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Foreign Minister John Baird says there is no Tory who would begrudge his campaign to protect sexual minorities overseas.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Stephen Harper's government has made defending religious minorities a central objective in Canadian foreign policy – but with less fanfare the Conservatives have also transformed into staunch advocates for gay rights abroad.

The Tories' unapologetic stand against international persecution of homosexuals has come to the fore in recent days: first, with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's trenchant criticism of anti-gay legislation in Russia, then, with blowback from a right-wing women's group that publicly denounced him as out of step with conservative grassroots in Canada.

The Conservatives, who once struggled as a party with accepting same-sex marriage, see no contradiction. They say speaking out against measures that could lead to the beating, imprisonment or death of people because of their sexual orientation is projecting Canadian values.

The Foreign Affairs minister was publicly criticized this week by the socially conservative REAL Women of Canada, which said advocating for gays in countries from Russia to Uganda puts Mr. Baird at odds with conservative Canadians.

Mr. Baird dismisses the charge, saying there is no Tory who would begrudge his campaign to protect sexual minorities overseas.

"Stephen Harper said his government would champion Canadian values," Mr. Baird said in an interview. "Someone being put to death because they are a sexual minority is abhorrent to Canadian values."

Canada pressed Russia for months not to pass a law that imposes fines for spreading information about gay choices to minors and bans gay-pride rallies, Mr. Baird revealed last week. In recent months, Canada has provided $200,000 to groups in Uganda and the region to fight anti-gay measures.

Mr. Baird has denounced the African country for its oppression of homosexuals and mourned the killing of Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato.

"Same-sex marriage was not something we promoted internationally. When I spoke out about Uganda, I spoke about a gentleman who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer," the minister said in the interview. "What we've talked about are three things: the criminalization of sexuality; violence against sexual minorities and the death penalty against sexual minorities. I don't know any conservative in Canada who supports any of those three things."

In recent years, the Harper government has tried to make Canada a more vocal defender of human rights abroad – an effort that some Conservatives describe as reclaiming the mantle of civil-liberties advocate from the left.

"Among our government there is no room for moral ambiguity," Mr. Baird said. "There is no room for moral relativism."

He points to history. "Which prime minister gave women the right to vote? It was a conservative prime minister: Robert Borden," Mr. Baird said. "Which prime minister gave natives the right to vote? It was a conservative prime minister: John Diefenbaker," the minister said, referring to 1960, when aboriginal Canadians got the right to cast ballots in federal elections without losing their treaty status. "Who appointed the first black to [federal] cabinet? It was Joe Clark."

The centrepiece of the Conservative civil-liberties agenda is the $5-million-a-year Office of Religious Freedom, staffed with an ambassador-rank watchdog to monitor global treatment of religious minorities.

The Tories regard the right to worship free from persecution as a "fundamental freedom," in that countries that protect it tend to safeguard other freedoms as well, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Other elements of this human-rights agenda include efforts to crack down on forced marriages involving young girls.

In recent years, former immigration minister Jason Kenney expanded assistance for foreign gay refugees, offering additional government funding, asylum and encouragement to those fleeing abuse, violence and death "simply for who they are." In one memorable speech in 2010, he urged Canada's gay community to step up private sponsorship of homosexual refugees.

"It really is about pluralism, which I think is an inherent Canadian value," Mr. Baird said.

"A nine-year old girl being forced to marry a 51-year-old man is abhorrent to Canadian values," the minister said.

Mr. Baird has found himself taking flak from other countries because of his stance. In 2012, the Speaker of the Ugandan National Assembly criticized the minister for "ignorance and arrogance" after his comments about the plight of gays in the African country.

He just shrugs at criticism. "Sometimes we make it uncomfortable for people in that room. And you know what? That's too bad."

The minister recalls how he came under pressure at a Commonwealth meeting in Perth in 2011 to soften his request for including a line condemning early forced marriage in a communiqué.

"Some countries were disturbed by that. I was asked, Canada being a reasonable country, would we mind [withdrawing] our objections to dropping this language from the text," he said.

"I said 'If Canada was not going to stand up for a nine-year-old girl being forced to marry a 50-year-old man … who's going to stand up for that? So no we won't back down.'"

The minister said the situation in Russia is an affront to several basic freedoms.

"What's going on in Russia is probably just as much about freedom of speech as about gay rights," he said. "You can't even have free speech to advocate your own political views? I mean that's a fundamental human right and fundamental to anything approximating freedom and democracy."