By Colombo Telegraph-
“Yes, we are aware of the International Crisis Group report and others which report on the issue of high military presence in the north of Sri Lanka and the continuing human rights issues faced by the Tamil minority community there….like I said before we as a government will not shy away from highlighting these issues in international forums and wherever we can. We will continue to do so until the situation is rectified. Canada will stand for its principle position and stand up for the values that we believe in.” Foreign Minister of Canada John Baird said.
The Foreign Minister of Canada made this remarks to response a question asked by Vijay Jeyanthan – Permanent Secretary of the Ministry for Women, Children and Elderly Affairs of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam on January 23, 2012 at the Royal Commonwealth Society, London.
Permanent Secretary of the Ministry for Women, Children and Elderly Affairs of the TIG asked the question as follows; “I am speaking on behalf of Rt Hon Mrs Balambihai Murugadas Minister for Women, Children and Elderly Affairs of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam. Foreign Minister we welcome Canada’s position on Sri Lanka on the war crimes issue. The International Crisis Group released a report last month regarding the dire situation faced by Tamil women in the north and east of Sri Lanka. It is now almost three years since the end of the war and the north and east remains extremely militarized. I would like to ask what the Commonwealth and Canada can do to improve the security situation in the daily lives of Tamil women.”
The lecture focused predominantly on human rights. The Foreign Minister John Baird articulated his country’s foreign policy on human rights by bringing out examples where Canada had made an impact in the past present and may be in future. He was not forgiving for his country’s western, Christian values and he said that Canada stands firm on those values. John Baird even was apologetic to a Chinese Canadian and restated the Prime Minister’s formal apology for a legislation that was passed in Canada back in the eighteen hundreds discriminating particularly the Chinese Canadians. John Baird said ”we have not been right all the time and we will readily admit it”
After his speech, the first question was posted by RCS’s Chairman Mr. Peter Kellner. He asked; your speech on human rights was remarkable. Thank you very much. However I noticed that you didn’t mention Sri Lanka specifically in this speech, however we know that you have been very vocal on that country’s human rights records…where do you think we as international community,. The Commonwealth etc. should go from here with regards to Sri Lanka?
Answer – JB: Our Prime Minister and I as foreign minister of Canada have been highlighting issues and the deteriorating record on human rights in Sri Lanka at many international forums like the UN General Assembly, at CHOGM in October last year in Perth and at many other occasions. Our Prime Minister has made it clear that if most of ..or all of the three conditions…
1. Address the accountability issue of what went on at the end of war back in 2009 to the satisfaction of all in Sri Lanka and the international community..
2. Begin a process of genuine reconciliation with the minority Tamil community
3. Quite frankly there is a growing authoritarian trend by the government in Colombo
…are not satisfied, he will not be attending the next CHOGM in Colombo in 2013. We are working with like minded governments in the region and others to see how to improve the situation in Sri Lanka and we will continue to be in dialogue with them and the government of Sri Lanka itself. It’s not looking good right now..
Q – Dr Raj: Hon, Minister I wish to start with Mahatma Gandhi’s quote before I put my question; The Weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” In Sri Lanka unfortunately the strong is continuing with its oppression…You having championed on Human rights, Women Rights and other minority rights , are these only in the realm of words and sentiments, Can you and the International community be able to show any action? Thank you
Answer- JB: I have a plaque of ten quotes from Mahatma on my table at the Foreign Ministry. I have been highlighting some of our past actions in South Africa during the apartheid regime and been very clear to the world in many forums of our policy on Sri Lanka.
Q – Dr Shiranee Joseph: I just want to know where you are getting this information of women being abused and others in Sri Lanka…What is your source of information. Thank you.
Answer- JB: Our main source is our Embassy in Colombo. However we also get information from NGOs, media organisations, local institutions and others. However the main source is our post in Colombo.
High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to the UK Dr Chris Nonis was present at the lecture and at the reception thereafter with a crew of some 8 to 10 staff and volunteers. Senior members of the Global Tamil Forum, British Tamils Forum and Tamil Councilors from Labour and LibDem parties were also present at the lecture and reception.
It was also noted that one a senior members of the Global Tamil Forum was in deep conversation with the Foreign Minister at the end of the Q & A and walked down with the Foreign Minister to see him off through a private exit. What was noticeable was that no one from the Sri Lankan government side took the opportunity to engage the Foreign Minister in any constructive way in public or in private to articulate the efforts of Government of Sri Lanka and the military establishment on how the reconciliation and rebuilding programmers are taken forward in Sri Lanka.
