As a diplomatic fight between the Canadian and Saudi Arabian governments continues to spiral, Canadian criticism of the Arab kingdom’s arrest of local activists has sparked some frustration from human rights champions closer to home.
An official tweet sent last week expressed “concern about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists” and urged the Saudi government to “immediately release them all and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”
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While Amnesty International welcomed the development, its Canadian secretary general Alex Neve said the tweet breaks with Canada’s other dealings with Saudi Arabia: notably, the controversial deal brokered by the former Conservative government and upheld by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to let a Canadian company sell $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles. Concern has been raised that the Saudi Arabian government has, in some cases, been using the vehicles against its own citizens.
“I think there is obviously inconsistency,” Neve said. “I also know that that’s the world we live in when it comes to human rights diplomacy.”
So why is the government intervening now? Could it have predicted such an extreme reaction?
There are likely two reasons Canada stepped in now, Neve said. One is Trudeau’s public commitment to women’s equality and human rights issues as a matter of foreign policy. The most recent arrests, he said, are “symptomatic of a crackdown on women’s rights activists that has intensified quickly over the last three months.”
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The second, Neve said, is a matter of who was arrested: Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi. Badawi, a prominent activist who has been jailed before for her work, is the sister of Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger also currently under arrest in Saudi Arabia. Raif’s wife Ensaf Haidar lives with the couple’s children in Quebec, where they recently became Canadian citizens.
“That obviously brings both of their cases much closer to home,” Neve said.
It’s also the reason why Nelson Wiseman doesn’t think the Canadian criticism is inconsistent with the $15 billion arms deal.
“There is a family connection there,” the University of Toronto political science professor said. “That’s part of what the consular’s job is for Canadian diplomats abroad.”
One of the Saudi government’s first responses to the tweet was to order the Canadian ambassador to leave the country within 24 hours.
Criticism of the country for human rights violations isn’t inconsistent with the arms deal, Wiseman said, because the government has said it doesn’t have definitive proof that Saudi Arabia has used Canadian armoured vehicles against its own people.
“You might accuse them of some hypocrisy,” he said, “but I don’t think you can accuse them of being inconsistent because they’ve spoken up on human rights.”
Wiseman said he’s mostly surprised to see such a strong reaction out of Saudi Arabia. In addition to expelling the Canadian ambassador, the government is making plans to pull all of its students studying at Canadian universities out of the country.
Paul Mkandaŵire, an associate professor who specializes in human rights at Carleton University, isn’t surprised by the extreme reaction. It’s a reflection of the current geopolitical situation, he said. If U.S. President Donald Trump can insult his allies left, right and centre, what’s stopping everyone else from joining the fray?
“Saudi Arabia feels emboldened,” Mkandaŵire said.
Canadians also shouldn’t mistake who the intended target of the Arab kingdom’s message is, he said. Although some believed Saudi Arabia took a step forward earlier this year in granting women the right to drive, there has been tremendous pushback in the patriarchal country.
“Part of it is to send a message that even though there have been concessions of late, the regime stands to defend the status quo,” Mkandaŵire said.
Canada’s stance will likely have economic repercussions, he said, but perhaps it’s an opportunity for Canada to be more consistent going forward. Mkandaŵire is firmly opposed to the arms deal, even if the Canadian government doesn’t believe it has enough evidence to say definitively the weapons are being used on Saudi Arabian people.
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“I’m not in favour of the kind of deal that builds the capacity of an already repressive regime, where you know they’re going to use machinery for undemocratic ends for sure,” he said.
Neve is similarly optimistic.
“Our hope is that this will become the impetus now for Canada to really become a principled and consistent leader when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record.”