Address by Minister Baird at Second Annual John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award Ceremony

March 14, 2012 - Ottawa, Ontario

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Distinguished recipients, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs.

I am pleased to be here with you today to present the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award.

This award, named in honour of Canada’s 13th prime minister, recognizes individuals or groups who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedoms at home and around the world.

It is fitting that, as Joy [Smith, Member of Parliament] mentioned in her introduction, this awards ceremony takes place in a building named after Mr. Diefenbaker.

During his six years as prime minister, Mr. Diefenbaker dedicated attention and energy to protecting and promoting freedom and human rights not just at home, but around the world.

The Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960 was a large part of his legacy. So was the key role he played in the anti-apartheid statement in 1961, which led to South Africa’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

The protection and promotion of human rights is a hallmark of Canada’s foreign policy under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

We do not simply seek to do what is popular, or expedient, for the sake of making it easier on ourselves. Instead, we are honourable in our dealings. And we do what is principled, and what is right, all in the name of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These are Canadian values. And they are values that should not be reserved for a select few, but enjoyed by all.

Canada stands with the brave defenders of human rights around the world who courageously seek to promote and protect fundamental freedoms, often at great risk to themselves and their families.

The recipients of today’s John Diefenbaker awards have displayed extraordinary courage and commitment to the cause of freedom.

Shahbaz Bhatti was elected to the National Assembly of Pakistan in 2008, and named Federal Minister for Minorities. It was a post he accepted, he said, “for the sake of the oppressed, downtrodden and marginalized of Pakistan.” Minister Bhatti declared he would dedicate his life “to struggle for human equality, for justice, for religious freedom, and to uplift and empower the religious minorities.”

Minister Bhatti took steps in support of religious minorities, launching a national campaign to promote interfaith harmony, proposing legislation to ban hate speech and literature, and proposing comparative religion as a curriculum subject.

Minister Bhatti was not silenced by the obvious risks to his own safety. He continued to speak out even after the assassination of a fellow advocate for tolerance in Pakistan, Governor Salman Taseer of Punjab province, in January 2011.

Tragically, Shahbaz Bhatti paid the ultimate price. On March 2, 2011, while on his way to work in Islamabad, he was assassinated in a cowardly fashion. He was only 42 years old.

Just one month earlier, Shahbaz Bhatti was here in Canada, visiting our prime minister and other government ministers, including [Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism] Jason Kenney, who is here with us today.

The news of Mr. Bhatti’s passing left a hole in the hearts of many. It crossed oceans, and touched every one of us to see someone doing what is right, and what is just, so tragically silenced before his time.

That should never be the case. Each of us should reject that outright.

[Former Pakistani prime minister] Benazir Bhutto once said, “You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea.”

These words ring ever true in our quest to realize and spread fundamental freedoms. 

We continue to urge Pakistan to repeal its laws criminalizing blasphemy. We continue to push the issue of religious freedom at every turn. We do this, in no small part, in memory of Shahbaz Bhatti.

Here, we are honoured to have with us today his mother, Martha Bhatti, and his brother, Peter Bhatti, who will accept this award on his behalf.

Today we also honour Susana Trimarco and the Fundación María de los Ángeles, which she created.

Susana Trimarco is the mother of Marita Verón who, in April 2002, was kidnapped at the age of 23 by a criminal network of human traffickers.

In the search for her daughter, Ms. Trimarco began a personal quest that revealed a network of brothels run by traffickers across Argentina and as far away as Spain. She discovered many women and girls who were victims of human trafficking.

Braving a number of threats to her life, she has continued her investigations into the illegal sex trade and established the foundation in her daughter’s name to help victims of human trafficking reinsert themselves back into society.  

The foundation advocates for stronger government policies to combat human trafficking on behalf of mothers who have lost children to these reprehensible acts, and it seeks to raise awareness through media outreach and training to judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials.

Through her work, Ms. Trimarco is responsible for rescuing 150 victims of human trafficking, and has for many years helped them recover their livelihoods. She has been instrumental in raising awareness in Argentina, and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, about this important issue. I understand that in great part due to her efforts, Argentina passed its first national law against human trafficking in 2008.

Ms. Trimarco, your work with Fundación Maria de los Angeles has touched many people. I ask you to take heart in the knowledge that you have made, and continue to make, a difference in the lives of those around you.  

To the many women you help, you represent hope, and that is truly a precious gift, because hope inspires, as nothing else can inspire, a passion for the possible.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured, on behalf of the Government of Canada, to formally acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti and Ms. Susana Trimarco to the promotion and protection of freedom and human rights.

To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy:

Few people can change the course of history, but each of us, working toward further freedom, human dignity and respect, will be able to write the history of our generation, and lay a foundation for the world we leave behind.

William Wilberforce [18th-century British politician and abolitionist] once proclaimed in the British House of Commons:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”

Friends, faced with injustice, we must never look the other way.

Our commitment must not relent.

Our resolve must not weaken.

Together, our voices can help promote freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law around the world.

Thank you for your efforts in that regard and for demonstrating your commitment by being here this evening.