Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Matt DeCourcey was Canada’s head of delegation to the US Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington (DC) on July 24-26, 2018.

At the conclusion of the Ministerial Forum, the United States issued six statements of concern (three country-specific and three thematic statements) related to international Freedom of Religion  issues.  The three country-specific statements respond to issues in China, Iran and Myanmar (Burma).  The three thematic statements focus on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws, religious freedom repression by non-state actors (including terrorist groups) and counter terrorism as a false pretext for religious freedom repression. Canada co-sponsored all six statements of concern.

Of particular interest is an important Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws which says

As representatives of the international community, we stand together in support of the interconnected freedoms of religion and expression. We stand in firm opposition to laws that impede the freedom of individuals to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, not have a religion, tell others about their beliefs and practices, and openly debate and discuss aspects of faith or belief. Such laws are inconsistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Numerous countries maintain laws criminalizing blasphemy, apostasy, or speech that might “defame” or “insult” religious sentiments. Such laws are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion, or as a false pretense to settle personal grievances. We see governments using such laws to punish individuals whose views on matters of religion or belief may differ from official narratives or the views of majority populations.

We will work collectively to encourage governments that maintain these laws to free any individuals imprisoned on such grounds, and to work toward the universal repeal of blasphemy, apostasy, and other laws that similarly impede freedoms of expression and religion or belief. We remain committed to working with partners to help tackle problems like discrimination and violence based on religious intolerance in ways that do not interfere with fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
Co-Signatories: Armenia, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Oman, Poland, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, United States of America

It should be noted that Canada has not yet repealed its own blasphemy law, Criminal Code Section 296. though a repeal provision has been included in the federal 2017 Bill- C-51,  An Act to amend the Criminal Code of Canada and to make consequential amendments to another Act.  Bill C-51 is currently at second reading of the Senate.  It may be expected that the work of passing the bill can be completed when legislators return to work from their summer holiday.

How broadly the interpretation of Canada’s signatory to the statement opposing blasphemy/apostasy laws may extend is an interesting subject of exploration.  The statement includes a clear understanding that blasphemy laws, and the systemic faithism that they embolden is interconnected to the freedom of expression.

Take, for example, an attempt to advertise an opinion that the current government funding of the Catholic school system in Ontario is a human rights violation that should cease. In 2014, an Ontario dentist (Dr. Richard Thain) wished to publicize his opposition to public funding of religion in schools via ads timed to coincide with the opening of The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg (September, 2014). The intention was to leverage media coverage of the museum’s opening to raise awareness of this long-standing human rights concern. His advertisements were blocked.  This blockage of an opinion should be viewed as a contradiction of Canada’s commitment to advance the protection of interconnected freedoms of religion AND expression.

Considered further, the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom floated a second statement regarding Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups which argues that

As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious abuses of religious freedom perpetrated by terrorist and violent extremist groups, and we support international efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism. We stand in solidarity with the victims of terrorism and call on authorities to pursue justice and accountability consistent with relevant international law. We commit ourselves to continuing to support religious groups and other communities that have been subject to terrorist violence and to moving swiftly to hold terrorists accountable for their crimes.

Underscoring that violent extremism that leads to terrorism is not limited to any one nationality, culture, region, level of economic development, or civilization, we urge all governing authorities to govern inclusively and with respect for equality under the law, without regard to religious identity and without misusing the authorities of the state – including counterterrorism laws and the state security apparatus – to perpetrate repression of religious or other groups. We urge civil society and faith leaders to come together and advocate for mutual understanding, respect for pluralism and tolerance, and recognition of universal human rights and human dignity, and we urge all governing authorities to permit and support such independent efforts.
Co-Signatories: Armenia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Djibouti, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Lithuania , Morocco , New Zealand, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States of America

The conclusion of this statement is particularly powerful,…isn’t it?  We urge all governing authorities to permit and support such independent efforts. Would the Canadian government include the independent actions of a single citizen to oppose systematic, ongoing and egregious abuse of religious freedom as represented by the exclusionary funding of a single faith group’s education system?

The power of an advertising company to block ads is NOT an equivalent of actions by violent terrorists or other extremist ideologues.  But there is a genuine need to consider systematic abuses before they become matters for violence.  This is the civil and consistent thing to do.  Matt DeCourcey claims Canada will “rise to the challenge” on matters of Foreign Affairs, it will be interesting to observe if  Canada will do take leading positions by extending consistent perspectives on matters within its borders.

Further Reading: Canada’s Comments


Statement by Head of Delegation

Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Foreign Affairs,  Matt DeCourcey 

It is an unacceptable and unfortunate reality that today, in many parts of the world, restrictions on religion and belief are rising at an alarming rate.  We are witnessing a staggering global resurgence of various forms of racism and discrimination worldwide, including increasing incidents of antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiments. Such challenges to fundamental rights have consequences for everyone. When human rights are not respected and upheld, the repercussions tear at the social fabric of our societies, deepening divisions, heightening mistrust, and ultimately, undermining global norms. Such threats cannot be ignored. We must work individually and collectively to address these threats and stand up for human rights.

For the last 70 years, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been the necessary touchstone from which many countries have designed their approach to the promotion and protection of human rights. Canada is a strong defender of human rights and the UDHR and is proud to share a commitment to this article with many of the countries that are here.

The Canadian experience has been one of finding strength through our diversity. And it is through recognizing and protecting that diversity that we can continue to prosper.

Indeed, Canada’s own federal Cabinet is a demonstration of this. For example, our new International Trade Diversification Minister is Jewish, four ministers are of Sikh origin, and two are Muslim.  In fact, both Ahmed Hussen our Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and Maryam Monsef, our Minister of Status of Women, both came to Canada as refugees. Maryam was the first Muslim Cabinet minister in Canadian history, and Ahmed was the first refugee to become minister responsible for refugees.