The full text of the lecture given by Hon John Baird at the Mandela Room of the Royal Commonwealth Society in London on 23 January 2012 is given below:
Good evening, I am pleased to be with you tonight and it’s a real pleasure to be back in London – one of the world’s truly great cities and one of my personal favourites. I would like to begin by thanking Canada’s High Commissioner here in London – Gordon Campbell – and his team, for making this visit possible.
One of the reasons I – like so many Canadians who come here to vacation, study or work – so enjoy being here is because, in a very real sense, it feels like coming to a familiar and welcoming place. That sense of the familiar is all the more welcome, given that so much of the world is undergoing a fundamental transformation.
Power is rebalancing and, with it, opportunities are changing, for Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as for our allies and friends. This presents for Canada and Canadians both challenge and opportunity: to shape the relationships and institutions for a new century; to promote free societies and open markets; and to engage with new and sometimes, unfamiliar power brokers.
I believe the Canada and the United Kingdom have a common cause in this period of transformation, just as we did at the end of the Second World War and throughout the Cold War. Throughout that period, we helped to create and sustain the institutions that secured the prosperity and freedoms for a generation. The end of the Cold War liberated millions in Europe and elsewhere. Now we see the demands of others, others who are pleading to the world for those same freedoms.
The support for free markets and open societies will be the defining struggle of the coming decades – the United Kingdom and Canada have been partners in this great endeavour before; we are partners now, and we will be partners in the future in our common cause. While we are confronting change, Canada and the United Kingdom share fundamental values that are constant, that are beacons of light to people everywhere: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We have fought side by side in two world wars to uphold those values, and we are ever committed to advance them today.
With that proud legacy of partnership as an essential background, I stand in front of you today, to outline a portion of Canada’s foreign policy.
One that is a priority to me as Foreign Minister, one that is a priority for our Prime Minister and one that is a priority for all Canadians, from every corner of our country. That is, promoting and protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of people around the world. It is something we often take for granted in our pluralistic societies, something we often overlook. But the vivid images of suffering and repression beam through our television sets, and are plastered in our newspapers.
We’ve reached a point in our history where the rights of our fellow citizens can no longer be ignored. The world we live in today is very much interconnected, and the diversity we see in Canada and United Kingdom are a testament to that. What we have realized through our long histories, is that for a nation to be prosperous, it must be free, and free for all people, to realize their full potential, to realize their dreams and aspirations.
Liberties must be respected. Basic rights must be shared equally. For men and women, to realize their full potential, they must be free. This is our priority; this is the world’s challenge and opportunity.
Now, I believe our two countries share so much that is fundamental. Our bonds are many; Our ties are deep; Our values are shared,
… And, you know our heads of state look remarkably similar. Your Queen and our Queen are the same Queen. And we rejoice in her diamond jubilee this year, because she is and has been profoundly important to Canadian history, Canadian values and kind of society we have built.
I cannot overstate the unifying role of the Queen and all she represents in bringing our two peoples together – across oceans – and across generations. She is much more than a head of state. She embodies the best qualities of our peoples. She is a shining example to the world.
We in Canada, and in Britain, know well the Queen’s leadership and both our countries benefit from the full participation of women in all aspects of society. I think of leaders like Baroness Thatcher. Canadian Chief Justice of the Supreme Court . And countless others. These women have contributed and continue to contribute to our countries, and our way of life. They are shining examples of love of country. Their commitment to public service is real and deep, as is their determination in striving for what is good and just.
The strong role of women at the heart our democracies helps make our societies not only more inclusive, but also more peaceful and prosperous; of this, I am convinced. As Foreign Minister, I have made it a priority to advocate for the participation of women at all levels of society – especially as regimes fall and new states emerge in various corners of the world. I am particularly proud of the role Canada has played – in concert with our NATO allies and Afghan civil society – in advancing women’s rights in Afghanistan.
In 2001, young Afghan girls did not attend school. They were barred from doing so. Even today, young girls who try to get an education do so at the risk of being injured, killed, or of having acid thrown in their faces. In 2011, 10 years after the fall of the oppressive Taliban regime, 2.2 million Afghan girls attend school, and 30 percent of their educators are women. What a stark difference. Afghan women now also participate actively in political life and civil society. Although much remains to be done for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, this is a clear indicator of the progress made over the years.
