Important to speak out against all forms of discrimination: Canadian envoy Wilczynski tells The Oslo Times
Canadian Ambassador to Norway Artur Wilczynski, is also an expert in international security who has also served as the Director General of the International Security and Intelligence Bureau at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. His responsibilities included counter-terrorism, combating transnational organized crime, human smuggling and international defense.
Additionally, before joining the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in 2010, Wilczynski held a number of positions within the federal government including Director General of International Affairs and Border Policy at Public Safety Canada. He also served as a Director General of Strategic Policy, Planning and Research at Public Safety, Canada.
The Oslo Times met up with Ambassador Wilczynski, for an exclusive interview on issues of international security, counter terrorism, human rights, freedom of expression and lot more. The Excerpts give us an insight into the interesting talks that followed:
TOT: Mr. Ambassador thank you for giving us an opportunity for this exclusive interview. Before we start, could you please tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sure! My name is Artur Wilczynski. I am the Canadian Ambassador to Norway. I have been here since December, so it’s been six months as an accredited Ambassador here in Norway. I am an immigrant to Canada. I was actually born in Poland and have been living in Canada since I was three years old. I have a diversity of experience in the Canadian public service. I have worked for the Department for Canadian Heritage on issues like anti-doping in sports and cultural diversity. I was Director General of International Affairs and Border Policy of the Department of Public Safety; and, I was the Departmental Security Officer and the Director General for Security at the foreign ministry before I got appointed as an Ambassador.
TOT: Can you tell me a little bit about the bilateral relations between Norway and Canada?
The relationship is very good. The relationship between Norway and Canada is incredibly close. We are friends and allies who have a lot in common. We work closely together on issues such as the arctic. In fact, Canada just completed its chairmanship of the Arctic Council. We recently held a ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, one of our northern territories where Ministers from the eight Arctic Council countries including Minister Brende from Norway, held important conversations focused on the people of the north. We are allies in NATO and work very closely there as well.
We share many values in common – in particular respect for human rights, freedom of expression, democracy, equality and the rule of law. We also share a great deal on the economic side. We are both countries for whom natural resources – oil and gas in particular – are important. We work closely together on science, technology and educational issues. So, we have much in common, we work closely together and looking forward to very productive relationships.
TOT: Over the past two years or so we have witnessed a massive rise in violent extremism across the World, and Canada has not been spared either, how would you describe this growing radical tendency across the globe?
Extremism is not anything particularly new. It is a phenomenon that has happened throughout history. I think the particular challenge with extremism today is the extreme violence associated with it. Having extreme views in of themselves are not necessarily the problem. It is when those views turn violent that we have a real problem. Countering violent extremism is a real challenge of our time and I think it is a phenomenon that many countries are facing – Canada and Norway are no exceptions.
In Canada, we have seen on a number of occasions, Canadian citizens who have been involved in activities that counter our criminal code – they are criminal in Canada. Whether it is traveling abroad to places like Syria or to Somalia, or elsewhere to join organization that are illegal in Canada to join and support terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, these are activities that are of immense concern to us. The government of Canada is working hard in partnerships with friends and allies to address these threats to Canadians, our friends and allies.
TOT:Just to add to that question, the parliament shooting in October last year made the rounds across the World. As Canada is considered a safe nation, the shooting last year brought to light the challenges Canadian society is facing in regards to growing radicalization and violent extremism. According to you what are the most pressing challenges that Canada faces today?
The challenge, quite frankly, is confronting the ideology that supports that kind of terrorist activities and it is important to work together with communities, civil society, researchers and allies to address the causes of violent extremism.
It is important to make sure governments and agencies have the legal authority they need to address the threats that exist out there. That is one of the reasons why the government has introduced legislation in Canada to strengthen our ability to counter violent extremism and to tackle terrorism. This is why Canada has contributed financially to address terrorism in various parts of the World. This is the reason why we have a presence in Iraq to provide support to Iraqi and Kuridsh forces – to provide the training that they need to confront ISIS on the ground. We also need to work domestically, and that is why organizations such as Public Safety Canada as well as our police forces work very closely with communities in order to try and address any kind of threat that might exist inside Canada as well.
TOT: My next question is regarding The Oslo Pride Conference, which recently concluded, could you tell us a little more about the conference and what was discussed there?
For Canada the promotion of rights for all people is very important. The promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights is particularly important given that in many parts of the world, these relationships are still considered crime. So for us to work together with a number of countries to advance these
rights are important.
