The Liberals Were Mostly Interested in Proclaiming Their Credentials as Rights Advocates
Posted August 13, 2018
What were the motivations of the Liberal government in the tweet that provoked a shrill overreaction by Saudi Arabia?
The Saudi government is being largely run by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is known for impetuous behaviour—initiating a boycott of Qatar, detaining the visiting prime minister of Lebanon, and clumsily prosecuting a war in Yemen.
They have shown themselves to be hypersensitive to comments by other western governments, so what has happened here cannot have been a total surprise.
There is nothing defensible about Saudi behaviour in this episode. They arrested and jailed civil rights advocate Samar Badawi, sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, whose family now lives in Quebec.
In response, Global Affairs Canada tweeted as follows: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”
Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.
— Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018
The Saudi response was a quick rejection, saying it will not accept any form of interference in its internal affairs and considers the Canadian position “an attack” requiring a firm stance to deter “attempts to undermine the sovereignty” of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled theirs. They have dramatically curtailed trade relations. They have told the thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada that they have to move to universities in other countries.
This will remove hundreds of medical residents from Canadian hospitals and cause sudden damage to university budgets. Nova Scotia’s universities will lose 785 students. They and their communities will lose perhaps $25 million in spending on local goods and services. A $15 billion military procurement contract involving thousands of Ontario jobs is at risk.
If the goal of Canada’s effort was to secure the release of Samar Badawi, it has failed. Sending a public criticism of the Saudi regime was not the smart way to proceed. Persistent private communications would have had better prospects, with less downside risk.
The Saudis’ behaviour has made it impossible for them to back down.
If there was a broader goal of influencing future Saudi behaviour, it reflects an exaggerated sense of Canada’s importance in the world. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom nor the European Union has supported Canada’s position.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia has been supported by its neighbours Bahrain and United Arab Emirates.
The Liberals have largely avoided taking pot-shots at Donald Trump—a wise and disciplined choice. It is a shame that they did not exercise the same restraint here. It is not a secret that the crown prince is tetchy.
The most charitable interpretation of the Liberal initiative is that it was an ill-considered effort to secure Samar Badawi’s release and discourage future arrests of rights advocates.
An alternative interpretation is that political posturing was the primary goal.
It is part of the Liberal playbook to position themselves as champions of diversity, gender equality, and human rights in general. Fair enough.
But if that was the overriding motivation, did they think about the potential cost to hospitals, universities, employment, and the prospects for lenient treatment of Badawi?
The Saudi behaviour is wrong in every way and damages their own citizens studying in Canada. The values that the Liberals are championing are good values.
That does not change the fact that their choice of both communication medium and message has caused considerable collateral damage without achieving a useful outcome.
The political implications are a different matter. The Liberals might be secretly delighted if the Saudis cancel the $15 billion-dollar contract for military vehicles, about which Canadian rights activists have been highly critical. Perhaps they underestimated the pain for universities and hospitals.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland responded to the Saudis by doubling down: “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
Canadians will have to decide whether they are content to accept the collateral damage that goes with the chest-thumping.
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