Address by Minister Freeland to the High-level Segment of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council


February 27, 2018 – Geneva, Switzerland

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Few issues are as important as those that relate to human rights and freedoms.

We make a point of promoting and defending the terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and doing everything in our power to protect all people against all forms of abuse to ensure that everyone fully benefits from the fundamental rights and freedoms proclaimed in the declaration. 

In 1948, representatives from many countries, including Canada, came together and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Seventy years ago, the world was profoundly changed. The ideas that were then put forward were revolutionary. And they set the stage for the longest period of global peace and prosperity in our history.

Since before the end of the Second World War, beginning with the international Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, Canada has been deeply engaged in, and greatly enjoyed the benefits of, a global order based on rules.

These were principles and standards that were applied, perhaps not perfectly at all times by all states, but certainly by the vast majority of democratic states most of the time.

The system had at its heart the core notions of territorial integrity, human rights, democracy, respect for the rule of law and an aspiration to free and friendly trade.

The common desire to establish this order arose from a fervent determination not to repeat the immediate past.

Humanity had learned through the direct experience of horror and hardship that the narrow pursuit of national self-interest, the law of the jungle, led to nothing but carnage and poverty.

Two global conflicts and the Great Depression, all in the span of less than half a century, taught our parents and grandparents that national borders must be inviolate; that international trading relationships created not only prosperity, but also peace; and that a true world community—one based on shared aspirations and standards—was not only desirable, but essential to our very survival.

That deep yearning toward lasting peace led to the creation of international institutions that endure to this day.

The system of international institutions seems commonplace now. Some have come to take it for granted. That is a mistake.

The rules-based order as we know it is in danger. If we do not commit to working together to ensure the adaptation and preservation of this system for the next seventy years, if we do not remember the connection between democracy and human rights, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

We are committed to a process of constantly improving respect for human rights and democratic values both within our borders and internationally. Canada has been active on many fronts.

We believe that efforts to advance these values abroad are hollow if we cannot speak frankly about the challenges we face at home.

That is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted in his address to the UN General Assembly last September that the legacy of colonialism casts a shadow over the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples.

The inequities that exist between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada are a glaring reminder of the failure of successive generations to provide basic services, to prevent and then heal the trauma of residential schools and to overcome systemic racism in our country.

Our path to reconciliation will require Canada to move beyond the limitations of old and outdated colonial structures and to create something new in their place.

The structures will respect the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to self-government that will be consistent with our support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Let me turn now to an issue far beyond our borders, but of grave concern to Canadians: the persecution of the Rohingya.

The plight of the Rohingya provides a very current example.

Almost 700,000 Rohingya have been forced to leave their homes. They left behind burned villages and carry with them the trauma of systemic rape, gratuitous violence and slaughter.

Make no mistake: these are crimes against humanity.

This is ethnic cleansing.

Beyond the grave human toll these crimes have exacted, they will have a devastating effect on Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Without respect for human rights and individual freedoms, there can be no democracy.

Those responsible for these atrocities must be held to account. Earlier this month, Canada imposed sanctions against Major-General Maung Maung Soe as a result of the significant role he has played in the persecution.

For true democracy to flourish, fundamental freedoms like freedom of the press must be respected.

That is why Canada is gravely concerned by the unjust imprisonment of the two Reuters journalists who dared to report on the crimes in Rakhine state.

As a former journalist, I feel strongly that journalists should not fear retribution for their work.

We are also in a time in which international humanitarian law has been dangerously challenged. Civilians are being slaughtered and have been the targets of ongoing attacks in too many situations. 

These repeated attacks against civilians must cease from being perceived as collateral damage. These acts are unacceptable.
I must stress the importance of these fundamental principles:

  • Humanitarian staff, volunteers and facilities must be protected at all times.
  • Civilians must be allowed safe passage to flee.
  • Humanitarian organizations must have access to deliver aid.

We have seen this in the sheer brutality of the recent and violent attacks against civilians in Eastern Ghouta and in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The Assad regime has turned against its own people and destabilized the Middle East‎, sparking conflict between communities that have lived beside one another for decades. Christian minorities have suffered greatly, as we have seen with attacks on the Copts in Egypt. Canada will always stand up for the rights of persecuted minorities who too often pay a heavy burden for conflicts that they do not seek. 

