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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, arrives for a meeting with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on Wednesday.MANISH SWARUP/The Associated Press

Canada is boycotting Iran's turn as the rotating chair of the Conference on Disarmament, the international organization that discusses disarmament issues.

It's a repeat of the walkout tactic that the Harper Conservatives used against North Korea in 2011 – sitting out the sessions when a country that Ottawa views as a disarmament scofflaw takes the gavel. Ottawa argues that Iran "subverts the fundamental principles" of the conference by shipping arms to such countries as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Canada acted alone when it boycotted North Korea's presidency two years ago, but this time the United States says it will skip meetings chaired by Iran as well. Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said Canada suggested in 2011 that there should be some change to how the presidency is allocated, but other members of the conference did not support the idea.

But while the Harper government said the boycott is intended to stand up for the principles on the disarmament conference, one disarmament activist said it's at best a quixotic protest against taking turns and at worst an invitation to tit-for-tat boycotts of a diplomatic forum.

The Conference on Disarmament, set up in 1979 to negotiate treaties on biological and chemical weapons, is still the major organization for weapons talks; it's not formally part of the United Nations, but has substantial links to it. The conference's 65 members take turns at the rotating presidency, holding the gavel for about a month.

Cesar Jaramillo, a program director with Waterloo-based Project Ploughshares, argues Canada's symbolic protest is misplaced, since the rotating presidency is a procedural position without power. Sitting in the conference isn't an endorsement of the gavel-holder. And he fears the boycotts could lead to other countries sitting out when the presidency is held by a country they don't like.

"The objective of diplomacy is not to engage only your friends and allies," he said. "Quite the contrary."

North Korea was clearly a pariah in disarmament circles because it developed nuclear weapons, pulled out of Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation in 2003, and is believed to have traded in nuclear technology with other countries.

Iran is accused of diverting its civilian nuclear program to develop weapons technology. The International Atomic Energy Agency found that it has worked on weapons technology, and Western nations see its enrichment of uranium as a step towards nuclear weapons. In its boycott this year, however, Ottawa highlighted its shipments of conventional weapons to Syria and Iraq, and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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