Address by Minister Baird to the General Assembly of the Organization of American States

June 4, 2014 - Asunción, Paraguay

Check Against Delivery

It is a pleasure to be here.

I remember a Gallup poll a couple of years ago that found that Paraguay was the happiest country in the world. I’ve certainly seen that friendliness so far. Let’s hope this positive and optimistic outlook rubs off on us here today.

This is actually my maiden speech to the Organization of American States [OAS]. But Canada is far from new to this forum. Canada participated in its first OAS General Assembly almost 25 years ago here in Asunción.

In 2007, soon after he was elected prime minister, Stephen Harper made it very clear that the Americas are a foreign policy priority for Canada. He reaffirmed this recently. And he meant it.

Since then, our two-way trade with Latin America and the Caribbean has increased by more than one third. We have invested almost $5 billion in international assistance—and I announced several more projects earlier today.

There have been more than 80 high-level Canadian delegations to the region in the last two years alone. And we have appointed some of our strongest and most capable ambassadors here.

Looking ahead, I can see this engagement only increasing—and not just in the world of politics and government.

In sport, Toronto will proudly host next year’s Pan American Games and Parapan American Games. These games are expected to attract a quarter of a million visitors from across the hemisphere, and I hope some of you in this room will be among them.

In business, we will continue to offer unrivalled expertise in effective and sustainable extractive industries.

And in education, Canada is in a position to offer many specialized and mutually beneficial academic opportunities.

So I think it’s clear that the Americas are a priority for us.

Canada sees the OAS as the hemisphere’s foremost multilateral forum, so engaging with the OAS is naturally also a priority. That’s why we remain one of the largest contributors to this organization.

And I was very pleased to welcome the Secretary General [José Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General] to Ottawa just last month for some very constructive discussions.

Here in Asunción, there are many issues for us to discuss over these two days. I’m pleased to have already had a number of productive and warm bilateral meetings.

But for me, the OAS is at its best when it’s more than an opportunity to simply debate our latest bilateral issues. It’s at its best when it acts as a platform for us to come together to advance regional issues and shared values.

Shared values: they are what bind us, just as much as the geography of our hemisphere.

I’d like to take a step back for a few minutes and reflect on these values.

They are summed up well by the tagline “Democracy for peace, security and development.”

The words are easy to say.

We all want peace.

We all want security.

And we all want our nations—our hemisphere—to develop, socially and economically.

So how can democracy achieve this?

This organization’s founding principles state very clearly our shared belief in the “effective exercise of representative democracy.” And I think most member states are happy to identify with that principle.

Representative democracy requires that people have a say in the decision-making processes of their country. It is only with the confidence of its people that a country can achieve sustainable economic and social development.

But gaining and maintaining this confidence in a truly representative democracy is a constant process. It is something that has to be striven for.

It should be considered a verb—an ongoing action—not just a noun or a simple title.

To put it another way: “faith without works is dead.”

Friends: democracy is not just about counting pieces of paper in a box. Elections are about democracy, but democracy is not just about elections. Democracy is so much more than that.

It is about freedom and liberty.

Freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

It is about principled voting.

An active citizenry.

A strong civil society.

An independent judiciary.

Free and unflinching media.

Internet freedom.

Effective political opposition.

And tolerance of dissent.

Democratic governments have a responsibility to their citizens.

A responsibility to provide security, protect their human rights and be accountable to their concerns.

In short, democracy is a journey, not a destination.

There is no single outcome.

Every democracy will look a little different, coming from a different set of experiences and from a different journey.

But these are the common steps we all must take if we are to get closer to it.

The great global and regional challenge of the last generation was security, especially the threat from the communist Soviet Union.

Of course, security challenges are still with us and come in various forms—as we’ve seen recently in Eastern Europe.

Canada is very engaged in partnering with member states in enhancing their security. But many of the challenges—and opportunities—for us in the OAS now are internal as much as external.

Democracy took leaps forward in the later part of the 20th century. In the early part of the 21st century, its advancement around the world, and in our hemisphere, has seemed less certain at times.

In some places, peaceful protests and legitimate concerns have been answered with an iron fist, instead of an open hand.

In some places, constitutions have been treated as drafts written in pencil, amended after elections—instead of core principles engraved in rock to guide future generations.

In some places, economic development has been painted as a false contrast with democratic development.

And in some places, transient popularity has replaced permanent institutions as the declared foundation of democracy.

That doesn’t have to be the case here in the Americas. I believe we can do better than that. And you know what? I’m optimistic that we will.

Like I said, we in the OAS are bound by shared values. It is an intrinsic part of our membership that we stand for freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Canada looks forward to continuing to walk with you in our common journey toward living up to these principles.

And I look forward to discussing them in more detail with you all during the rest of the day.

Thank you.

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