When Canada did – and didn’t – stand up for human rights

David Webster, Bishop’s University

Justin Trudeau’s government is under fire not only from Saudi government officials, but also from some Canadians who have implictly criticized Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland for being too aggressive in advocating for the release of Saudi human rights activists.

A tweet from the minister expressed her support for the activists, while her department followed up the next day with another seeking the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

None of it was anything unusual: Western diplomats call for the “immediate release” of political prisoners all the time.

Canada’s Parliament unanimously called for the “immediate release” of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (Samar’s brother) in 2015. That followed a similar unanimous motion for Badawi’s “immediate release” by the Quebec National Assembly.

The same U.S. State Department official who now asks Canada and Saudi Arabia to sort out their dispute called on Russia earlier this year to “immediately release” Ukrainian prisoners. Navi Pillai, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Saudi authorities in 2014 “to immediately release all human rights defenders.” Saudi Arabia imposed no sanctions on the U.N. – instead it stayed in, and soon afterwards sought and won a seat on U.N. Human Rights Council.

“Saudi Arabia must immediately free women human rights defenders held in crackdown,” nine U.N. experts added in June 2018 — again prompting no Saudi attack on the UN or its Human Rights Council (of which the Saudi kingdom remains a member).

Nothing remarkable

So there’s little remarkable in Freeland’s anodyne call on Twitter for the “immediate release” of two Saudi activists. It is typical diplomatic language, and actually falls short of what the United Nations human rights system has said on several occasions.

What is remarkable is that Saudi government reaction has allowed Canada to be portrayed as a human rights champion even as it continues to arm Saudi Arabia and thus implicitly accepts Saudi human rights violations.

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Canada’s checkered history of arms sales to human rights violators

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The controversial $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy. The vehicle in question is shown here at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., in 2012.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Spowart

David Webster, Bishop’s University

The Canadian government has been taking flak lately for its arms sales.

Helicopters destined for the Philippines could be used for internal security in President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh crackdowns, critics charge.

The $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has also embroiled Justin Trudeau’s government in controversy.

In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to review both deals, suggesting Canada is toughening up arms sales restrictions based on human rights grounds.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks to MPs on Parliament Hill in February 2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

But how did Canada get into the international arms trade, anyway?

A look at the history of how Canada started selling weapons overseas following the Second World War reveals that, contrary to Freeland’s implication, Canada actually used to be much more restrictive on arms sales than it is today.

Canada has not made human rights any more central to its arms export policy than it was in the 1940s — in fact, it’s reduced oversight and the consideration of human rights issues when it comes to selling arms.

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