Address by Minister Baird at Montreal Council on Foreign Relations Luncheon

September 14, 2012 - Montréal, Quebec

Check Against Delivery

Good afternoon.

I am pleased to be with you this afternoon. It’s a real pleasure to be in Montréal—one of the world’s truly great cities, the heart of French Canada.

It is one of Canada’s most important centres, and I’m honoured to be able to represent all Montrealers, all Quebeckers and all Canadians as minister of foreign affairs.

Without a doubt, it’s an exciting time to be a foreign minister.

It’s an exciting time because we’re witnessing wholesale change in countries long-ruled by dictators and whose peoples were denied opportunities for full economic advancement.

It’s also a challenging time because so often, the smallest, seemingly inconsequential events can bring about profound change.

And often, we cannot predict which events will bring about that change. Amid today’s rapid changes, we see a common denominator. Whether in Tunisia, Cairo or Damascus, people are fighting for dignity.

The dignity to live in freedom.

The dignity to live in peace.

The dignity to provide for one’s family.

In this storm of change, Canada stands as a beacon of light, built around our fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We have a clear vision of what it takes to build the conditions in which people live with the dignity others crave.

In some respects, what I’m about to share with you today is the untold story of our government’s principled, values-based foreign policy, steeped in the conviction that, as a free nation, we must promote and protect the fundamental liberties of people around the world.

It’s a foreign policy I’m aggressively pursuing, one in which we promote Canadian interests and Canadian values.

Some observers have remarked that these two tracks are often opposed.

But I see it differently. They’re not mutually exclusive. Rather, doing what is morally right is in our national interest.

However, doing what is right does not mean forcing our values on others.

People are born free. We cannot impose our form of government or our institutions on others. Doing so assumes we need to teach people how to be free. We don’t. We all share an inalienable right to be free. Our job is to help people understand this fundamental truth.

It’s a nuanced difference: change must come from within. When it happens, Canada is prepared to support those seeking to build a free and prosperous society.

We do so because I fundamentally believe that the values and ideals that have made our country great serve as a model for the world: a pluralistic civil society in which we respect the differences among us.

These are values that we have embraced, not only because they are right and just, but also because we have seen first-hand that they create the conditions for civil society and prosperity.

John F. Kennedy said: “The best road to progress is freedom’s road.”

Which is why we are always prepared to stand up for freedom, even alone, for the values and principles Canadians hold dear.

We can accomplish so much more when we work with others who share our commitment to freedom and liberty. Working within multilateral institutions like the G-8, the G-20, the Commonwealth, La Francophonie, and some parts of the United Nations.

The simple reality is that, in a world of 7 billion people, we’re a nation of just 34 million. By working with our friends and allies, by building ad hoc coalitions with those who share our end goals and by using multilateral connections, we amplify Canada’s voice and advance our values exponentially.

When we fight for these values, we’re inspired by our past successes.

Canada, under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, played a major role in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa that helped free Nelson Mandela.

We remember the work of Louis St. Laurent—one of my esteemed predecessors—to help craft the foundational documents of the United Nations in the wake of the Second World War.

And we acknowledge the work that my colleague in the House of Commons (and a Montrealer to boot) Irwin Cotler has done on international human rights in dozens of countries around the world, and whose counsel I appreciate having on a regular basis.

More recently we can point to Prime Minister Harper’s drive to make maternal and newborn health initiatives key priorities of the G-8. The Muskoka Initiative has already affected the lives of literally millions of women around the world by funding projects that make a real-life difference—from building better hospitals and training more medical staff, to targeting diseases long since eradicated in the developed world, to improving nutrition for mothers and their children.

One of the key premises of our values-based foreign policy is this: if we want to promote prosperity, if we want to promote fundamental freedoms, and, increasingly, if we want to cut off radical extremism at the knees, we must actively support and promote not just the equality of men and women, but the full participation of women in all parts of civil society.

