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Oration honouring Lloyd Norman Axworthy

Friday, May 29, 10 a.m.

Once upon a time a young high school student found that his future as a football player was threatened by his poor academic standing. A kind teacher offered him a magic solution: attend and write a report on a public lecture and your football eligibility will be restored. And so it was that the high school jock went to the lecture. Before the clock struck 12 that night, Lloyd Axworthy was transformed from a football player into a political activist. The speech by Lester B. Pearson, then minister of External Affairs, later Nobel Laureate and Prime Minister, so entranced Axworthy, that it shaped his career which has been distinguished by a commitment to political development, human rights and active engagement in the political process.

His love affair with politics was passionate and involved. Lloyd Axworthy studied politics in university, but he practiced political action. More than once, he shunned personal risk as he did when he marched for civil rights in the southern United States. As a young man, the idealistic Axworthy dreamed of a career in External Affairs, but this time, there was no fairy god person to help him pass the Foreign Affairs exam. Never one to dwell on failure, he refocused his efforts on an academic career. Over the next few years, he built a political base of support in Winnipeg, serving first as a provincial legislator and later as a Member of Parliament. His talents were recognized by Prime Minister Trudeau, who invited the young parliamentarian to join his cabinet. Axworthy retained his seat in Parliament during the “Mulroney years” and rejoined cabinet when Jean Chretien became prime minister. Three years later, a fortuitous cabinet shuffle propelled Axworthy to Foreign Affairs, the top position in the very department that eluded him earlier in life.

Minister Axworthy insisted that governments had roles and responsibilities for human security that transcend, if not supersede, traditional governmental involvement with territorial security. While Dr. Axworthy headed Foreign Affairs, Canada hosted an international convention on landmines. Convention delegates hoped to chart a road map that some day, might lead to global limitations on the use of anti-personnel landmines. Landmines are insidious. Although devised many centuries ago, the recent deployment of millions of landmines in the killing fields of Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia focused international outrage as people realized that tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children continued to lose lives and limbs in the years and decades following armed hostilities.

As the convention drew to a close, Dr. Axworthy shocked delegates by calling for an outright proposal to ban landmines. He dared the delegates to return to Canada in a year’s time for a treaty-signing conference. Axworthy’s ‘put your money where your mouth is’ challenge paid off. In about a year’s time, the bold diplomatic approach produced a “peoples’ treaty” to which most countries are signatories. For the first time ever, a widely used military method was banned. Military expediency was outweighed by the enormity of human suffering.

Lloyd Axworthy’s assertive challenge evoked a fundamental shift in the workings of international relations. The “Ottawa Process” is a fast-track and goal oriented method by which governments work with non-governmental organizations in a multi-faceted approach to problem solving. Only those governments who “buy in” to finding a solution can participate, and direct voting replaces consensus. State sovereignty defers to human security.

Lloyd Axworthy was one of a small handful of enlightened statesmen around the world who nurtured the neo-idealism of the 1990’s. He promoted human security through many initiatives. His leadership was key in establishing the International Criminal Court and the adoption of rules against the use of child soldiers. Through his guidance on these initiatives, Canada was an international leader in promoting individual security by protecting innocent civilians from acts of violence often perpetrated by their own governments.

Who can know what would have happened had Lloyd Axworthy been an honour’s student in high school? Would he have attended Pearson’s inspiring talk? What might the young Axworthy have achieved as a career diplomat had he passed the exam at External Affairs? No one will ever know, and Lloyd Axworthy continues to look forward rather than back. As minister of External Affairs, he knew that the time for humanitarian action was at hand and he seized the day for our benefit and the benefit of our children and our children’s children. Simply put, the world is a far better place because of Lloyd Axworthy.
Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, I present the outstanding humanitarian, Lloyd Norman Axworthy.

Dr. Donald McKay
University orator