Frida Ghitis is a columnist for World Politics Review and a regular CNN.com opinion contributor.
“Human rights” is a phrase we don’t hear much from President Trump, and it’s not hard to figure out why. His admiration for autocrats is by now well established. He praises Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, China’s Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Autocrats everywhere have got the message: The president of the United States will not consider interfering in their internal affairs (well, at least unless they’re Venezuela or Iran). They can torture critics, kill journalists, crack down on protesters — and Washington won’t say a word.
Here and there, we’ve seen attempts by other nations to pick up the banner that Trump has dropped. The latest country to do so is Canada, which last week issued a strong challenge to the government of Saudi Arabia. But the Canadians’ experience soon showed why their voice — however heartfelt — doesn’t carry quite as far as Washington’s.
On Aug. 1, Amnesty International announced that the Saudis had placed women’s rights advocate Samar Badawi, whose brother Raif Badawi has been in prison since 2012, under arrest. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called on the Saudis publicly to release both Samar and Raif. Canada has a particular interest in the case because it granted asylum and Canadian citizenship to Raif’s wife and children.
The next day, Canada’s official foreign ministry account echoed Freeland’s message, urging the Saudis to “immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” When the Canadian Embassy in Saudi Arabia dared to post an Arabic-language version of the demand, the kingdom responded with fury.
First the Saudi government declared the Canadian ambassador persona non grata, ordering him to leave the country within 24 hours. Then Riyadh announced the freezing of trade relations with Canada, ordered thousands of students studying in Canada to leave the country, and suspended flights by the Saudi state airline to Toronto. Incredibly, the kingdom even pulled Saudi patients out of Canadian hospitals.
Observers were baffled by the ferocity of the reaction, which drew increased attention to Canada’s concerns and made Saudi Arabia seem a less inviting place to foreign investors at a time when it is trying to attract them. Yet the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in other areas is indeed a daring reformer, has lately done many other perplexing things. Not least among his puzzling moves has been the recent arrest of several prominent activists for women’s rights — just after accepting one of their most high-profile demands by allowing them to drive.
On social media, Saudis and their supporters tried to explain the government response. By using the words “immediately release,” and by doing it so publicly, they argued, the Canadians had appeared to be dictating policy to the Saudis.
Criticizing another country, especially a friendly one, over human rights is complicated. And the question of whether to do it quietly or openly has long dogged diplomats.
The West wants the crown prince’s social and economic reforms to succeed, even if they fall short on personal and political freedoms. But the Trump administration has no stomach to seriously challenge Riyadh — and the United States, arguably, is the only country with the political, economic and diplomatic clout to produce results. The United States, after all, is Saudi Arabia’s most important partner. The Americans provide the kingdom with weapons, investment and crucial petroleum technology, while the Saudis and the Americans have backed each other in power disputes throughout the Middle East.
Yet the United States took a strikingly feeble, neutral stance on the Saudi-Canadian spat, saying it’s a matter for the two countries to resolve. The European Union followed Washington’s cue with similarly anodyne statements. If the United States isn’t prepared to speak up, few others will do so. Meanwhile, the Saudis’ harsh reaction showed just how little leverage Ottawa ultimately has.
Yes, it’s true that the United States has often been a flawed advocate for human rights, guilty of many grievous transgressions and missteps throughout its history. Still, it has persisted in trying to support ideals that many people around the world view as worth embracing. The values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once had a powerful defender in Washington.
That all ended when Trump arrived. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson notoriously told U.S. diplomats that promoting values “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests.”
The cause of human freedom takes up little space in Trump’s picture of a perfect world. During his sole State of the Union speech so far, he did not utter the phrase “human rights” a single time — though he did fulminate against North Korea’s horrific treatment of its people, declaring, “No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.”
His moral indignation turned out to be entirely conditional. After Trump met North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore a few months later, all was forgiven. “He loves his people,” Trump said of Kim, calling him “funny” and “smart.”
The State Department still lobbies for rights, but the president’s words have far more impact. As activists sit in prison, their families waiting, they watch countries such as Canada try to take America’s place — and accomplish little. But these activists are used to working patiently against the odds. They know that sooner or later, everything changes, including the person sitting in the Oval Office.