The young Afghan girls that go to school today in Kandahar and Kabul will grow up and learn about the political tenacity of Margaret Thatcher. They’ll read about President Pratibha Patil in India or President Dilma Vana Linhares Rousseff in Brazil. Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, or Mother Theresa. All, women who strive to make a difference in the lives of the people they serve.
Canada is actively advocating for a greater role of women in the countries of the Arab Spring as well. The transformative change that is underway throughout the Middle East and North Africa is an expression of people power; and all people – including women and minorities – must share in its benefits.
In the final days of the Gaddafi regime, as the dusk fell on four decades of brutality and oppression in Libya, I had the chance to visit Tripoli. There, I made it a point, in keeping with our commitments, to meet with women’s rights activists, and hear 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. Their ideas were inspiring, their determination unyielding. In every meeting with Libya’s Transitional Council since, I have raised the importance of the role of women in the on-going transition to a free, more open, democratic society. As I said, this is a priority for Canada. I believe it will happen in Libya. It is vital to their success.
In my time as Foreign Minister, I have found there are topics that are not easily raised with one’s counterparts and times when diplomacy must be balanced with tough, direct talk in the course of frank discussions. This is a challenge for all who wish to lead in freedom-loving nations. For we cannot be selective in which basic human rights we defend. Nor can we be arbitrary in whose rights we protect.
Sadly, this is something lost on too many in positions of power in too many countries. Progressive countries like Canada and the United Kingdom embrace pluralism and draw strength from our differences. We don’t compromise on basic rights. Nor are these rights the privilege of a select few. We stand firm on the ideals and principles that have made our countries economically prosperous and rich with diversity. Those who would attempt to spread hate and intolerance within our borders are subject to the rule of law – one that respects our common values and our people’s freedoms. This is something that some of our Commonwealth cousins wilfully ignore.
Sadly, in far too many places – basic human rights are afforded to only a chosen few. Dozens of Commonwealth countries currently have regressive and punitive laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. In some countries, these laws are unenforced hang-overs from an earlier era; in others, they are actively implemented. The criminalization of homosexuality is incompatible with the fundamental Commonwealth value of human rights.
Throughout most of the Commonwealth Caribbean, colonial-era laws remain on the books that could impose draconian punishments on gay people simply for being gay. This contributes to social stigma and violence against gay people. Nowhere is the plight of gays and lesbians more evident than in Uganda, and no other story illustrates this plight better than the life and death of Ugandan gay rights activist 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. The work of such an organization is exceedingly difficult in such a poisoned environment. Fear for personal safety and the likelihood of being ostracised by society is a daily reality for the gay community in Uganda. 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 their country – with a headline that beamed “Hang Them.” David was in one of those pictures. In January of last year, almost one year ago today, David was brutally bludgeoned to death with a hammer, in his own home. David Kato’s life and death is but one tragic story, in but one country. And although his murderers were brought to justice, this darkness exists for homosexual men and women elsewhere.
However, there are slivers of light. Rwanda and South Africa have been leaders in protecting and promoting the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians. Slivers of light. Winston Churchill once said; “It is no good using hard words among friends about the past, and reproaching one another for what cannot be recalled. It is the future, not the past that demands our earnest and anxious thought.”
To the future we look. We will continue to press countries in the Commonwealth to live up to their international obligations, and uphold the basic contract any government should have with its people. To inform, to educate, to be tolerant, and accepting. We don’t accept that because a state isn’t directly complicit in this type of intolerance that its hands are clean. We firmly believe it is the role of the state to protect its people, to inform their people about the irreparable harm intolerance and hate cause, and to accept those who may be different into their society. Whether the difference be gender, sexuality, or faith.
Although we as Canadians are across miles of ocean, we will not be spectators to tragedies that fly in the face of our fundamental values. We will not sit in our far off homes and plead ignorance to crimes against those who seek the same freedoms we enjoy. 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.
Among the Commonwealth – and other multi-lateral organizations to which we are party – our nationalities are many, but we share one humanity. At the United Nations this past September, I spoke of a new chapter in Canadian Foreign Policy. Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and I have said time and time again, that Canada will no longer ‘go along just to get along’. 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, lesbians, bisexual or transgendered persons, or the cowardly and targeted attacks of those who pray in sanctity of churches, temples, mosques or synagogues.
