventing further “tragedies,” Cotler went on to outline 15 recommendations – all of them geared towards placing further restrictions on Palestinians. Nowhere did the “human rights” lawyer even acknowledge the devastating blockade on Gaza, let alone the continued illegal building of settlements as a factor in the conditions that Palestinians face.
Cotler’s Israel advocacy is perhaps one of the reasons why he is looking to align with Venezuela’s opposition.
Under former President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela took unprecedented steps in support of Palestinian rights to statehood on the international stage, becoming one of the first country’s in Latin America to set up full diplomatic relations in 2009. Three years before, Venezuela also recalled its representatives from Israel in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which lead Chavez to call Israel a “terrorist state.”
Indeed, Cotler is also an advisory board member of the board of U.N. Watch, which also has disproportionate focus on monitoring activity at the United Nations relating to Palestinian rights. Unsurprisingly, the organization – which also counts former members of the U.S. government in its board – has historically been opposed to the governments of the Bolivarian Revolution as evidenced by the group’s intense lobbying efforts against Venezuela's bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council and the declarations from the head of U.N. Watch who upon the death of President Chavez, called the former leader a “symbol of evil.”
With these connections and track record, it is hard to consider Cotler a neutral observer in Venezuelan affairs.
Cotler’s credentials on human rights and civil liberties in his own country are doubtful.
Having served as Justice Minister during the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, Cotler was responsible for Bill C-36, Canada's Anti-Terrorism Act which was passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York in 2001. The law was condemned by a slew of lawyers, as well as civil and human rights organizations, and has been used to permit massive surveillance on activists since.
Even while in opposition, Cotler has been conspicuously silent during flagrant abuses of civil rights by authorities in Canada.
In 2010 when Canada was hosted the G-20 Summit, the police arbitrarily arrested over 1,000 people in what the Ontario Ombusman Andre Marin referred to as "a time period where martial law was set in the city of Toronto, leading to the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history."
In addition to the mass arrests – which included accusations of physical and sexual assault on protesters by police – several activists were preemptively arrested after police infiltrated groups and discovered that they intended to cause property damage, e.g. breaking windows of banks, in Toronto. Two of the arrested were sentenced to jail time, even though their arrests did not even allow them to participate in any demonstrations.
Cotler and his Liberal Party did not condemn this mass violation of civil rights which took place in the country's largest city and in plain sight.
Two years later, as hundreds of thousands of Quebec post-secondary students went on strike to protest an increase in tuition fees, the government responded with heavy-handed police tactics on protesters, including attacks on restaurant patrons and several serious injuries of peaceful protestors.
The Quebec government later passed a law that specifically prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people. Bill 78 was condemned by students, trade unions, as well as the Quebec Human Rights Commission. However, the member of parliament from Quebec once again said nothing about this violation of civil rights in his home province.
In late 2014, Cotler announced he would not run again for a seat in Canada’s Parliament. With his new found free time, he would do well to stick to issues in Canada, especially in light of the Conservative government’s intention to build on the anti-terrorism act that he drafted, which many lawyers and civil liberties groups are saying will be disastrous for the people of Canada.