We worked first with a Norwegian organization called FOKUS, which is a women’s equality rights organization here in Norway, to bring together experts on the UN system to talk about Human Rights and what is happening at the UN in terms of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. That was the first session we did on Sunday. The second session was to show how different countries are dealing with these issues in their own region. So we had someone from South Africa, we had an academic, a lesbian woman from South Africa, We had a judge from Brazil, Parliamentarian from Switzerland, we had someone from the military from the Netherlands, we had a public media personality from Israel, we had the US Ambassador to Denmark who happens to be gay. It was important to us to bring these people together to talk about how the international discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans gender rights, affects them at the domestic level.
We discussed how we could work together as governments and as civil society to ensure the equality and respect for human rights of persons, regardless of their sexual orientation. So that is what we did. On Monday we also had an event at the official residence of Canada, where we had the Minister of Health Bent Høie, we had a Labour Party Parliamentarian – Anette Trettebergstuen and also State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Laila Bokhari joining 200 people to celebrate Pride. What was wonderful was that they joined me in raising the Rainbow Pride Flag over the Canadian residence in Oslo while a choir sang ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow”.
TOT: One thing I realized at the conference was that there were a lot of foreign delegates from countries including US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa, but there was not– one delegate from an Islamic nation, why is that?
I do not think it was intentional in any way. I think that for a number of countries, particularly those with the majority Muslim populations, governments are not yet ready to support the rights of LGBT persons. It would be very difficult to get those governments to sponsor someone to come to Norway to speak about LGBT rights. I look forward to the day where I will be able to work with a colleague Ambassador from an Islamic nation on these issues.
TOT: The absence of Muslim nations in the conference has been criticized by a lot of people because gay communities do exist even in Muslim nations, and their situation there is far more critical than in the west. So, why were representatives from the Muslim World left out?
Again, I worked with embassies. I did not work directly with civil society organizations to bring people to the conference. As the Ambassador here, I worked with the embassies of the US, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland and Israel. I did not go straight to civil society representatives to bring them in. Each country choose who they thought would represent their regions best.
Having said that, there were representatives of various communities at the event on Sunday, including African and Muslim communities. Our purpose was to create a space for everybody who wanted to talk about these issues. For me it is important to continue to make sure that we bring in a diversity of voices and experiences. This is my first summer here and as you heard, there were not only Muslim voices that wanted to be heard. One of the prominent voices at that session was an American transgender woman of color, who asked me why I did not have a trans woman of color on the stage. These are very good questions because representation and diversity of voices are very important. But when you have a fixed period of time and have to organize, you look at ways to start the conversation. The way we started the conversation, from a diplomatic point of view, was to work with those embassies. As I said to the trans woman of color, we will learn from these experiences and continue to reach out to new voices. I look forward to working with Muslim LGBT representatives, it is important for me to make sure that those voices are heard. It is particularly important because many governments of Muslim majority countries are not yet supportive of the LGBT community. It is important for those voices to be encouraged and supported.
I will now get back to Islam and freedom of expression. How would you describe the illustrations and drawings of the prophet Muhammed by various groups? Would you call this freedom of expression?
This is a challenging question. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Let me say that there is no justification whatsoever for the type of terrorist violence that has targeted artists, writers and journalists. The rationalization by terrorists that these types of illustrations and drawings demand a violent response is incomprehensible and obscene. I think that with freedom of expression comes with a level of responsibility. I think it is important to encourage freedom of expression – to make sure that we all have the ability to talk about what our beliefs are, to talk about what our views are on a political level – including being very critical of authority. With that freedom to speak about whatever issue we feel is important, I think it is equally important to be conscious of the effect that your speech has on others. Just because I can say or do something does not mean I should. I think that we have to be aware of the impact of our words and our actions on others and as we are exercising our freedom of expression, we also use good judgment. I believe it is important to treat people with respect and dignity.
TOT: Canada and the US are close allies who have very similar views on a number of international matters– including Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East and South Asia. Some people believe that western countries, including Canada, lost the war on a moral level. What do you think about this? Also,Many people believe that there is some kind of hatred rising against Western powers in South Asia because of bad policies from the US and your country. (Canada), what is your view on this? I beg to disagree, I think that Canada – I will not speak about US as it is a different country obviously. I think Canada is a country where respect for diversity and inclusion is something that is recognized around the World. We still have many, hundreds of thousands from around the World who come to Canada every year. Our political system, culture, identity are very much fixed on diversity. People of different faiths, different national backgrounds and sexual orientations participate in all levels of our society.I am a refugee to Canada. My family had to leave Poland because of our religious background and we were given refugee status in Canada. And I have been doing pretty well for myself in Canada. I think it is a story that is repeated by people of different faiths and backgrounds – whether they are from South Asia, East Asia – or from all over the World. We also have a large number of Muslims and other people in Canada who are doing very well.