This is not just about equality; it’s about the full participation of women in society. When women play an active role in society, so many other problems are resolved and the things we hope to achieve become possible: global security, access to education, and improved child and maternal health.

The first is the struggle to end the practice of early-enforced marriage.

Every year, millions of girls are forced into marriage, some as young as 9 years old. In the two hours we will have spent here, 2,200 children will be forced into early marriage. Today, an estimated one in three girls in the developing world is married before the age of 18.

Girls like Habiba, a child bride in Niger who was forced into marriage at 14 years of age. At 15, she became pregnant, having to labour for two days before being transferred to a regional hospital to receive a Caesarean. Sadly, she lost her baby hours after he was born, when a simple procedure could have saved his life.

Her husband left her, and her village rejected her. Today she lives with her mother. Completely ostracized, she no longer leaves her home—not even to get water.

For girls like Habiba, the journey from girlhood to womanhood is too fast and too brutal. No girl deserves to have her childhood robbed from her.

When girls as young as nine years old are forced to marry against their will, they have no fighting chance of obtaining an education.

Without an education, these girls are ill-equipped to parent. As children, they are not ready to be parents themselves.

Their bodies are not ready to birth children and, when they do, they often die in labour, have sickly, premature babies, and are more likely to get AIDS.

It’s a vicious cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats as long as we don’t end it.

Our government is standing up for these girls, even when it’s not always expedient to do so.

We don’t shy away from such tough conversations.

At a recent international meeting, I fought to have the issue of early-enforced marriage debated, and insisted that we demonstrate real change to end this archaic practice. When we were negotiating the text for the communiqué, one section condemned early-enforced marriage. I was shocked when some countries at the table told me I was culturally insensitive for raising this.

Well, you know what? I am going to talk about it. I’m not going to stay quiet on an issue that is morally wrong and deserves to be condemned.

How can anyone defend the practice of having a nine-year-old girl forced into marriage?

If Canada won’t speak up for these girls, who will?

I recognize that it’s not a problem that developed overnight; this is ages old, and it won’t be solved overnight.

But it’s time for the global community to demonstrate a real commitment to change, not just in words, but also in action.

That’s why Canada will continue to speak up and work with others to end this practice.

We are putting our voice and weight behind initiatives adopted by organizations like Girls Not Brides. I am pleased to say, as I’m here with you here today, that Canada, through our mission in Geneva, is co-hosting an international event in Geneva to raise awareness of this important issue.

This builds on important work we have been doing at the UN Human Rights Council on this issue.

And work being done by my colleague Rona Ambrose—whose dedication to the issues facing women and girls around the world has led Canada to spearhead the International Day of the Girl.

We will intensify our diplomacy and development work to end early-enforced marriage in every corner of the world.

Canada also continues to provide leadership through our work on the annual UN Human Rights Council resolution to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls, focusing on prevention, protection and remedies.

I mentioned the Prime Minister’s leadership on women’s and children’s health earlier. Canada has committed nearly $3 billion over five years to help women and children lead longer, healthier lives.

That’s in addition to the almost $14 million in support we have provided toward ending sexual violence and encouraging the full participation of women in emerging democracies.

I have made it a priority to advocate for the participation of women at all levels of society, especially as old regimes fall and new governments emerge in countries seeking progress, freedom and dignity.

I do this because states where women play vital, central roles in government and civil society are generally more prosperous AND more pluralistic overall.

If we want fewer extremist governments, we need the active participation of women in all aspects of society.

In the final days of the Qadhafi regime, as the dusk fell on four decades of brutality in Libya, I had the chance to visit Tripoli. There, I made it a point to meet with women’s rights activists and to take stock of their views on how they could help a new Libya emerge, a Libya that respects freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law—for all.

I did the same when I recently joined Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in meeting the Afghan Women’s Network. Canada actively supported the network’s participation at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn last year, and helped pay their way to ensure their voices were heard.

