Address by Minister Cannon at John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award Ceremony

No. 2011/10 - Ottawa, Ontario - March 10, 2011

Check Against Delivery

Before we begin today’s ceremony, I would like to take a moment to remember and honour Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minister of Minorities, who last week was assassinated by extremists.

After taking the oath in 2008, Mr. Bhatti, whom I hosted here in this building only four weeks ago, said he had accepted the post for the sake of “oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized” people and to empower religious minorities in his country.

Tragically, for his own courage in addressing those matters, he paid the ultimate price.

In memory of Shahbaz Bhatti, I would ask you all to stand for a minute of silence…

Thank you. Please be seated.

Today we bestow, for the first time ever, the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award.

Our country has long been a strong advocate for human rights around the world, and this award, presented by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, is a tangible demonstration of our determination to honour individuals and groups that show exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedom.

The John Diefenbaker Award was named in honour of Canada’s 13th prime minister. It was upon his election as an opposition member of Parliament in 1940 that the Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker, P.C., began his campaign to include Canadians of all cultural and ethnic origins in the country’s political life.

During his six years as prime minister, Mr. Diefenbaker ensured that his government obtained the passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights, a lifetime goal that he called “the only way to stop the march on the part of the government towards arbitrary power.”

His government also granted full voting rights to Canada’s Aboriginal population.

Mr. Diefenbaker appointed the first woman to a Canadian cabinet post, the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to serve in cabinet and the first First Nations member of the Senate.

In foreign policy, he championed human rights internationally by supporting the independence of many emerging Commonwealth countries.

His anti-apartheid stance contributed to the withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth.

On July 1, 1960, when Prime Minister Diefenbaker introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, he spoke these words:

I am a Canadian […] free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and mankind.

Through his efforts both in Canada and abroad, John Diefenbaker exemplified leadership in securing, protecting and promoting human rights, and it is entirely fitting that this new award be named for him.

The two recipients of today’s award—the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and Pakistani human rights activist Asma Jahangir—have displayed extraordinary commitment to the advancement of freedom and human rights.

The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights is a non-governmental, non-religious, non-profit organization established in 1996. It is a recognized leader in bringing international attention to bear on the distressing plight of the more than 20 million North Koreans who are deprived of even the most fundamental rights.

There have been numerous reports of arbitrary detentions, public executions, the use of torture and the existence of labour camps, the application of collective punishment, cruel treatment of repatriated asylum seekers, and indefinite holding of political prisoners. The lack of basic freedoms is deplorable.

The Citizens’ Alliance helped to organize the 10th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees in Toronto last year, where my parliamentary secretary, Deepak Obhrai, delivered remarks on the government’s behalf.

We are honoured to have with us today the Rev. Benjamin H. Yoon, founder and director of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

Nearly 40 years ago, the Reverend Yoon established Amnesty International’s chapter in South Korea.

More recently, he launched the Asian Centre for Human Rights to improve the human rights situation in the Asian region as well as to cultivate young human rights activists.

The Reverend Yoon has received numerous awards for his work, including just last December the second-highest class of the Order of Civil Merit from the South Korean government.

The Government of Canada, on behalf of the Canadian people, is an unfailing champion of the cause of North Korean human rights and takes every opportunity to support international action on this issue at the United Nations and the Human Rights Council.

The plight of ordinary North Koreans, who suffer from continuing food shortages under a repressive regime, is well known.

Canada stands shoulder to shoulder with human rights defenders such as the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and others.

Today’s other honouree, Asma Jahangir, was born into a prosperous and politically active family with a history of human rights work and has spent her career at great personal risk defending human rights, particularly women’s rights as well as those of religious minorities and children, in her native Pakistan.

Ms. Jahangir served as Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, as a special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings from 1998 to 2004, and as United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief between 2004 and 2010.

Ms. Jahangir was recently elected president of the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association.

Indeed, it is because she is at present preoccupied with mobilizing the Supreme Court Bar Association to uphold the rule of law and human rights in Pakistan that Asma Jahangir is unable to be with us in person.

Ms. Jahangir has helped mobilize opposition to legislation criminalizing blasphemy and laws that punish victims of rape, as well as laws that devalue a woman’s testimony. She is also an active opponent of child labour and capital punishment.

As you will know, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, was tragically assassinated in January for speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In any democracy, extremists cannot be allowed, whether through violence or intimidation, to curtail the space for freedom of speech and peaceful dialogue. It is the obligation of states to prohibit advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility or violence.

John Diefenbaker once said, “As long as there is a drop of blood in my body they won’t stop me from talking about freedom.”

Both Minister Bhatti and Governor Taseer did just that.

With courage they spoke out against Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws and paid the ultimate price.

We are appalled by these cowardly attacks against these brave men.

We continue to call on Pakistan to repeal laws criminalizing blasphemy, which restrict freedom of religion and expression and have disproportionately targeted religious minorities.

Both Ms. Jahangir and the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights deserve our highest respect and admiration, and it is my honour, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to formally recognize their invaluable contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Through their vision and courage, they provide inspiration and bring light and hope to their communities and to the world.

We are moved by their efforts, which reflect the values so dear to all Canadians, on whose behalf we present this award today.

Thank you.