Mr. Speaker, we have before us today an important motion calling for the commemoration of the tragic events of April 1915 in Armenia. The motion asks the House to recognize the week of April 20 to 27 of each year as the week to commemorate man's inhumanity to man.
The proposed motion refers to the concept of genocide, a concept relatively recent as to form and content. In fact it was defined and codified only in 1948, when the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide was adopted.
We do acknowledge that the Armenian community was victimized and that Armenian people were killed in 1915, but we must remain cautious in defining those events with a concept that was coined and codified only years later.
Also, the Turkish government of today is not the Ottoman empire of yesterday, which was responsible for the killings. The word "genocide" entails specific obligations, as stated in the provisions of the international convention.
The question is, if this House were to acknowledge that the concept applies to the events of 1915, could that bring about an obligation to some form of compensation for historical prejudice? I applaud today's motion because it forces all Canadians to reflect upon history.
It is difficult to imagine anything positive resulting from the horrific events that marked the first half of this century. The tremendous loss of millions of innocent victims such as the Armenians in April 1915 continues to haunt us today. Perhaps however the victims of these calamities did not suffer and die in vain. From their courage and our collective shame has emerged a strong legacy, the recognition of human rights as a duty of all states.
Grounded in the universal declaration of human rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, this legacy has led to an impressive collection of human rights instruments. These documents set out the rights of the individual and equally important, the corresponding duties of states to respect, protect and promote those rights.
Why should Canadians care about human rights in far off places? Human rights violations affect us all. They undermine our basic humanity and prevent us as a global society from progressing. Equally important, when these abuses reach widespread and systemic levels, our own security is threatened. The Minister of Foreign Affairs said it best during his recent statement to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights:
If we turn away from the desolation and dismay of human suffering, if we fail to stop hatred from flowing through the channels of our new electronic networks, if we do not care about the present or future of vulnerable children, if we do not stand up to the despots and bullies, if we do not counter the capricious and arbitrary actions of authoritarian governments with no legitimacy beyond weaponry and terror, then we will face the harsh consequences down the road.
It is therefore very much in the interests of Canadians to work to prevent human rights abuses throughout the world so as to avoid the kinds of tragic events we have heard described in the House. If we compare the protection of human rights today with the situation of 80 years ago when the Armenian massacre occurred, we see tremendous progress.
Drawing inspiration from the universal declaration, numerous international treaties and principles have been adopted. The two international covenants represent the most important of these, but the many other instruments address specific fundamental human rights concerns, everything from genocide and torture to the rights of women, children and the disabled.
These instruments have broadened the scope of human rights and have enhanced protection for all of us. The task of defining and codifying human rights is largely complete although important areas remain to be addressed, such as human rights defenders and the rights of indigenous people.
We must recognize that the framework of human rights instruments is not in itself sufficient to protect us from the scourge of human rights abuses. We need only look at the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda among others to acknowledge that humanity still has failed to rid itself of acts of barbarism and hatred. The Canadian government is firmly committed to finding lasting solutions to these problems.
As a recognized leader in the human rights field internationally, Canada has worked to develop the institutions and machinery to ensure that human rights recognized on paper are respected in reality. In organizations such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Canada has and continues to play an active role in advancing the human rights agenda.
One of the most important developments in recent years is the creation of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Responsible for the co-ordination of all human
rights activities within the UN system, the high commissioner is poised to play an influential role in strengthening protection of human rights.
Although severely underfunded, the creation of the post has already had a salutary effect. In the aftermath of the Rwanda crisis, the high commissioner was able to mobilize a team of human rights monitors and establish them on the ground. Despite some initial problems, the human rights mission has helped to improve the situation for Rwandans, both in the country and in the refugee camps. Canada played an important role in the establishment of this mission.
Recently the Minister of Foreign Affairs announced a further contribution of $500,000 to support the human rights field operations in Rwanda. A separate grant of $300,000 was also announced by the minister for a similar program in the former Yugoslavia. These operations of the high commissioner are critical for they represent the first forays into the areas of early warning conflict prevention and post-conflict peacekeeping.
The ability of the United Nations and specifically the high commissioner for human rights to place observers and monitors on the ground should go a long way toward identifying the root causes of gross violations of human rights and to play a role in finding solutions to these problems.
These monitoring operations can and should play the role of the eyes of the international community, alerting the world to potential disasters in the making. In so doing they can hopefully provide sufficient time to allow the United Nations or other bodies to prevent or minimize human rights abuses.
A key element of the field operations is human rights education and training of the military, police and other important actors. Breaking down the culture of violence is fundamental to finding lasting solutions. Through education and training, the UN is seeking to create an ingrained respect for the rule of law among those in places of authority. The goal is laudable but it is impossible to achieve in the world's troubled areas unless the international community devotes greater resources to the UN's human rights program.
Canada is doing its part even as we work to put our own financial house in order. The challenge for Canada is to maintain its commitment and convince other states of the critical importance of supporting the UN high commissioner.
Monitoring and training are but one part of the efforts to prevent gross violations of human rights. A second important factor is for the international community to send a clear signal to the perpetrators of human rights abuses that their transgressions will no longer be tolerated. The tribunals established to deal with war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda are an important start. Already a number of persons have been charged and prosecutions are expected to commence in the near future.
As critical as these tribunals are, they remain ad hoc bodies established to deal with the circumstances arising from two tragic events. Will the necessary political will exist to establish similar bodies should these types of events happen elsewhere?
To avoid the problem of attempting to develop solutions in the immediate aftermath of an incident, the world community today is considering the establishment of a permanent international criminal court to deal with war criminals. Negotiations on the court have commenced under UN auspices. While the negotiations are difficult, Canada, which is playing an active role, is hopeful that a positive outcome can be achieved. Once established, the court will stand as a monument to the international community's resolve to fight barbarism and to punish those who would shock the conscience of the world.
As regards Armenia, Canada is a friend of Armenia. Although this country is only four years old, Canada has been working to help Armenia deal with the problems of nation building and to resolve the difficulties which that country and that society have had to deal with in the early stages of its nationhood.
For example, Canada has supported Armenia in dealing with the ravages of an earthquake in the Leninakan region in 1988 and has been contributing to finding a solution to the debilitating war in the Nagorno-Karabakh which has extracted a terrible toll on the people of the region and has aggravated the difficulties of building that nation in that region.
I have spoken at length on human rights. I cannot overemphasize their importance in preventing the kinds of situations we are discussing today: the massacres, ethnic cleansing and other egregious acts such as the Armenian tragedy of 1915, that have occurred in the past and which we have again recently witnessed, all started with isolated violations of human rights.
Would the situations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have occurred as they did if international human rights institutions had been in place to alert and the international community ready and willing to act effectively to protect the victims of the initial human rights violations? We may never know, but the chances are that some lives and some communities could have been spared the suffering they endured. We owe it to them, to past victims of widespread transgressions and to ourselves to do what we can to ensure that these atrocities do not happen again.
Through its continued active participation in the UN and other international bodies, and through our support for human rights institutions such as the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Canada can make a difference.
I salute the Bloc Quebecois motion. At the same time, to fully give justice to all those, first among them the Armenians who by birth or ancestry have been victimized by the inhumanity of war and oppression, I call on the House to join with the government in supporting an amendment which will proclaim the week of April 20 to 27 each year as the week to remember the inhumanity of people toward one another.