11/24/2016 04:55 EST | Updated 11/25/2017 00:12 EST

Trudeau In Africa Says Nations Have 'Different Paces Of Evolution' On Human Rights

Homosexual activity criminalized in Liberia.

MONROVIA, Liberia — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says not every country moves at the same pace when it comes to recognizing human rights, including same-sex marriage and other protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"The fact is different countries have different paces of evolution in terms of recognizing and enshrining those rights, but we can see that there has been tremendous progress over the years in many different areas," Trudeau said Thursday morning in Monrovia, the capital of the West African country of Liberia.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as he arrives in Monrovia, Liberia on Nov. 24, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Trudeau was responding to a question about how to address the fact that many people in Liberia do not condone same-sex marriage, which has been legal in Canada for years.

Homosexual activity is also criminalized here.

Standing beside Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Trudeau moved on to another area of human rights that affects the region — female genital mutilation — and praised the leadership she has shown on the issue.

"I understand that culture can be a challenge in pushing that, but doing the right thing is something that people shouldn't shy away from," Trudeau said.

"The fact is different countries have different paces of evolution in terms of recognizing and enshrining those rights, but we can see that there has been tremendous progress over the years in many different areas."

Johnson Sirleaf defended the record of Liberia when asked about what she said in response to Trudeau raising LGBTQ rights.

"Liberia has no laws that restrict the rights of individuals to their own choices. Only if there is a threat to national security do we have a law that has restriction and so the freedom of choice is extended to all Liberians," she said at the joint news conference.

For a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, Liberia serves as an ideal setting for Trudeau to highlight putting the empowerment of women and girls at the heart of his government's international development strategy.

Johnson Sirleaf, the first female elected head of state in Africa, has along with other women been recognized — including with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 — for her role in securing and maintaining peace following civil war.

PM makes funding announcement

Trudeau said her leadership on gender equality and the advancement of girls and women is the main reason he wanted to make Liberia the first stop on his first visit to Africa as prime minister.

"The role that women played in bringing an end to the civil war and helping Liberia rebuild is an inspiration to the rest of the world," Trudeau said during the news conference.

Trudeau backed up that message with some funding announcements.

They include: $10 million over five years, beginning this year, to support the activities of U.N. Women in West Africa; $1.5 million this year to a U.N.-backed financing-acceleration instrument meant to enhance the engagement of women in peace and security; and another $1 million to support the U.N. Development Program for the 2017 Liberian election, including encouraging the participation of more women in politics.

(Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Thursday afternoon after visiting a local school, Trudeau will join gender equality advocates for a roundtable on the leadership role that women can play in working for peace, security, governance and sustainable development.

Trudeau was welcomed by sweltering humidity and a military band early Thursday morning as his plane touched down in Liberia.

They rolled out the red carpet, a young girl gave him flowers, and a local chief presented him with a kola nut — a traditional gift considered to be a symbol of respect.

Trudeau and Johnson Sirleaf then inspected a Liberian military guard of honour.

The fanfare is a far cry from what greeted Johnson Sirleaf during a visit to Ottawa nearly a decade ago, when former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper was apparently unaware she was in town until she was introduced while sitting in the gallery overlooking the House of Commons.

Liberian leader had awkward moment with Harper

The awkward moment in diplomacy speaks to the fact that Canada and Liberia have quite a limited relationship.

That had some observers scratching their heads when the Liberal government announced Trudeau would spend a day in Liberia during his first voyage to Africa as prime minister, instead of South Africa or another country with more influence.

Ian Smillie, a long-time Canadian development specialst who has written extensively about the violence linked to diamond mining in West Africa, said he is glad to see Canada taking an interest in Liberia, even if the economic benefits are not obvious.

"It is a fragile state whose fragility is due in part to the fact that nobody in the past century thought it was important enough to pay attention," Smillie said of Liberia, which was hit hard by the Ebola epidemic in recent years and is the site of an ongoing United Nations peacekeeping mission following civil conflict.

'Empowerment' of girls a goal

"If we are to get beyond failed, failing and fragile states, we need to stop thinking about Africa only in terms of the markets and investment opportunities they hold for Canada," said Smillie.

Tanjina Mirza, chief programs officer at Plan International Canada, said working to empower girls and women in Liberia would go a long way to addressing the root causes of poverty and vulnerability in that country.

"It has a female president, but that empowerment has not trickled down to the community level," said Mirza.

The government said Canada provided about $24 million in development assistance to Liberia in fiscal 2014-15, including support for the Global Fund, which provides bed nets to protect against malaria and drugs needed to treat HIV and tuberculosis.

Canada also gave more than $130 million as part of its response to the Ebola epidemic, which affected Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.