Baird’s silence on Indian anti-gay law puzzles human rights experts

Published: February 28, 2014

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird speaks as he participates in a joint press availability with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade January 17, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

LEE BERTHIAUME
POSTMEDIA NEWS

OTTAWA – He has hammered Russia, blasted Uganda and even gone after the state of Arizona.

All of which makes Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s silence on a tough anti-gay law in India puzzling to outsiders who have come to expect a strong Canadian statement when it comes to gay rights abroad.

Baird’s office says the federal government has raised the issue in private discussions with Indian officials, and that there is no “one-size-fits-all approach” when it comes to the issue of gay rights abroad.

But it also hasn’t gone unnoticed among some rights advocates that the federal Conservative government is actively courting India as a trade partner, and its low-key approach may be designed to keep from angering the emerging economic powerhouse.

“When Canada does stay silent with respect to a powerful country, a country with whom we do have an important economic relationship, it inevitably leads to the conclusion, right or wrong, that the reason for the silence is the trade relationship,” said Amnesty International Canada secretary-general Alex Neve,

India’s Supreme Court recently upheld a colonial-era law that makes gay sex a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A lower court had struck down the law in 2009.

The higher court decision has been described as a dramatic reversal for gay rights in the world’s second-most populous country, putting tens of millions of people at risk of persecution and harassment.

Baird has come down hard on laws that target gays in a number of countries, including Russia, Nigeria and, just this week, Uganda.

“This act is a serious setback for human rights, dignity and fundamental freedoms and deserves to be widely condemned,” Baird said in a statement of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality act. “Regrettably, this discriminatory law will serve as an impediment in our relationship with the Ugandan government.”

Baird has even spoken out against a proposed law in the U.S. state of Arizona that would let people refuse service to gays and others because of their religious beliefs.

“I join (U.S. Senators) Mitt Romney and John McCain in urging Arizona’s (Governor Jan Brewer) to veto (the) discriminatory gay bill,” the minister said on Twitter Wednesday. That same day, Brewer said she would veto the bill, which would have allowed business owners to cite their religious beliefs in turning away gay customers.

Gay rights activists from India’€™s northeastern states participate in a protest against a recent Indian Supreme court decision upholding a law that criminalizes gay sex in Gauhati, India, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. AP Photo/Anupam Nath

But Baird has said nothing in public about India.

Asked about Canada’s position, Baird spokesman Adam Hodge said, “We have a respectful dialogue with the Indian government on these issues, and have raised our concerns with them directly.”

Hodge would not provide further details about any discussions, including when the law might have been raised in conversation, with whom and in what context.

He denied the government’s failure to speak publicly about the anti-gay law was because Canada is pursuing stronger economic relations with India.

Those efforts include free-trade talks between the two countries, a pledge to increase two-way trade to $15 billion by next year, and numerous high-level visits.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to these situations,” Hodge said. “We have to be prudent about how we engage with all countries.”

Gov.-Gen. David Johnston is currently on a nine-day trade mission to India, but Baird’s office could not say whether he was raising the anti-gay law during his meetings.

Neve said he welcomes the minister’s strong support for gay rights in Uganda, Russia and Nigeria, “but it’s really crucial that we see consistency with the government.”

“There’s all sorts of diplomatic language to make it clear that the Canadian government is concerned and troubled without getting involved in name-calling and finger-pointing, obviously,” he said. “But we need to see something that’s on the record.

“And if that’s not there, then it only adds to the sense of despair and isolation that people feel.”

An Indian gay rights activist shouts slogans during a protest against a Supreme Court verdict that upheld section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013. AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

Stephen Brown, an expert on international gay rights at the University of Ottawa, said it’s true that different countries require different approaches, “but that doesn’t explain why we’re not doing anything on India.”

He believed the bigger issue is that the Conservative government is making things up on the fly, issuing “ad hoc statements” without a real gay rights strategy.

“In light of so many apparently ad hoc decisions about when to speak out about gay rights or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, it would be appropriate for the Canadian government to develop a strategy for promoting LGBT rights worldwide,” he said.

“So rather than sometimes making statements and sometimes not, they should have a more coherent policy, but also a more proactive plan for promoting LGBT rights internationally.”

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