QUEBEC - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird abandoned host-country niceties Monday as he levelled a blistering attack against the human rights records of Iran, Syria and Uganda before some 1,400 international parliamentarians gathered for the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Quebec.
Iranian and Ugandan delegates at the IPU assembly, including the African nation's Speaker of Parliament, protested Baird's remarks, accusing the minister of meddling in their sovereign affairs at a collegial forum.
Even though the Conservative government has cut off diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria in particular, it could do little to stop the presence of legislators from those countries at the 127th conference of the IPU, which Canada is hosting this year.
Baird embraced that bit of awkwardness, seizing on the IPU assembly's theme this year: respect for diversity. The IPU's mandate includes the promotion of human rights and democracy, but its members still include nations such as North Korea and Cuba.
"Sadly, there are forces of evil in this world that use our differences as weapons of hate, weapons of hate that marginalize minorities," Baird said. "This is where we as free societies, I believe, have a tremendously important role to play."
Baird encouraged the legislators to tell their respective parliaments to support Canada's United Nations resolution each year condemning Iran's human rights record. He cited examples of violence against religious minorities.
"There's a great principle at stake. While Canada prizes engagement and open relations, there can be no engagement with a regime that dishonours its word, repudiates its commitments and threatens to perpetuate crimes against humanity," Baird said of Iran.
"This regime stands for everything we parliamentarians should stand against."
The small Iranian delegation held up the sign bearing their country's name during Baird's speech in protest. Iraj Nadimi, chairman of the executive council of Iran's inter-parliamentary group, asked reporters whether Canada would like it if Iran began wading into its domestic affairs, such as Quebec sovereignty.
"This is not the place for that, that we are asking for the independence of people who are requesting independence in Quebec," Nadimi said through an interpreter.
"We are saying that every country has its own regulations for itself, so we cannot receive any interference from any country and we don't interfere in another country's affairs."
"Sometimes the truth hurts," Baird said later.
"I know staying silent is never an option when people stone women, when they hang gays, when they incite genocide, when they say they want to wipe the Jewish people and the Jewish state off the map, when they dishonour their UN obligations, when they spread hateful and racist rhetoric."
Baird also took on the Ugandan government again for its treatment of gays and lesbians. He mentioned the case of a young activist who was recently beaten to death.
The criticism didn't sit well with the speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who asked for the opportunity to respond. She spoke of Baird's "arrogance" and "ignorance" and demanded an apology.
"If homosexuality is a value for the Canadian people, that's not a problem for us, that's it's issue, but one shouldn't force Ugandans to accept homosexuality because we're not Canadian citizens," Kadaga said to applause from the floor.
"We have our problems, they have theirs."
The IPU is the oldest multilateral organization in the world, predating the League of Nations and the United Nations. Canada has been a member for 100 years.
— With files from Patrice Bergeron in Quebec and Jennifer Ditchburn in Ottawa