The Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia has been recalled, Saudi students studying in Canada have been asked by the kingdom to return home, and flights from Canada into Saudi Arabia have been suspended. What, if any, role does Canada have in criticizing human rights abuses abroad, and what does promoting human rights do for global security? Program Editors, Maria Pepelassis, Buzz Lanthier-Rogers, Nasser Haidar, Amaliah Reiskind, McCartney Lee, and Claire Wählen attempt to answer these questions in this week’s Editor’s Forum.
With this Editors’ Forum, the NATO Association of Canada is also pleased to announce the first instalment of our current affairs podcast, Keeping Up with the Interns!
Maria Konstantina Pepelassis, Program Editor: Security, Trade, and the Economy
Our government has stood up for a human rights campaigner is Saudi Arabia, in line with the values enshrined in our Constitution that promote liberty and peace. Our own dark history must remind us of the pain of systemic discrimination and the scars it leaves on society. Unfortunately, these moral declarations have a price that is largely being paid by Saudi citizens and not the government guilty of severe human rights abuses.
In response to the Canadian government’s comments, Saudi Arabia has ejected Canada’s ambassador, cut trade ties, and most importantly, pulled out Saudi citizens in Canada to study and get medical treatment. This recalling of Saudi citizens in Canada will have significant ramifications for the progress of Saudi activism and campaigning for human rights. Saudi students studying in Canada will no longer have the opportunity to enjoy an education in a free society, and they will no longer have the opportunity to observe discourse and dialogue without ramifications. Basically, they will no longer be able to develop an understanding of the merits of democracy.
Saudi officials from the Foreign Affairs ministry reported that 15 000 Saudi students study in Canadian universities and schools with funding in the form of scholarships and grants coming from Riyadh. These students form an important pillar of diplomacy, in that by studying in Canada they have the opportunity to create and maintain peace through institutional means, and through intercultural exchange. Former US Ambassador to Kuwait, Richard LeBaron, in a speech to the United States Institute for Peace, said it is in fact necessary for modern education to “promote skills and qualities that contribute to progressive civil society and mutual acceptance of different cultures” that he says, prevent further conflict. Intercultural exchange allows for these communal interactions that in fact intent to expand and exchange knowledge. As such, these experiences are very valuable for students coming from a more restrictive country.
If the government’s intent is to promote human rights and speak up for our values, they’re not doing so to the best of their abilities. If we hope for change in Saudi Arabia, it must come from within. The civil society that we value that is founded on mutual respect of diversity can only be shared through contact and education, and provoking a response from Saudi Arabia that cuts that contact between our two countries does not seem the right decision. Daniel Buccino, director of Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative states, “the more contact we have with each other the more civil we become.” To truly stand up for our values and foster and civility while promoting common understanding, we should prioritize the greater good of citizen to citizen contact and betterment and by doing so, promote internal change and progress within those more restricted countries.
Buzz Lanthier-Rogers, Program Editor: NATO Operations
It may be controversial, but I believe that human rights exist. There is an argument that they do not: they are an agreement, made by specific people at a specific time. The countries that signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are run by different leaders now, and they are individuals who claim a different interpretation. They imprison journalists, torture activists, and kill based on kith and kin and habits that harm no one, but they agree on these values and signatories of that document. They swear and clutch their knouts.
And continue to flog.
Even the harshest dictator supports human rights; at least until the light focuses on them. Saudi Arabia, like so many other countries, declares an exception. People should be treated well, except women, gays, religious minorities, anyone critical of the regime—then human rights are a Panglossian notion -, tethers to keep Saudi Arabia down.
We disagree, and yet we are too often content to look the other way, too often post our morality on our lawn without ever taking the time to act on it. We might believe we can only hold some countries accountable. To take on others would upset the order; we trade with them and get along well, and they’re important, so to call them out would make things difficult. That is the implicit understanding at work, and I hope Canada continues to reject it.
PEN members have worked to worked to get Raif Badawi released for years. Only now that his sister, Samar Badawi, has been arrested has Canada taken some action, albeit slight. Saudi Arabia claims Canada has no right to criticize, since it, too, has violated human rights in its past—stones, glass houses, you get the point. Unfortunately, even if your accuser has a checkered history with human rights violations themselves, that doesn’t make their accusation any less true. And this accusation is very much true.
Nasser Haidar, Program Editor: Emerging Security
A political gift from Riyadh. Canada and Saudi Arabia were never natural allies. It has always been a trading relationship of convenience, and a part of Canada’s larger strategy of soft influence in important areas around the world. Was this a step back in terms of Canada’s relationship with the Middle East as a whole? Sure. Considering that Saudi Arabia still holds significant influence over its regional neighbours, Canada might have to cool off for a little bit before re-entering the fray. Is this exactly what Canada needed? Absolutely.
