OTTAWA - A top United Nations official praised the Harper government Thursday as a global champion for human rights in what amounted to a strong rebuttal to critics of the government's foreign policy.
In doing so, Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, gave the Conservatives some ammunition against the chorus of critics who accuse them of alienating Canada at the UN and on the world stage.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have repeatedly said Canada won't "go along to get along" at the UN, particularly when it comes to resolutions that criticize Israel.
But when it comes to the government's outspoken criticism of Iran's abysmal human rights record, Shaheed he draws much-needed support from it.
"Canada doesn't equivocate. It's clear. It takes a principled stand and it speaks out when it believes certain thresholds have been passed," Shaheed told The Canadian Press in a lengthy interview.
"I like that. I've been a lone voice in some instances."
He pointed to Baird's criticism of Iran as a "murderous regime" this week in criticizing the execution of 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was convicted in court for killing a man who tried to sexually assault her.
"Canada has been the leading, clearest voice on this subject," said Shaheed.
The UN Human Rights Council will conduct its periodic review of Iran's record in Geneva on Friday, and Shaheed's report gives the Tehran leadership a failing grade.
The Harper government has criticized the council, saying it provides a forum to rights-abusing countries such as Iran to unfairly point fingers at more upstanding countries such as Canada.
Canada has found itself in an "isolated position" on the council because it has been alone in voting against resolutions that criticize Israel, the Senate human rights committee has noted in recent reports examining the rights' body.
Broadly speaking, said Shaheed, there's nothing wrong with Canada swimming against the tide at the UN.
"If Canada were to join the pack, as it were, then its leadership on the issue would be totally lost," he said. "When you have a serious rights violation, you should not be waiting to see who's going to join the chorus to speak out."
Canada's former UN ambassador Robert Fowler has called the "won't go along to get along mantra" tiresome and smug, saying it has caused Canada's international reputation irreparable harm.
Canada has taken one of the toughest stances of any country against Iran by closing its embassy in Tehran and kicking its diplomats out of Canada in 2012. Much of Canada's criticism flows from the 2003 torture and murder of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in a Tehran prison.
Last year, Foreign Affairs launched a digital diplomacy initiative, an attempt to use the Internet to engage directly with citizens of Iran. Department officials said this week that Canada has reached at least 4.5 million separate computers or mobile devices inside Iran with its pro-democracy and human rights messages.
Shaheed praised the digital outreach, saying it allows Iranians to be exposed to ideas outside their borders, and to learn about rights abuses within their country that aren't reported by the media there.
"A large number of Iran's civil society also draws strength from the fact there are countries, leaders like Canada, who stand out and speak out against rights violations."
Shaheed was barred by Iranian authorities from entering the country to conduct his research, but he described how he used cyberspace to reach into Iran. One-third of the 500 interviews he conducted for his report were with sources inside Iran, which heavily censors the Internet.
"This is the 21st century," he said. "So even when you have countries that try to block you from physical access you can still reach them virtually."
Shaheed said he has developed "protocols" to help his sources circumvent the Iranian filters on the Internet, but challenges remain.
"So far, there has not been a case of a person — following the protocols that I have laid out — being discovered talking to me."
Baird praised Shaheed's work for shining a light on a rights situation in Iran that has deteriorated in the last year despite the election of a new president, Hassan Rouhani.
"Unfortunately the human rights situation has not only not improved, by any definition," Baird said. "It's actually gotten worse."