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
Related on HuffPost:
On Bibi’s U.N. Bomb Prop:
“Whoever talks of war against Iran <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/ahmadinejad-netanyahu-un-bomb-prop_n_1932783.html?utm_hp_ref=world">is</a> retarded...” <em>Caption: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran addresses the 65th session of the General Assembly at the United Nations on September 23, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)</em>
More On Bibi’s U.N. Bomb Prop:
“[Bibi] really ought to work <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/02/ahmadinejad-netanyahu-un-bomb-prop_n_1932783.html?utm_hp_ref=world">on</a> his drawing..." <em>Caption: Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew on a graphic of a bomb while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012, in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)</em>
On Homosexuality In Iran:
"Gays? What <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2007/09/24/16472/ahmadinejad-denies-existence-of-gays-in-iran/?mobile=nc">gays</a>?" <em>Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waits to greet Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian (unseen) in Tehran on September 17, 2011, during an official visit to the Islamic Republic. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
"All this talk of democracy has <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/science/story/2007/04/printable/070419_he-mb-press.shtml">made</a> people sick to their stomach." <em>Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a speech during a visit, on November 7, 2007, to the city of Birjand 1000 km (621 miles) east of Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Majid/Getty Images)</em>
On The Economy:
“In the past two years, I have done wonders for the Iranian economy. Even economists <a href="http://www.aftabnews.ir/vdcgyu93.ak9zn4prra.html">agree</a> that I have been a miracle.” <em>Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures during a rally on Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) on February 11, 2011 in which the Islamic republic's President lashed out at the West and Israel in a speech marking the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
“These [Western] countries should <a href="http://www.khabaronline.ir/news-63882.aspx">know</a> that if they disrespect the Iranian people and attempt to violate their rights, the Iranian people will smack them in the mouth so hard that they will lose their way home." <em>Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a speech during a visit, on November 7, 2007, to the city of Birjand 1000 km (621 miles) east of Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Majid/Getty Images)</em>
On Foreign Policy:
“Iran's image in the world today <a href="http://hamshahrionline.ir/details/62094">is</a> very lovable." <em>Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiles during a press conference in Tehran on April 4, 2011, during which he said that the United States and its allies pressured Gulf Arab states to accuse Iran of interfering in the region, and also demanded Saudi forces leave Bahrain. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
On Iran’s Souring Relationship With Saudi Arabia:
“My dear brother, King Abdullah, gave me permission to sit next to him during my trip to Riyadh...” <em>Caption: Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (R) greets Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) upon his arrival at the airport in Riyadh 03 March 2007. (HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
On Opposition Demonstrators:
"They are nothing <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jun/18/ahmadinejad-iran-insults-dirt-dust">but</a> scattered specks of dirt and dust..." <em>Caption: Hundreds of thousands of Iranian opposition demonstrators fill the squares between Revolution and Freedom (background) in support of defeated reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, in Tehran on June 15, 2009, following an election that has divided the nation. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
"They know less than <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoYlugcZ96M&playnext=1&list=PL86A9CEA44C3B708F&feature=results_main">a </a>baby goat..." Caption: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad walks to the podium for his address to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2012. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Canada's announcement that it has severed diplomatic relations with Iran was surprising, even unprecedented, experts in international relations say. Foreign Minister John Baird was in Russia when he announced the government was kicking Iran's diplomats out of Canada and recalling the handful of Canadian diplomats in Tehran. "I was very surprised by the Canadian announcement," James Devine, an Iran expert at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., told CBC News, noting that it isn't tied to a specific event or a reaction to "an acute crisis in the relationship." "Oh my god, I can't tell you how upset and scared I am right now," Niaz Salimi, the president of the Iranian-Canadian Community Council, said in an interview with Embassy magazine. Baird's statement lists a series of old grievances but does not say what specifically prompted the surprise move. He did say "the Iranian regime has shown blatant disregard for the Vienna Convention and its guarantee of protection for diplomatic personnel," likely a reference to the ransacking of the British Embassy in Tehran by protesters in 2011 while Iranian police looked on. He also alluded to the safety of Canadian diplomats -- something Canada's last ambassador to Iran, John Mundy, told the CBC's Nancy Wilson has been a long-standing concern, though he noted the government has not provided any information about specific threats. Mundy, who was expelled from Iran in 2007, has since retired from the diplomatic corps. He called Canada's action "a very drastic step" and one that surprised him, too. In an interview on CBC Radio's The House, Baird emphasized his "concern was for the safety of the men and women working at the Canadian mission," but when asked by host Evan Solomon whether there was "something specific" he conceded there was "not a direct threat" or an increased security risk. "The mission in Tehran is not one of the safest we have," Baird also told Solomon. "It faces a busy road and it could be overrun pretty quickly." Janice Stein, arguably Canada's leading Middle East expert and the director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, told CBC News she sees the move as an "issue of security for diplomatic personnel in Tehran as the sanctions ramp up, and Canada's remaining diplomatic personnel would be a prime target were crowds to turn hostile." Here are some other possible motivations for the severing of ties. <em>With files from CBC</em>
Canada In The Headlines
Canada's move is making international headlines and its significance shouldn't be underestimated. Even after its embassy in Tehran was ransacked -- an attack its ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, described as "a state-supported activity -- it did not suspend diplomatic relations, although it did expel Iran's diplomats. At the time, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the BBC the U.K.'s response "doesn't mean we're cutting off all diplomatic relations with Iran; it doesn't mean we are in any way lessening our determination to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question." So why did Canada suspend relations now? Devine points to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran last week. Iranian officials boasted about a successful summit, which involved most countries from Africa, Asia and Latin America. He says the summit "was not an overwhelming success for Iran but demonstrated they are not as isolated as the West would hope." The West is trying to isolate Iran over the dispute about Iran's nuclear program. In that context, Devine says, Canada may be trying to send "a symbolic message to Iran after the NAM meeting that they should not conclude that their isolation is over or that they can escape western pressure." He believes the suspension's timing could be related to Canada's Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims of terrorism to sue a country that Canada lists as a state sponsor of terrorism. On Friday, Baird said he was adding Iran to that list, along with Syria. The act, passed in March, gave the federal cabinet until mid-September to list states sponsoring terrorism.