No political party in Canada could have advocated for a reset in ties with Saudi Arabia, with such wide-ranging sectors of cooperation between the two nations. Saudi Arabia took care of that and did it for Canada’s government, instead. The real benefit here is that the battle lines when it comes to human rights advocacy have been drawn. Now countries can decide which side they truly stand on.
Middle Eastern states have for far too long been used to this hegemonic, dictatorial bullying by Saudi Arabia, and there’s not too much they can actually do. Canada has a lot more options, and a lot less that ties to a Kingdom with an abysmal human rights record. At the very least, it has now been put squarely in the spotlight for the whole world to see. Those millions spent on public relations media campaigns might have been wasted money for Mohammed Bin Salman, as these recent actions have totally put a stop to the absurd propaganda spins of a “reformist” leader in Saudi Arabia. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; it seems like the house of Saud is more fragile than ever.
Amaliah Reiskind, Program Editor: Cyber Security and Information Warfare
Canada has always been more about words than aggressive action, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By sticking to strong human rights rhetoric, buoyed occasionally by peacekeeping operations, Canada has managed to maintain a relatively innocuous global profile and avoided major animosity. In a world order currently in flux, such a position shouldn’t be discounted. Of course Canada is far, far from perfect regarding its own human rights concerns. This doesn’t make it hypocritical for it to build on the Right to Protect doctrine it was instrumental in creating.
The current tensions between Canada and Saudi Arabia demonstrates just how volatile global politics have become; it’s now a world where foreign policy is continuously influenced by Twitter (thanks Trump). That being said the back and forth between the two countries is happening because it is low cost spat. Canada likely wasn’t expecting too much of a blowback for tweeting about its concerns about Saudi Arabia jailing an activist, as it was an easy reproach to make, which that shores up its stance on human rights abuses. Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s quick, escalatory reaction allows it to strengthen its stance on its disdain for foreign meddling. This exchange probably won’t have any impact on global security; the two countries didn’t share an important relationship to begin with, and as such not much has been sacrificed by them choosing their respective reputations over smoother relations. That being said, Saudi Arabia’s reaction does showcase its standard bullying and below-board tactics, exemplifying that it is a country Canada shouldn’t deal with.
McCartney Lee, Program Editor: Canadian Armed Forces
We don’t need them and they don’t need us.
Cutting diplomatic ties with the thin-skinned Saudi regime is a dream come true for me. We are talking about a country that actively stones gay people in the streets, dehumanizes women, kidnaps foreign leaders (Lebanon), and engages in destructive proxy wars with Iran. The Canadian government chose to speak out about some of these human rights abuses in a set of Tweets, an action that isn’t all together unusual in the 21st century. In response, the Saudi Crown Prince demonstrated his penchant for a muscle-flexing foreign policy that seeks to make one thing clear: criticism won’t be tolerated.
The expulsion of the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh and a freeze on all new trade between the two nations highlights the Saudi’s pathetic allergy to criticism. Riyadh has overreacted in similar ways with Sweden and Germany, recalling both ambassadors after critiques were directed towards the flogging of jailed blogger Raif Badawi and the military intervention in Yemen. The Crown Prince is trying to make an example of Canada, sending a clear message to other nations to think twice before critiquing the archaic regime. At this point, nothing short of a groveling public apology from Canada will simmer tensions between the two countries.
But why would we? Trade between Saudi Arabia and Canada amounts to 3 billion to 4 billion dollars per year – about what Canada and the US trade in two days – making the sanctions fairly insignificant. Canada isn’t currently the pinnacle of human rights, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the set of values we helped to create. Grovelling to a sensitive bully seems a little counter-productive. Grow up Saudi Arabia.
Claire Wählen, Program Director : NATO’s 70th Anniversary
It’s hard to question Canada’s legitimacy in condemning Saudi Arabia for its well established poor human rights track record when, in the midst of onslaught sanctions and measures being piled up against Canada, Saudi Arabia yesterday [Wednesday] crucified a man – a rare but still used measure of handling the accused, sometimes even for the crime of homosexuality, sometimes for anti-government sentiment. Capital punishment is far more the norm.
Canada is absolutely right to voice concern over the atrocities happening in a nation that insists on taking a seat at the international table – specifically the UN Human Rights Council table, if not other standards– and to say that Canada is getting what it deserves for taking such a high road in a difficult time or tumultuous world vindicates Saudi Arabia when we cannot. There is no caveat there. Human lives either mean something or they don’t, it doesn’t matter where the border lines are drawn.
Photos: Riyadh Saudi Arabia City Night via Pixabay and Peace Dove via Noun Project. Creative Commons
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.