Canada right to speak up on Saudi human rights abuses

How much inhumanity does a country get to inflict on people before countries with which it does business speak up?

That question is central to the dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia.

How about beheading, crucifixion, leading the invasion of another country (Yemen, creating what the United Nations called a humanitarian catastrophe,) torturing confessions out of prisoners then executing them based on those confessions, public flogging, systemic discrimination against women, and, as Amnesty International notes, detaining human rights defenders and sentencing them to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials?

This, some argue, shouldn’t be criticized because Saudi Arabia is not like Canada.

But Canada did speak up. On Aug. 3, the foreign ministry’s Twitter feed carried a tweet that called for release of women’s rights activist Samar Badawi and other “peaceful human rights activists.”

Badawi, who has long been persecuted by the Saudi government, was arrested in part for her campaign for women’s right to drive, even as the Saudi regime was granting that right.

And for that tweet, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman banished Canada’s ambassador, suspended trade with Canada, withdrew funding for 15,000 students studying in Canada, recalled all medical patients in Canada and will sell off its Canadian assets.

There is not much agricultural trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia, a country of about 32 million. Of the $3 to $4 billion in annual two-way trade between the two countries, Canada exports about $100 million in agricultural products. For perspective, Canada’s agriculture exports to South Korea are about 10 times that.

Of the products involved, cereals (most notably barley) account for about $34 million; soybeans and oleagic fruits $17 million; vegetables, fruits and nut foods $13.4 million; dairy products and honey $9.9 million; and meats and offal $7 million. Ontario and Quebec account for about 80 percent of those exports.

But while Canada does not do much business with Saudi Arabia, where bin Salman’s sanctions do hit, they hit hard. Of note is Lethbridge’s Green Prairie International, a successful forage operation that has worked to develop relationships with Saudi Arabia’s livestock market. GPI may lose millions of dollars in business opportunities that have taken years to cultivate.

Observers say this isn’t really about Canada; that bin Salman decided to use a country with which it does little business to send a message that it will not tolerate international scrutiny of its human rights record while it tries to introduce reforms.

Some have said Canada shouldn’t have used Twitter as a device to voice its concerns. Perhaps quiet diplomatic pressure might have been a better route.

Regardless, Saudi Arabia cannot banish every country that speaks up, especially since bin Salman wants to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

With a gross domestic product higher than Russia’s, Canada cannot do business with just the “nice” countries if it wants to expand its economy. The world doesn’t work that way anymore, if it ever did.

Still, if no one else will speak up, Canada should do so.

The world is full of administrations that will take the money and stay silent. Fewer are those who would shine some light on the human rights abuses of those who aspire to be trading partners.

If Canada must take the leadership on human rights, so be it. It might hurt, but too many, too many times, have stayed silent.

And when has that paid off?

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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