That a Muslim who fled Somalia in his teens could become the minister in charge of the department that oversees citizenship and immigration in Canada sends a powerful and concrete message about Canada’s openness to people escaping danger and persecution.

We are deeply committed to the values of respect and mutual understanding. We believe in fostering greater inclusion and equity for every person, including all faith and belief communities, women and children, Indigenous people, members of the LGBTI community, minority groups, and others who are often marginalized in society.

Ceci étant dit, je dois aussi reconnaître que le Canada est loin d’être parfait.  La discrimination et la haine existe encore dans notre société.

Last year’s terrible attack in a mosque in the city of Québec is a serious and tragic reminder of the reality that there is still much to be done. In the wake of that terrible incident, our government supported a motion, led by my colleague, Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid, condemning Islamophobia and committing Parliament to undertake a study to assess how Canada can best combat racism and religious discrimination.

That is just one part of the effort we continue to make to ensure that diversity, including diversity of religion or belief, is recognized and respected. Canada has also responded to the persecution and suffering of religious and belief minorities, including against Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, Yazidi, and humanist minorities in different parts of the world, to list but a few.

Since 2015, we have resettled over 40,000 Syrian refugees across our country. We have also welcomed to Canada some 1,200 vulnerable Yazidi women, children, their families, and other survivors of Daesh, inside and outside of Iraq. And we have been unequivocal in denouncing the atrocities that Daesh has committed against the Yazidis. In fact, Canada’s House of Commons recognized their persecution as genocide in October 2016.

We have put in place inclusive policies and programs to welcome these new refugees into their new communities, to access the services they need, and to feel safe and proud to be themselves and practice their religion or belief. While this does not come close to the numbers that Syria’s neighbours and some European countries have taken in, Canadians feel proud of this contribution, and we know there is a bright future ahead for these new Canadians. Canada also understands the need to clearly denounce the persecution of minorities globally. A clear case is that of the plight of the minority Muslim Rohingya.

I agree with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who has described the campaign against the Rohingya as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” and who has stated that he “has strong suspicions that acts of genocide may have taken place in Rakhine State since August [2017].”

We must work to establish a clear pathway towards accountability for the atrocities and human rights violations committed in Rakhine state, and coordinate efforts to build lasting peace in Myanmar. I hope that as an international community, we can demonstrate clear leadership on this issue, and stand against this persecution of a vulnerable religious minority.

Our meaningful engagement with civil society is also essential to all efforts to promote and protect rights and freedoms. Canada’s Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion regularly brings together members of civil society, including religious and belief leaders and organizations, to actively participate in open policy development aimed at addressing global human rights concerns.

By enhancing our combined efforts, we can help those who are too often unable to protect their own rights. It is essential that we raise our voices to stand up for those who all too often don’t have a voice to stand up for themselves.

That includes calling out the unacceptable attacks on Christians in the Middle East and around the world, the deepening crackdown on Uyghur and members of other religious minority groups in China, the appalling targeting of Muslim groups across the world, and the global rise of antisemitism to name just a few.

We are committed to working with our international partners to continue to advocate for and champion the vulnerable and the voiceless. To this end, Canada has co-hosted high level forums at the UN, focusing on how to counter discrimination and persecution on the basis of religion or belief, including how to address antisemitism and anti-Muslim discrimination. Our cooperation in advancing these rights must be widespread and must draw on all of the tools available to us. One of these is the International Contact Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which Canada established and co-chairs with the United States.

Canada has the pleasure of working closely with UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, and other UN special mandate holders, on advancing freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.

At the core of Canada’s approach to addressing issues related to freedom of religion or belief and other human rights is promoting inclusion and respect for diversity as a proven path to peace and prosperity.

Our experience shows that protecting and promoting human rights, mutual respect and understanding, and equality among people of different religions, beliefs, and cultures can make societies more resilient and contribute to stability and economic growth. The universal, inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated nature of human rights requires that the world address all rights together. One cannot be given precedence over another nor can we ever use one right to take another away.

At the Equal Rights Coalition Global Conference that Canada will host in Vancouver this August, we will discuss ongoing challenges to the rights of LGBTI people, including as it relates to freedom of religion or belief. In the same vein, Canada’s feminist foreign policy recognizes that unequal access to resources and opportunities leads to major risks of violent conflict and economic inequality. It therefore seeks to promote the values that make the world safer and more prosperous, including the values of feminism and the rights of women and girls. It recognizes that we must address the root causes that make groups economically marginalized and vulnerable to exploitation and persecution.

As part of this, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy seeks to protect and promote the human rights of all vulnerable and marginalized groups and increase their participation in equal decision making. It resolves discrepancies between women’s rights and other human rights, by promoting a gender-based approach to development and international assistance.

At its core, freedom of religion or belief should empower women and other vulnerable groups to decide what they believe for themselves, and to challenge traditional religious beliefs, practices and power structures that continue to marginalize them in their communities.

The crosswalks from freedom of religion and belief don’t end there. Since March 2017, Canada has been a member of the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development where we are working with others to harness the potential positive impact of religion in sustainable development and explore the critical intersections between religion, development and gender equality –in an effort to ensure that no one is left behind.  It will also contribute to greater community understanding of the importance of respect for freedom of religion or belief; increase public awareness of religious freedom and human rights among ethnic and religious minorities; and create self-sustaining networks of civil society organizations and media working to advance inclusion.

Sadly, there is still much to be done. The intense challenges facing the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief globally remain all too real. The road ahead will be long and treacherous at times, but with unwavering resolve we can and will make a difference. Let the affirmations that we make here today guide us in our collective efforts to protect this and all human rights. Let me be clear that Canada will rise to the challenge – I hope you will join us.


Further Information


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