Canada will speak out. American President Roosevelt once said: “Where freedom of religion has been attacked, the attack has come from sources opposed to democracy. 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.”
In China, we see Roman Catholic priests, Christian Clergy and their laity, worshipping outside of state-sanctioned boundaries, who are continually subject to raids, arrests, and detention. We see Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Muslims face harassment, and physical intimidation. These abhorrent acts fly in the face of our core principals, our core values. And nowhere is religious intolerance more present than in Iran. Baha’i’s and Christians are consistently threatened with death and torture simply for believing. Simply for their beliefs.
In September of this past year, a Christian Pastor was threatened with death if he refused to renounce his beliefs. And he is not alone in this. In Egypt, we have been witness to gruesome attacks against Coptic Christians. Attacks in the very places they hold to be sacred. Places of peace and tranquility. We watched as Egyptians rallied with the Coptic community. Muslims and Copts marched shoulder to shoulder into Tahrir square chanting “We are all Egyptians”. Something truly inspiring.
Egyptians recognize that they will not have any freedoms, if they cannot be free to simply believe. Taken from the famous words of Benazir Bhutto; You can imprison a man, but not a belief. You can even kill a man, but you can’t kill their beliefs. Canada, with its allies, like the United Kingdom, will continue to push for these fundamental freedoms, for all people.
It is where our long histories have led us. It is what we have learned along the way. It is how are people are free. Free to believe. Free to love. Free to be.
In Canada, our Prime Minister committed to establish an Office of Religious Freedom in short order. This Office will be under my department’s purview, and will report directly to me. This action should signal to the world that Canada attaches great importance to religious freedom, and we will speak out when we see religious intolerance and hate being spread.
We remember the words of Winston Churchill; “It is the future, not the past that demands our earnest and anxious thought.” We need a new way forward, together. We gain nothing out of hate, or intolerance. Freedom, and liberty come at a cost, and we know this all too well. We are witness every day to atrocities around the world. And our people demand that the voiceless have a voice.
One of South Africa’s great novelists Alan Paton wrote, in the early days of what would become known to the world as apartheid: “Dawn has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” As I stand here addressing you in the Mandela room, I am reminded that Canada was proud to be among the global leaders in the fight against apartheid until brighter days finally dawned over South Africa. Darkness still lives. And so the fight for what is right and just persists.
Few people can change the course of history, but each of us, working towards furthering human dignity, respect, and tolerance, will be able to write the history of our generation, and a foundation for the world we leave behind. How we do that, really matters. Voluntary associations like the 54-nation Commonwealth can and must be propelled forward as an agent for democracy, rule of law, human rights and development. That reflects the true value of the British democracy that has spanned the continents and shaped the world. It must be more frank, more direct and more precise in its initiatives and voice. Good offices that are silent and ineffectual advance no cause. Complacency in defence of human rights rarely comforts anyone but the oppressor. Speaking out may be controversial-but silence is the accomplice of wrong doing. It is not an option!
That is why Canada strongly suppoprts the recent Commonwealth reform report by the Eminent Persons Group last October. That is why we continue to press for further progress on the recommendations still under consideration, especially those on human rights, HIV/AIDS, poverty abatement and religious freedom. That is why I recently appointed Canadian Senator Hugh Segal to represent Canada as our Envoy to the Commonwealth.
Some of the world’s poorest and smallest countries are among our Commonwealth cousins. Solidarity with them, in support of enterprise, investment, aid and development absolutely requires firm resolve on the issues of disagreement and discord. We see the important role the Commonwealth can play, and we cherish the fundamental values it was built upon. That is why we cannot sit idly by and watch these values be undermined.
This institution and the countries that make up the Commonwealth must be accountable for their actions, and their inactions. The equality of all under the Crown – regardless of gender, religion, colour, race, age or orientation – is one of those traditions and principles that have moved mountains in the last 60 years under Her Majesty’s reign. This continuity of values and symbolism is fundamental to all the 2.1 billion residents of the Commonwealth.
Our common cause must be a universal respect for freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We don’t make this our cause to appease our constituencies. We make this our cause because we have seen the goodness of humankind. And the prosperity of its people. We know it can exist. For all people. That is what we strive for. That is what we aim to achieve. That is Canada’s foreign policy. And we pledge to be a willing partner, and a leader by example.