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Police use pepper spray to disperse protesters during an arrest near the Montreal Grand Prix auto race on June 10, 2012.Peter Mccabe/The Canadian Press

Jean Charest's Liberals and Stephen Harper's Conservatives were united Monday in their condemnation of a United Nations agency for criticism of Quebec's Bill 78.

It is the second direct spat between the federal government and a branch of the UN within a month.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday she was disappointed by the controversial Quebec law. The bill sets rules for gatherings of more than 50 people, requiring organizers to provide eights hours' notice of the itinerary and length of the event.

Ms. Pillay expressed her opinion of the Quebec law in a single paragraph of a long speech in Geneva during which she lamented rights violations in places such as North Korea, Zimbabwe and South Sudan.

"Moves to restrict freedom of assembly in many parts of the world are alarming," she said. "In the context of student protests, I am disappointed by the new legislation passed in Quebec that restricts their rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly."

Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the criticism from the Geneva-based agency was rich considering that city has much tougher protest laws.

"It's ironic, though, that they're criticizing a law that requires eight hours' notice before a protest and an itinerary, when in Geneva – where the United Nations office is – it's 30 days' notice that they require," Mr. Charest told reporters at global environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro.

"So we're not as severe as the place that hosts the United Nations. We're more supple, and more permissive."

The Conservative government in Ottawa was quick to respond to the criticism, defending Quebec's right to pass its own laws in a democratic environment.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis, the government's Quebec lieutenant, took Ms. Pillay to task for avoiding other, more serious human rights abuses in places such as Sri Lanka, Iran and Belarus.

And Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he was disappointed with Canada being mentioned in Ms. Pillay's speech Monday.

"Quebec is a very democratic place subject to the rule of law," Mr. Baird said. "People can challenge the government's decisions in court so I stand behind the government of Quebec.

"With what's going on in Syria, with what's going on in Iran and Belarus, the UN would be better to spend its time on there."

The government recently shot back at the UN's special rapporteur on the right to food for accusing Canada of ignoring hunger within its own borders.

"If people around the world enjoyed the human rights that people in Canada and especially Quebec enjoyed, this world would be a much better place," Mr. Baird said.