Address by Minister Baird at Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly

Minister Baird at Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly

October 22, 2012 - Québec

Check Against Delivery

Good morning.

I’m honoured to address this year’s assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union [IPU].

Today’s debate on diversity is an important one and one that is ever more important given the turbulence and uncertainty we see in many corners of the world.

As we stand on the threshold of the next century, we are reminded of that old adage, “the only constant is change.”

When change is swift and unexpected, it is all the more important that we focus on the constant that remains true: that people everywhere will fight for dignity.

The dignity to live in freedom.

The dignity to live in peace.

The dignity to provide for one’s family.

In the current and raging storm of change, societies that are free, open and democratic stand as beacons of light.

We know what it takes to build the conditions in which people live with the dignity they crave.

We know that freedom, democracy and human rights are the values upon which pluralistic societies are built.

But we also know that pluralism will not flourish unless we embrace the diversity of our societies.

As Michel de Montaigne said, “there never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity.”

Indeed, as I look around this room, I see a reflection of the true diversity of our global community.

A reflection of that truism that even though our faces are composed of but 10 parts, in a room of thousands, we won’t find two the same.

We may share the same colour of skin but speak different languages.

We may share a mother tongue but practice a different faith.

We may share a religion but come from different cultures.

Yes, we may have a thousand differences, but we all share one humanity.

Sadly, there are forces of evil in this world that use our differences as weapons to marginalize minorities, often calling for violence against them.

This is where we, as free societies, have a role to play.

The great poet Kahlil Gibran inspired us to remember that “safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being.”

This is not simply a question of beliefs and values. It is a requirement for action.

Protecting human rights and human dignity is an obligation that each state owes its citizens and a mutual obligation of all members of the international community.

History teaches that an open society—tolerant, pluralistic and free—is the best guarantor of human rights and dignity.

Often, a threat to the security of humankind is coupled with the crushing of human rights.

Yet human rights abuses that don’t threaten security still concern us.

The enslavement of others is a vicious human rights abuse, and it takes many forms. Too often, women are particularly vulnerable to the gravest of abuses.

For example, the early and forced marriage of young girls—a truly barbaric form of slavery.

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.

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 be robbed of her childhood.

When girls as young as nine years old are forced to marry against their will, they have little fighting chance of obtaining an education.

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. And in these conversations, I have been shocked when other countries have called me 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—a free and open society that respects human rights—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. 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 [Minister of Public Works and Government Services and Minister for Status of Women]—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 and forced marriage in every corner of the world.

I call on each and every one of you to do the same.

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 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 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 hangovers 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 and social equality for gay people in Uganda.

Its 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 sex, sexuality or faith.

These are issues which, in the past have rarely been raised by Canadian governments—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 basic human rights, from Kampala to St. Petersburg.

These are small victories. But ones that come from honestly good intentions.

We will speak out on the issues that matter to Canadians—whether it is the role and treatment of women around the world, or the persecution of gays, or the cowardly and targeted attacks of those who pray in sanctity of churches, temples, mosques or synagogues.

Canada will speak out.

Since our government promised to open an Office of Religious Freedom, there has been considerable media interest.

Critics claim we’re mixing politics and religion.

They fail to see that this has nothing to do with mixing politics and religion and everything to do with defending fundamental human rights.

Think of it this way: if you pick out any terrorist attack in recent memory where the victims of these attacks were targeted because of their religious beliefs, you’ll find the attacks came from thugs opposed to democracy. Every single time.

The late U.S. President [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt once said that “where democracy has been overthrown, the spirit of free worship has disappeared. And where religion and democracy have vanished, good faith and reason in international affairs have given way to strident ambition and brute force.”

The regime in Iran is one poignant example of religious intolerance. Bahá’ís and Christians are consistently threatened with death and torture, simply for believing.

Just two months ago, Iran imposed a 20-year sentence on seven Bahá’í leaders who have been in prison since 2008.

In 2010, no evidence was produced at the summary trials, and yet they were convicted for a series of national security crimes.

A Jewish-Armenian couple was secretly executed in [Iran’s] Evin prison in March.

Their only crime appears to have been practising their faith.

Canada won’t stand still in the face of these egregious actions.

That’s why we have applied some of the toughest sanctions against this regime and why we are committed to defending religious freedom in Iran and around the world.

That’s why Canada has led a human rights resolution on Iran at the United Nations for the past eight years—one that is gaining in support.

When you return home at the conclusion of this conference, I urge each of you to work with your government to support our resolution.

Canada will continue to do its part.

Our government will establish an Office of Religious Freedom in short order.

This office will signal to the world that Canada attaches great importance to religious freedom, and we will speak out when we see persecution of religious minorities.

We will give voice to the voiceless.

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 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 those who seek to criminalize homosexuality.

We believe what’s right is right.

And what’s wrong is wrong.

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

As parliamentarians, we must remember that these are not partisan issues; they transcend politics.

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 and free to practise.

As parliamentarians, we ought to be doing the same.

We ought to embrace the diversity of our societies, to draw strength from differences.

This may sound like an impossible task, but we can take inspiration from Carl Sandburg, who once said that “nothing happens unless first a dream.”

The dream is there.

Now, we as parliamentarians, have a collective responsibility—to act to make our dream, and the dreams of the people we represent, real.

Thank you.