Canada has received a great deal of praise for sparking a feud with Saudi Arabia, ostensibly over human rights abuses. If Canada challenged Saudi Arabia in any meaningful way, this praise would be warranted, especially as most of the Kingdom’s allies have avoided giving any much needed criticism. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.
Canada’s supposedly brave stance against Saudi Arabia was a couple of lukewarm tweets from minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, and Global Affairs Canada, calling for the Kingdom to immediately release Samar Badawi, a human rights activist, from detainment.
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
If past behaviour is any indication, Freeland’s tweets would have been the first, and last, public step toward challenging human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Freeland and Global Affairs Canada tweet about being “gravely” and “deeply” concerned about all kinds of events, but the government rarely follows up when the perpetrator is a Canadian ally.
The only reason this feud has erupted is because Saudi Arabia claimed Canada interfered in its internal affairs, and responded with a series of harsh and wide-ranging punishments.
But don’t mistake this outburst as a sign that Canada did anything meaningful. According to University of Waterloo professor, Bessma Momani, Saudi Arabia’s response has nothing to do with Canada, and instead is a step to “signal to the world that interference in Saudi domestic affairs and criticism of the country will come with economic consequences.”
Since Saudi Arabia’s eruption, the Canadian government has followed up on their initial tweets by doing … absolutely nothing, publicly, at least. A spokesperson for Freeland has claimed this is due to the minister trying to get a better understanding of Saudi Arabia’s response, because apparently, getting punched in the face over and over isn’t enough to let you know you’re in a fight.
Canada has aided, and then justified, the worst of Saudi Arabia’s abuses.
In the meantime, government officials have offered a few middling statements to tide Canadians over. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We continue to engage diplomatically, but as I’ve said, Canada will always be very clear on standing up for human rights,” which is sure to inspire confidence.
Earlier, Freeland said, “We are always going to speak up for human rights, we are always going to speak up for women’s rights and that is not going to change.”
It’s at this point that Canada’s response to Saudi Arabia goes from being passively cowardly, to actively harmful.
Canada shouldn’t be seen as a country daring to take the first step against Saudi Arabia, but rather as a bully’s friend who said the wrong thing, and got stomped out as a way of sending a message to onlookers.
This is because Canada has aided, and then justified, the worst of Saudi Arabia’s abuses.
In 2014, the Conservative government made a deal to sell $15 billion worth of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
The deal was criticized at the time, as Saudi Arabia had previously used similar vehicles to attack protesters in Bahrain, and the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia.
Regardless, when the Liberals came into office, they decided against cancelling the deal, as Trudeau said, “Fundamentally, this issue is a matter of principle. The principle at play here is that Canada’s word needs to mean something in the international community.”
The Liberals prioritized supposed business principles over human lives.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia reportedly used Canadian made vehicles in their brutal invasion of Yemen.
Thus far, Saudi forces and their allies have killed more than 10,000 people in Yemen, two-thirds of whom are civilians. According to the BBC, “The fighting and a partial blockade by the coalition has also left 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid, created the world’s largest food security emergency, and led to a cholera outbreak that is thought to have affected a million people.”
The Saudis also used Canadian vehicles against protesters at home.
Government officials haven’t even mentioned stopping the shipment of vehicles to Saudi Arabia
Freeland, of course, expressed how “deeply concerned” she was by this domestic repression, and decided to launch an investigation to give her auto-reply a little more weight than it usually carries.
But any hope for a divergence from the usual was misplaced. If the Canadian investigation found Saudi Arabia had done something wrong, they’d have to take action in order to avoid losing face internationally. Conveniently, Freeland’s investigation concluded that the Saudis had used “proportionate and appropriate force” against civilians.
Canada went from ignoring Saudi abuses, to providing weapons to commit the abuses, and then retroactively justifying their actions.
The Liberal government also ignored most Canadians, who disapprove of the government’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, by voting against a motion from the New Democratic Party to establish a “Parliamentary committee to investigate Canadian arms exports to human rights abusers,” including Saudi Arabia.
As such, there’s no indicator Canada has cared about Saudi human rights abuses in the past, at least not enough to do anything in response. And, as of now, there’s still nothing to indicate that has changed, besides empty words. Yet even amidst all the grandstanding, government officials haven’t mentioned stopping the shipment of vehicles to Saudi Arabia as a possible response.
Until the Canadian government cancels the arms deal with Saudi Arabia — regardless of potential further punishment from the Kingdom, penalties or complaints from industry in Canada — it should be seen as complicit, rather than brave. No praise should be given, as this helps whitewash the government’s ongoing complicity, and dulls the political need on their end for any genuine response.