The Assad regime’s callous disregard for human life is made possible by the support of Syria’s allies: Russia and Iran.

They bear a moral responsibility for the regime’s crimes.

We will continue to provide funding to organizations like the White Helmets, brave men and women who serve as first responders in the most wretched of circumstances.

We also have borne witness to serious obstructionism in the UN system that runs counter to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Some countries have blatantly been sabotaging the rules-based order and its systems to protect human rights.

The illegal occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory by Russia is the first time since the end of the Second World War that a European power has annexed by force the territory of another European country. This is not something we can accept or ignore.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized crucially that respect for democratic norms and human rights is required for peace and stability on the globe.

North Korea’s persistent and complete disregard for international norms and obligations has led to unimaginable suffering within its borders. North Korea must address human rights issues, abide by international human rights standards, and to allow visits by UN Special Rapporteurs.

In January, Canada and the United States convened a meeting of foreign ministers in Vancouver to discuss the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

A diplomatic solution to the crisis is possible, but only if the North Koreans demonstrate a willingness to change their behaviour and rejoin the international community.

This is a crucial and important point for us to remember.

Mr. Chair, Canadians were horrified to learn of the death of Canadian-Iranian professor and environmentalist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

As Prime Minister Trudeau has said, a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian, and when a Canadian dies under troubling circumstances, we will not be silent.

Another humanitarian crisis that has had dramatic implications on a population is [happening in] Venezuela. The brutal and oppressive Maduro regime has done away with even the trappings of democracy, turned on its own people and created an economic and humanitarian crisis with far-reaching consequences.

The members of the Lima Group, a group of like-minded countries from the hemisphere of which Canada is part, is greatly concerned by this situation.

The growing number of refugees fleeing Venezuela risks creating broader regional instability.

The end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war was an important moment, but it was only a first step. Frustrations persist among those seeking to heal the wounds of all those who suffered and wish to achieve real reconciliation.

Canada is disappointed by the slow progress in implementing commitments to advance peace and reconciliation, political stability, human rights and government accountability.

Today, I would like to reiterate Canada’s desire for the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that a process of accountability is established that will have the trust and confidence of the victims—including the families of the disappeared—of this war.

We continue to call on the Government of Sri Lanka to set a clear timetable and strategy for implementation to ensure that the commitments made to its people are fulfilled and that human rights for the people of Sri Lanka are protected and respected.

In Canada, we believe diversity is our strength.

We believe that countries are strongest when all of its citizens are fully included.

That is why we are proud of our feminist foreign policy.

That is why we are honoured to co-chair the Equal Rights Coalition with Chile.

Everyone deserves to live free of persecution and discrimination—no matter who they are or whom they love.

Canada is fully committed—in the present and for the future—to supporting the United Nations human rights system and harnessing its great potential. And we can be counted on to be present in a meaningful way as the international community strives for a world where all human beings are equal in dignity and rights.

That is why we have welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees in recent years, and why people across our country are taking a stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination.

The UN Human Rights Council is uniquely positioned to address key global issues through immediate work related to the crises and conflicts that impact our world now.

I began my remarks today by touching on the establishment of the rules-based system of international institutions 70 years ago.

These institutions rose out of the shadows of the Second World War, and it is worth recalling that that conflict saw the horrors of the Holocaust as the most abhorrent and appalling violations of basic humanity in the history of the world.

The unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust was enabled in part by anti-Semitism, which has endured on the European continent for generations.

Those who do not remember history are indeed doomed to repeat it.

I would like to be very clear: Canada does not tolerate anti-Semitism of any form, at any time, in any forum.

Seventy years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted, many in the world are challenging the very idea of universal rights. Not Canada.

Now, more than ever, we must adhere to its call for the protection of human dignity, individual freedoms and democratic values and come together to preserve the rules-based international order as we know it.

The challenge we face today is significant.

Our job today is to preserve the achievement that was reached 70 years ago and to build on it, to use the multilateral structures that were created as the foundation for global accords and institutions fit for the new realities of this century.

I know that, together, this is eminently achievable.

Thank you.


Adam Austen
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Media Relations Office
Global Affairs Canada
Follow us on Twitter: @CanadaFP
Like us on Facebook: Canada’s foreign policy - Global Affairs Canada

Page details

Date modified: