A routine tweet in August from Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, calling for the release of imprisoned activists in Saudi Arabia, has presented the Trudeau government with a golden opportunity to cement its human rights legacy and to affirm Canada’s principled stand globally. The incident could mark a defining political moment for Mr. Trudeau.
Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 3 Autumn 2018 by Cesar Jaramillo
Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) August 2, 2018
Minister Freeland was right to call for the release of the activists. She was also right to voice concern about a female activist sentenced to death by the Saudi regime. But Saudi Arabia has turned what could have been one more expression of concern by Ottawa into a high-profile diplomatic crisis that will test Canada’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.
The impasse has wide-ranging political and economic implications. But it also represents low-hanging fruit for the Trudeau Liberals. A spat with Saudi Arabia over human rights? Talk about being on the right side of a dispute. Still, if the government is to seize this remarkable opportunity, it must realize that a firm position on human rights goes beyond mere expressions of concern.
A free ride for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a well-documented human-rights violator that merits persistent and strong condemnation by all states. However, Saudi officials have come to count on the acquiescence of Western governments. And it is not hard to see why.
The catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Yemen is known to be the direct result of a Saudi-led military intervention, now into its fourth year. A UN panel has denounced the “widespread and systematic targeting of civilian targets.” Recently, a Saudi airstrike killed dozens of children coming home from a summer camp in northern Yemen. Yet the crisis continues to unfold as the international community looks on with disconcerting and shameful timidity.
Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its own citizens is also dire. The imprisonment of activists that prompted Minister Freeland’s tweet was only the latest incident in a consistent pattern of human rights violations by one of the most repressive regimes on Earth.
Still, Western governments—including Canada’s—continue to authorize arms exports to Saudi Arabia. They reject repeated warnings that these arms might be misused and refuse to recognize the demonstrable incompatibility of certain deals with the human-rights safeguards of relevant export control regulations.
For Ottawa, the key concern must be whether there is a risk of misuse of Canadian-made goods by Saudi Arabia against its own citizens or other civilians. Because there is indeed a clear and present risk, Canada should not be exporting arms to Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the growing accumulation of weapons in one of the most volatile regions in the world will inevitably have long-term effects for regional and international security. And make no mistake: Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is sustained by billions of dollars of Western weaponry.
Where are the champions of human rights?
Both the previous Conservative and the present Liberal governments have offered explanations that avoid the basic question around risk of misuse of Canadian arms exports. Some are devoid of ethical considerations: “If we don’t sell them these arms, somebody else will.” Some scare taxpayers: “Canada may be on the hook for hefty fines if we cancel.” Some rely on believing the very party that might be misusing the goods: “Saudi authorities said proper procedure is followed in security operations involving our arms exports.”
Canada’s response to this high-profile row will be closely scrutinized every time Saudi Arabia commits another human-rights violation. The Trudeau government will either renounce or affirm its prerogative to speak out on human rights. And Riyadh has made it very clear that even expressions of concern are considered unacceptable interference in domestic affairs.
International support for Canada has been feeble, with friends and allies reluctant to step up, perhaps themselves fearing the wrath of Riyadh. And so it will not be easy for Canada, perhaps standing alone, to draw a line in the sand. But Mr. Trudeau ought to know that doing the right thing is often not easy.
Canada promotes a feminist international assistance policy and claims to support a rules-based multilateral order. At the same time, it is arming one of the world’s worst oppressors of women and contravening domestic and international norms aimed at regulating unscrupulous arms transfers. It is simply untenable for Canada to continue arms exports to Saudi Arabia. And if the recent spat is what brings them to an end, Minister Freeland’s tweet will have a more positive impact on human rights in Saudi Arabia than she could have ever anticipated.
Canada must remain open to the pursuit of common interests with Saudi Arabia. Every effort must be made to keep wheat and barley, nurses and students, oil and investments flowing between the two countries. But not arms.
How many political leaders can define their legacy by standing up for their principles before an attentive domestic and international audience? Mr. Trudeau’s opportunity has been served up on a silver platter. The question is whether he will seize it.