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DavidMatasWhy did you do that? The Autobiography of a Human Rights Advocate
Reviewed by STEPHEN CHALLIS
From his base here in quiet, leafy, Winnipeg, David Matas has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to the field of international human rights law and  related political advocacy.


The central question posed in this autobiographical account of a thirty plus year career (and there is no mention in the book of a plan to slow down), is: “Why did you do that?”
After his undergraduate and graduate studies (Manitoba, Princeton, Oxford and Paris) and legal education (Manitoba, followed by a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada and a brief stint in commercial law, Matas tried politics, running unsuccessfully for the federal Liberals in 1979 and 1980. Coincidentally, the Liberals won the election, so the profile he gained in those campaigns played a part in his being selected as part of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations in New York. There he learned that it (the UN) was not up to much good in the promotion of human rights, and what little good it did was the result of the efforts  of international, non-governmental, human rights organizations.
Returning to Winnipeg, he settled upon a paid, private legal practice, running in tandem with, largely unpaid, public advocacy, as being the most effective formula for him to promote respect for human rights around the world.
With regard to the law, he notes:
“…the law has given me weaponry to fight the human rights battles in which I independently decided to engage.”
But, his work in the law is not done without some circumspection:
“Though we like to link law and justice, the stark reality is that law is often the handmaiden of massive injustice, and the sword of the oppressor, rather than the shield of the oppressed.”
He asks:
“When we go to the law in search of justice, have we come to the right place? I would not say that a human rights strategy should focus entirely on the law. But a human rights strategy which ignores the law both abandons a technique and ignores a threat.”
He concludes:
“In my pursuit of human rights, law has been ambivalent; sometimes a friend; as often an enemy. The ideal of law is justice. However, day to day justice is far from reality. Law can be and is used to inflict injustice. However, if the ideal of justice is ever to be realized, surely we lawyers must play an important part.”
The question, “Why did you do it?” does seem worth exploring, if only to illuminate some of the more uncommon aspects of his life’s work.
A law practice out of Winnipeg in the highly specialised field of international human rights, versus perhaps Geneva, New York, or maybe Toronto or Ottawa  - well, that certainly seems “non-traditional.”
The pay doesn’t seem that great, and the conditions not particularly elegant; many of his files were taken on a volunteer basis for  non-governmental organizations, some of them “high profile”, like Amnesty International, but others less well-known such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and tthe Norwegian Refugee Council. Those are just a few; the list  of parliamentary committees, professional associations and non-governmental organizations - Canadian, foreign, or international, for which Matas has worked over the years, is dizzying.
Trips to such capitals as Bishkek, in the  Kyrgyz Republic; Kinshasa, in the Congo; Kabul, Afghanistan, and Port au Prince, Haiti, are a few of the many locations where he has attended for, it seems, little or no remuneration other than travel expenses.
Several times in the book  Matas provides details of his travel schedules, describing how he regularly flew from continent to continent, meeting to meeting, juggling a variety of files over the course of a week or two. Such constant moving must be both physically and emotionally wearing, yet Matas has been doing this for moe than three decades.
Searching for an explanation of what drives him, Matas quotes Rabbi Hillel from two millennia ago: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, “If not now, when?”
Matas responds to Hillel’s questions with a challenge, both to himself and, implicitly, to the reader: “If we do not work for the human rights of our own community, who else will do it? Yet, if we do only that, if we leave to others the struggle for respect for human rights of those not members of our own community, what are we?”
“We can and must ask, when it comes to respect for human rights, “If not now, when?”
Along with the religious imperative, there is the specter of the Holocaust: “…a defining moment in human experience.” -  an event to which Matas has spent much of his adult life responding:
“Because of the Holocaust, a consciousness developed that it was impossible for humanity to destroy Jews without destroying itself. The Holocaust generated the human equivalent of the Gaia hypothesis, the realization that humanity is one organism that lives and dies together.”
Regarding perhaps the central human rights debate of our age, his views are unambiguous:
“Even if we do accept, as I do, that Palestinians are oppressed, that does not make Israel their oppressors. The true oppressors of the Palestinians are the anti-Zionist terrorist forces who hold Palestinians hostage to an anti-Zionist ideology.”
This book is detailed but accessible. It recounts the motivations, methods, struggles, victories and losses of a tireless human rights advocate. Often, his work has been done alone, sometimes in concert with a small organization - advocating for little known causes or for seemingly powerless individuals in far flung locations.
He makes a convincing argument: More of us need to pay attention to these matters, and where possible, join the battle.

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