Why Make The Announcement In Russia?
"The timing and the way they did it is rather awkward because they chose to announce it on the doorstep of Russia, which is the country that is the strongest proponent of the negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue," Mundy said, calling Canada's announcement "an implicit criticism of Russian policy toward Iran." However, the timing may also be connected with when the last Canadian diplomats left Iran, which was ahead of the announcement. That Baird made the announcement in Russia also raises the question of whether there was some urgency for Canada's actions. Ray Boisvert, the assistant director of Canadian Security Intelligence Service until April 2012, told Solomon that Canada's move was unprecedented, since that is something that only "usually happens in very severe conditions." He also noted that Canada does not normally take the lead in this kind of foreign policy action. Boisvert also pointed to what he said was the Iranian Embassy "running some kind of threatening operation" aimed at the Iranian community in Canada. According to Boisvert, Iran "absolutely" poses a security threat in Canada. Kaveh Shahrooz, vice president of the Iranian-Canada Congress, told Wilson that "members of the community are worried if they partake or speak out, that will be reported to [the Iranian Embassy in] Ottawa and there'll be repercussions for that person if they go back home, or for their family." "We've been concerned for some time about the actions taken by the mission in Ottawa," Baird told Solomon.
Possible Military Strike
Mundy, Salimi and others point to a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities as a motive behind Canada's announcement. "For us, it's an immediate sign of attack on Iran," Salimi told Embassy magazine. However, Baird said on The House that the government has "received no notice of any decision taken by the United States or Israel in this regard, so I can categorically say that the timing of the decision had nothing to with an imminent strike. " For his part, Devine said an imminent strike is not on tap. "The signs don't suggest there's an imminent attack coming from the Israelis or the Americans right now. And the Americans, especially, are not going to want to get into anything until the elections are over." Stein also told CBC News she does "not believe Canada's action was in response to any intelligence information about an imminent strike." The U.S. has been building up its forces in the region and putting pressure on Iran, Devine points out, "They want to make sure the Iranians feel there is a possibility of attack, because if the Iranians were ever to decide there is no chance the Americans are going to attack, their [American] leverage would be significantly reduced. Building up forces is consistent not just with an attack but consistent with the idea there are trying to use pressure." Stein agrees: "The U.S. is at pains to say there is no specific intelligence yet that suggests the Iranians have made the decision to weaponize their nuclear program and, given that, I would be very, very surprised if President [Barack] Obama would resort to force before the election."
Iranian Canadians Will Feel It Most
The Canadian government's move is likely to have little impact in Iran. "The Iranians are not looking at Canada as that important an actor in all of this," Devine said, adding Canada's economic relations with the Islamist nation have gradually weakened. Stein holds a similar view, noting that "the Iranian government certainly knows where we stand, we've made our position forcefully." Ken Taylor, who was Canada's ambassador in Iran during the U.S. hostage crisis that began in 1979, told CBC's Hannah Thibedeau he doesn't agree with Canada's decision to suspend diplomatic relations. "Given Canada's status as an international player, there's great value to having someone there on the ground who can interpret what is going on, to the extent that there are challenges to doing that properly," he said. Mundy said that now, "We no longer have the ability to communicate directly, government to government, with the Iranian government." Stein says, "The major impact will be on the Iranian diaspora in Canada, which will have a lot more difficulty getting visas to go home for visits."
Canadians Imprisoned In Iran
Another significant impact to Mundy is that "we no longer have Canadian diplomats on the ground to protect the interests of Canadian citizens" in Iran. "There are a lot of Canadian citizens in Iran, some of whom are in jail, and some of whom depend upon the Canadian diplomats to make representations on their behalf." Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, a Canadian citizen jailed in Iraq since 2008, is one of three Canadians being held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, the same prison where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was killed in 2003, which led to a serious worsening of relations between the two countries. Iran sentenced Ghassemi-Shall to death in 2009. His wife, Antonella Mega, told Thibedeau on Power and Politics that she feels the Canadian announcement is "a great disappointment for me and Hamid." The diplomats who have now left Iran "have expressed great concern for Hamid's case" and "have been continuously advocating for him." Feeling that "a door is now closed," Mega said she wants to hear from the Canadian government, "What is the plan that Canada has to help Hamid?"