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In Canada's spat with Saudi Arabia, signs of a trickier road for democracies

With the United States under President Trump retreating from the role of global human-rights champion, Canada is stepping into the breach. But it is finding its advocacy under fire by those it criticizes and its own citizens.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers reporters' questions concerning Canada's relationship with Saudi Arabia in Montreal on Aug. 8.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/AP

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The furious reaction by Saudi Arabia to what was a rather stock Canadian statement calling for the release of imprisoned human rights activists has little to do with Canada – and everything to do with the ruling agenda of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Still, the bilateral spat – which has garnered global attention simply for the proportions it has taken – took this country off guard. In doing so, it has raised questions about the price Canada must pay to stand up for its principles on the global stage, which has become a lonelier place as of late.

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And despite being cast as the “good” character in the narrative, the Canadian government faces charges of hypocrisy at home, as it asserts its commitment to human rights abroad while continuing to sell arms to the regime. It's a conundrum that many Western nations face, and one reason allies have been so silent in this specific dispute.

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Saudis making an example

None of this reflection was expected, when Canada’s foreign ministry called for the “immediate release” of civil society members, including gender-rights activist Samar Badawi, in an Aug. 3 tweet.

Anodyne words by most accounts, Riyadh called them “blatant interference” in its internal affairs and announced a rash of retaliatory measures unless an apology is issued. That includes expelling the Canadian ambassador, halting trade, suspending flights to Toronto, yanking students on scholarship out of universities across the country, and putting a question mark over the continuation of a deal on armored vehicles. For now, oil sales remain unaffected.

People line up to check in to the last direct flight from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 10.
Chris Donovan/Reuters

Many believe the rebuke was intentionally disproportionate, a signal to other Western countries not to meddle in the internal affairs of the crown prince, known as MBS. Canada is an easy target. While the measures are dramatic for those directly affected – including thousands of students who now must scramble before the start of the school year – the bilateral relationship is relatively narrow. Staking such a position against the European Union would carry much greater risks for Riyadh.

MBS, who in some avenues has been a reformist, has increasingly used authoritarianism to punish domestic critics. Canadian authorities have tried to cool tensions with Riyadh, but say they won’t back down. “Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly and firmly, clearly and politely, about the need to respect human rights around the world,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.

The stance itself is nothing radical or different. Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former advisor to Trudeau, says it only might seem so as others retreat from the stage. “We are living at a time when authoritarianism is on the march and when human rights are being challenged in many parts of the world,” he says, “and continuing Canada’s traditional policy makes it stand out more in that darker world.”

Advocating rights, selling arms

Under that light, however, have surfaced some complex questions for Canada.

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Some opinion makers have criticized the government for a political mishap, isolating itself when so much other uncertainty, including negotiations with the US over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), loom. Others have resurfaced old criticism over a $15-billion (Canadian; $11.5-billion) deal to sell armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. It was signed under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, but has remained controversial for the current government. It is unclear if the deal itself will be scrapped – but most analysts say that if it is, it will be ended by the Saudis, not the Canadians.

“[The dispute] has allowed the Canadian government to make statements that Canada always stands up for human rights, and yet there is no suggestion by Canada still that it should not sell billions of dollars worth of light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia,” says David Webster, an associate professor of history at Bishop’s University in Quebec.

The Saudi Arabian Embassy is shown in Ottawa on Aug. 5. Saudi Arabia ordered Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak to leave the kingdom within 24 hours after his nation criticized the arrests of women's rights activists.
David Kawai/The Canadian Press/AP

Criticisms of hypocrisy for countries upholding peace and human rights while trading in arms dog other nations too, particularly Germany. And because of the business at stake, Canada is facing a degree of isolation on this dispute, including from the EU. “I don’t think anyone wants to get embroiled in this spat,” says Peter Salisbury, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank, “which in many ways suggests that what they [Riyadh] are trying to do is working.”

The sense of standing alone has implications for Canada well beyond this specific case, says Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University in Ottawa. Some speculate that Saudi Arabia used Canada as an example because it knew the Trump administration wouldn’t push back. “We are going to survive Saudi being angry at us because we don’t have deep relations with the country,” Ms. Carvin says, “but if more countries feel Canada is a convenient example because it is no longer being protected by the United States, that becomes a problem.”

“If we are entering a global system where not only are authoritarian leaders increasingly bold in their actions, and I would include MBS in that category, but also ... the United States is no longer willing to offer the same kind of guarantees as it once did,” she says, “that actually means we are going to have to sit down and think pretty hard about how we are going to live in this world.”