The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Kim Covert

David Matas: Portrait of a human rights advocate

July 14 2015 14 July 2015

Most people talk about human rights as if they’ve always been around, says David Matas, who has worked in human rights, refugee and immigration law since 1979.

But while the concept certainly existed before the Second World War, the fact is that an understanding that humans should and do have certain immutable rights grew out of that conflict, and specifically the Holocaust. And that is similarly where his passion for protecting the rights of humanity is rooted, he writes in his latest book Why did you do that? The autobiography of a human rights advocate.

Matas, senior legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, lives in Winnipeg but spends a great deal of his time criss-crossing the globe speaking on various human rights issues. His book begins with a travelogue – the story of 19 days in which he “crossed the Atlantic five times, and the Pacific once. I went around the world. I prepared nine different presentations for delivery in three different continents on a wide variety of topics. During all of this I was maintaining my legal practice, calling into my office to pick up messages and return them, and keeping abreast of my email.”

While to a certain degree Matas fell into this life as a result of a coincidence of circumstances – one thing that piqued his interest led to another that piqued his interest – he uses the book to explain why he could also be said to have chosen to spend his career in service of an ideal.

“By trying to explain why I have done what I have done, I hope to mobilize others not to do what I have done, but rather just to do something, to shed feelings of indifference and impotence, to join the international human rights cause.”

Matas, born in Winnipeg in 1943, says he has been haunted by the Holocaust his whole life, even though his parents came to Canada near the turn of the 20th century and were not themselves refugees from it.  He has known since he was a pre-teen that he wanted to do something in response to it.

“The lessons I have drawn from the Holocaust are that mass murderers must be brought to justice; that refugees must be protected; that hate speech should be banned; and that we must never accept in silence gross violations of human rights,” he writes.

He identifies the “four horsemen of our very own human-made apocalypse” as indifference, absolutism, hypocrisy and a sense of helplessness. It’s clear Matas has never allowed himself to fall victim to any of these things.

The book takes you through episodes from his life that elucidate both why and how he does what he does. It’s an interesting insight into what drives a person to stand up for not just those closest to him, which is instinctive, but in those to whom he has no connection, which is not.

He takes on apartheid, anti-Zionism, hate speech, child pornography, and China’s oppression of Falun Gong practitioners, among others; talks about protecting refugees from Iran and Sri Lanka; and discusses how the law can be used to flout human rights as well as protect them.

“In my pursuit of human rights, law has been ambivalent; sometimes a friend; often as an enemy. The ideal of law is justice. However, day-to-day justice is far from the reality. Law can be and is used to inflict injustice. However, if the ideal of law is ever to be realized, surely we lawyers must play an important part,” says the long-time CBA member.

“For lawyers to abandon the law in the search for human rights is to abandon their colleagues, their skills and the ideals of their profession. The hope remains that law and justice can become one.” 

Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

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