While there is always public debate around issues of international affairs, including inside Canada, I do not think we have lost any moral high ground in terms of our fundamental respect for Human Rights or for universal values. I think that we have continued to demonstrate these important values both domestically and internationally.
TOT: This is an exclusive interview and we tend to focus a few of our questions on pertaining threats to democracy. So my question is regarding the growing atrocities towards journalists and human right activists who are behind bars and are being tortured by their jailers in many countries like for example Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan. As a diplomat with democratic values, what would you say to these dictatorial regimes which are violating democratic norms and values?
I don’t want to speak directly to those countries you mentioned but I will speak in general terms. For us, freedom of expression and the role that journalists play in focusing attention on important fundamental human rights, on access to information, on making sure that governments are held accountable, whoever they might be, is fundamentally important. The role of journalism, the role of freedom of expression is fundamental in terms of democratic values. It is fundamentally important in terms of the rule of law and it is the responsibility of all governments, regardless of what they are like, to make sure that they respect the rights of journalists as civilians and as advocates for freedom of expression. There should be guaranteed human rights. Regardless of the system that is in place we want to make sure journalists and others who try to bring information to the public have the ability to do so. In some places, like Iran, I think that it is fundamentally important that journalists have the right and the ability to hold the regime accountable. In places like Russia, where freedom of expression is curtailed, I think it is increasingly important for us to hold the Russian government accountable for the way it treats those who do not share its views. We will continue to call on those governments to respect the rights of journalists in their countries.
TOT: A bill, C-24, was recently passed in Canada. It exposes citizens with dual citizenship to the further penalty, that is loss of citizenship. Don’t you think this brings a difference between native Canadians and naturalized Canadians. Won’t naturalized citizens feel less Canadian this way?
On that question, I would encourage you to get back to our ministry of citizenship and immigration. I think it is important for the government to use various tools to make sure that we can confront things such as terrorism.
The Oslo Times has received over 100 e-mails from different parts of the World especially from Iran in regards to the suppression of gay rights in the country, what is your view on the absence of gay rights in Iran? According to the Iranian leader, there no gay people in Iran. What can Canada do to help this community?
It is a very difficult situation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in Iran. The fact that the regime denies their existence and criminalizes and still persecutes them is unacceptable. Canada will continue to hold the Iranian regime accountable for their treatment and violation of human rights. That is why Canada regularly sponsors and guides resolutions on the human rights situation in Iran before the UN general assembly. We will continue to hold the Iranian government accountable and support the LGBT persons there. I know that there are NGO’s supporting LGBT persons in Iran, and again, personally I will continue to speak out on those issues. As a gay man, I think it is my responsibility to speak about those issues.
If you are getting these kinds of messages from LGBT persons both in Iran, and outside, I’d be happy to meet with people – whether they are based here or to be in touch with them electronically to support them anywhere I can.
Some people say that if their names are for example Ahmad (Muslim), you can not find jobs easily because of racial discrimination against the Muslim community at a work place. What do you have to say about this?
Freedom of religion in Canada is guaranteed under our constitution and protected by human rights legislation. Racism and discrimination happen in all societies and I think that it is a real challenge and we need to work to counter it. I think that is why you have legislation to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation and that is why we have Human rights Legislation in Canada, and the courts, that when people face these kinds of discrimination they can challenge it before the courts. They can challenge it before the Human Rights tribunals. It is very important for governments and for people in various positions to continue to speak out against all forms of discrimination whether it is on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, gender, or the language they speak. I think that in the Canadian context we have got a very strong system of legislation that protects people against these forms of discrimination. I also think the government of Canada does a lot in terms of working with communities to counter discrimination. We have a minister responsible for multiculturalism in the Canadian system, which is part of our efforts to promote that diversity in an inclusive society. Are there times when people in Canada experience discrimination and racism? Absolutely. Is it something that we accept? Absolutely not. We continue to work both formally and informally to address those kinds of experiences to make sure that Canada is inclusive, welcoming of its diversity.
My last question– What is your priority in Oslo? What is your main focus?
I have a number of priorities, the issues are diverse. My priorities here are focused on providing service to Canadians when they come and need support from the embassy. Whether or not it is about individuals seeking consular assistance or finding opportunities here in terms of business. Politically my priorities are something that I flagged earlier on. Issues like; working together with Norway on Human Rights, defence and security issues, countering violent extremism and working on the Arctic. These are the priorities that I have but I am a manager too. I have a mission that I have to run.
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