Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs at a human rights conference


December 10, 2019 - Berlin, Germany

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.

Thank you, Heiko [Maas, Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs], for that kind introduction and for bringing us together, here in Berlin, for this important Alliance for Multilateralism conference the topic of implementing a human rights agenda in the 21st century.

Before I begin, I would like to personally commend you, Heiko, for your leadership on the world stage when it comes to promoting multilateralism as the best way to implement human rights.

Multilateralism, human rights, diversity and inclusion are at the core of Canada’s foreign policy—and Germany’s too. We are natural allies and we are proud to work with you in this regard.

It is no coincidence that we are gathered here today on Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a declaration that counts Canadian John Humphrey as one of its principal drafters.

It was a document born of the heartbreaking losses and lessons of the first half of the 20th century, a time of uncertainty and mistrust when the world nevertheless came together to say: never again.

All of us are aware that resolutions and declarations are an integral part of diplomacy.

So, what is so special about this declaration and, more importantly, why is it still relevant today?

The answer to this question is simple. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues to serve as a powerful statement on the universality of human rights.

It counters the notion that human rights—be they political, civil, social, cultural, religious or economic—are conferred by any given state upon their citizens but, rather, are universal and inalienable and are deserved by every person, everywhere.

The second significant aspect of the declaration is more practical.

The notion of universal human rights outlined in the declaration has helped us to build an international framework of treaties and institutions through which human dignity and individual freedoms can be protected and promoted.

John Humphrey, the Canadian drafter of the declaration, once said: “If there is to be perpetual peace in a world of nation states, the individuals who live in them must be free and their human rights must be respected.”

In other words, as I mentioned at the outset of my speech, the declaration established that human rights were a prerequisite for peace and cemented their place at the heart of the rules-based international order.

We are indebted to John Humphrey and to all who worked on the declaration for their foresight. Indeed, the declaration may be needed now more than ever.

This is an uncertain time in the world.

Where once we thought the world was moving steadily toward more prosperity and greater freedom, we are seeing a stalling and a backsliding as a growing number of leaders around the world are beginning to question the multilateral order.

Unilateral action is growing more common.

Some of the criticism of the international system is warranted. Some of it is not.

For more than 70 years, this rules-based system has provided avenues for states to peacefully manage competing national interests, helped reduce the use of hard power between states, facilitated international cooperation and advanced global prosperity for everyone’s benefit.

Real global challenges—like climate change, threats to rules-based trade, mass migration and the difficulties facing the middle class—require multilateral solutions.

Those of us who believe in the fundamental importance of international cooperation in promoting the prosperity, security and basic human rights of the greatest number of people must come together and work concretely to ensure that the institutions of the rules-based international order are fit for purpose in the 21st century.

What is needed today—and what Canada is proud to endorse through the Alliance for Multilateralism alongside Germany, France and more than 60 other states—is an urgent review of the current rules-based international order to reform and revitalize it.

This alliance can play a key role in addressing the shared challenges confronting us today, and in showing the world that multilateralism is not yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s problems but rather a contemporary solution to tomorrow’s problems.

Few issues can benefit more from intensified multilateral cooperation and a reformed and revitalized multilateral system than those that relate to human rights.

And that is because, as I outlined at the outset, human rights and multilateralism are mutually reinforcing.

It’s why we must guard against threats.

Against anti-Semitism. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia.

Against Islamophobia. Gender-based violence.

Against attacks on front line human rights defenders. And impunity for those who abuse human rights.

For that reason, Canada will always stand up for human rights—including women’s rights—on the world stage.

That is why we have adopted a principled foreign policy. A foreign policy that seeks to find pragmatic ways to promote human rights.

And it’s also why we have to evolve in response to the emerging challenges that may deny some people the opportunity to live in dignity and fully enjoy the human rights that they are entitled to.

Like artificial intelligence, social media platforms and climate change.

In accordance with our foreign policy, we take a leadership role in standing up for a free and independent press. 

To that end, I’m proud to reaffirm Canada’s intention to host the second Global Conference on Media Freedom in the coming year in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the city of Québec.

We understand the importance of a free media to inform citizens and protect democracy.

None knows this more than Luz Mely Reyes, a brave Venezuelan journalist who we will be honouring today. On Canada’s behalf, I commend you, and the other recipients of the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, for your courage and determination.

But as we celebrate the work of these individuals, I also want to take this opportunity to draw the world’s attention to the cases of two Canadians currently unjustly imprisoned in China.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were arbitrarily detained exactly one year ago today.

They have been denied access to a lawyer and contact with family members.

We will continue to work tirelessly to secure the immediate release of our citizens.

We are grateful to the many countries that have expressed support for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.

We will continue to work with our partners to speak with one voice to call out these arbitrary detentions, now and always.

Canada will work with allies through the Alliance for Multilateralism to protect and preserve international norms, institutions and agreements that underpin our growth and prosperity.

I hope that the conversation we will have here today can lay the foundation for future meetings of this kind to discuss our collective challenges. And I hope we may meet again in the near future. Next time in Canada!

Thank you.

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