Canada has remained focused on the rights and safety of women and children in its engagements with the United Nations, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is taking some heat from opposition MPs and experts for not doing more to leverage Canada’s influence at the international body.
Harper was criticized by the NDP for not attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week.
The PM will, however, participate in a question and answer session with the Canadian American Business Council on Thursday, also in NYC, but left it to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to do much of the talking about Canada’s priorities in regards to international development.
Baird co-hosted an event on early and forced marriage on Wednesday where he restated Canada’s focus on the rights of women and maternal and child health.
He said ending the practice of child, early, and forced marriage is a priority for Canada.
“Child, early, and forced marriage is an appalling violation of human rights,” said Baird, “It robs girls of their right to education and jeopardizes their health.”
The government says that between 2004 and 2014, 100 million girls will have been forced to marry before their 18th birthday.
Baird said Canada is committed to ending that practice “in every corner of the world.”
That aim remains one of the Harper government’s few priorities within the United Nations.
Opposition parties say the Conservatives have diminished Canada’s international heft by doing less to engage the U.N. Some have criticized what they describe as an abrasive tone in Canada’s engagements with the U.N.
On Monday a group of 17 foreign policy experts held media conferences across the country to urge that to change.
“It makes little sense to blow off steam at the U.N. as an institution” U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Carolyn McAskie said in a press statement. “The U.N. is not an entity unto itself, engaging or not engaging in unilateral action. It is the member states which run the show and pay the piper.”
The group wants Canada to take a stance on C02 emissions, contribute to the Responsibility to Protect initiative aimed at ending genocides, and for Canada to exercise more compassion and understanding in regards to complex world problems, among other actions.
During his speech in New York, Baird said protecting the rights of others is a requirement for action, speaking specifically about girls and women forced into marriage.
“Protecting human rights and human dignity is an obligation that each state owes its citizens and a mutual obligation of all members of the international community,” he said.
Millions of girls are forced into marriage each year, some as young as 8 years old. Their lives endangered because their young bodies are not prepared for the demands of childbirth.
Canada is spearheading an international effort to end that practice, claimed Baird, working alongside a core group of countries.
The health and safety of women in developing countries has been the Tories’ most prominent development priority at the U.N. and international bodies like the G8. The government has frequently touted financial contributions and efforts like the Muskoka Initiative which aims to reduce maternal and infant mortality.
Baird said Canada will contribute $2.85 billion through 2015 on related initiatives.
Harper underscored that priority on Wednesday by announcing support for nine projects to improve the health of women and children in developing countries.
The PM made the announcement during an event supported by the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The goal of the initiative is to save 16 million lives by 2015. The funding will support immunizations, better nutrition, and make sure results are measured and resources used effectively.