In places like Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, we need to encourage the friends of freedom to see the great benefits of ensuring that women have an active role to play in governance so that their countries don’t become training grounds for terrorists; so that they don’t lose their children to extremists; so that their husbands don’t resort to violence and crime to pay the bills.

It’s in our national interest to ensure these countries do not become breeding grounds for radical and extreme views.

That’s why I was pleased when Hillary Clinton asked me to lead the discussion of “women in peace and security” at the G-8 Foreign Minister’s Meeting in April.

We can all be proud when, the following month, Prime Minister Harper and his G-8 colleagues jointly vowed to promote women’s roles in economic development and in strengthening international peace and security, just as Canada has done with our National Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security.

With the support of my department, we have trained African women peacekeepers; we have helped women participate in peace processes; and we have helped women victims of violence to seek justice through the courts and in truth commissions.

Women’s rights are human rights. Women are the key to the development of pluralistic societies.

Simply put, if women play a role in a society, it’s likely to be a better one.

That’s why women’s rights have become such an important part of Canada’s foreign policy, and why it has become a personal priority of mine.

As citizens of a global community, we have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, to give voice to the voiceless, to challenge the aggressor, and to promote and protect human rights and human dignity, at home and abroad.

Speaking out when we see hate and violence also means we cannot be selective about which basic human rights we defend, nor can we be arbitrary about whose rights we protect.

Sadly, this is something lost on too many people who hold power.

In my time as Foreign Minister, I have directly confronted some of these people, and I’ve done so because there are times when diplomacy must be balanced with tough, direct talk.

Speaking the truth to power.

I do so, standing firm on the principles that have made Canada economically prosperous and rich with diversity.

Yet, too many countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality.

In some countries, these laws are unenforced hang-overs from a bygone era. In others, they are actively and viciously implemented. Draconian punishment and unspeakable violence are inflicted on people simply for whom they love and for who they are.

People like David Kato.

David worked tirelessly as an advocate for Sexual Minorities Uganda, an organization fighting for full legal equality for gay people in Uganda.

Their work is exceedingly difficult. Fear for personal safety and the likelihood of being ostracized by society is a daily reality for gay people in that country.

Against those odds, David faced constant death threats because of his work and his sexual orientation.

In 2010, a Ugandan tabloid newspaper published on its front page the pictures and names of known homosexuals in that country, with a headline that beamed “Hang Them.”

David was in one of those pictures.

Last year, in his own home, David was brutally bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

His life and death is but one tragic story, in but one country.

It is cases like his that drive me to raise this issue, often to the discomfort of the people sitting across the table, as I did at recent meetings in Australia and New York. In these meetings, Canada was the loudest voice. I called on my colleagues to repeal regressive laws in their own countries because I firmly believe it is the role of the state to protect its people regardless of gender, sexuality or faith.

These are issues which, in the past have rarely been raised—if ever.

Yet we are.

We’re working with allies like the EU and the United States on encouraging the decriminalization of homosexuality.

We’re working with all political parties in the House of Commons to fight those who restrict the basic human rights, from Kampala to St. Petersburg.

And I want to mention my colleague, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney, has been working to make Canada a safe haven for Iran’s persecuted gay community.

These are small victories.

But ones that come from honestly good intentions.

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

It is that conviction that drives us to stand up. To stand up for the rights of women, who, in too many countries, are assaulted for wanting nothing more than to be treated equally.

It is that conviction that drives us to stand up. To stand up to the violent mobs that seek to criminalize homosexuality.

Our government wants Canada’s voice to be heard, for it to be clear, and for it to be unambiguously free of moral relativism.

We believe what’s right is right.

And what’s wrong is wrong.

And it is in defence of those beliefs that we act.

These are not partisan issues; they transcend politics.

These aren’t the values of conservatives, socialists or liberals. They aren’t the values of one province or another. They are distinctively Canadian values, which have been shaped by our national experience.

I promote our principled foreign policy knowing there is broad support to give women a bigger role in societies where people are free to be.

Thank you.