David Moscrop is a Canadian contributing columnist for Post Opinions.
OTTAWA — In August, Canada’s foreign ministry took to Twitter to call for the release of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, also an activist imprisoned by the regime led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known in the media as MBS. Raif’s wife, Ensaf Haidar (who is also an activist), fled with her children to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 2015 to escape threats and persecution in their home country.
The gangster government in Riyadh responded in anger, expelling the Canadian ambassador, suspending developing trade and investment plans, and demanding its students in the country on national scholarships relocate. Flights were grounded. Assets were sold. A full-blown fit was thrown.
Experts and commentators interpreted the Saudi response as a warning shot for would-be critics around the world. At the time, Canada stood mostly firm, though it has continued with its plans to sell weapons to the kingdom. In September, quietly, the Canadian government set about attempting to repair relations. But then, on Oct. 2, the regime reportedly detained and murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a Post Global Opinions columnist, after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Now Canada has an opportunity to lead an international chorus condemning the brutal actions of a country that has been trying to rebrand itself as reformist while oppressing its own people, stifling dissent, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, and starving and killing civilians in Yemen.
To date, the Saudis have gotten away with their belligerence and repression in no small part thanks to their oil reserves and related wealth. That’s the realist take. But international relations aren’t just about money and resources. There are also values and norms to consider. And while values and norms don’t pay the bills, and they are not the omnipotent force guiding world affairs, every so often nations do the right thing and press back against violations. Canada should do so now.
Certainly, a bold response from Canada would not be without costs to the country. But those are costs worth bearing. First, the government could suspend or cancel arms shipments approved by the previous government, including the infamous light armored vehicles that Amnesty International has said are at risk of being used against civilians. That could cost millions of dollars and many jobs. But the alternative is continuing to sell weapons to a regime that murders journalists, oppresses its own people and bullies the region. The deals were morally bankrupt in the first place (the Trudeau government has since started a process that could lead to tightening the arms-sales rules) and are even more so now.
Canada could also invoke its version of the Magnitsky law, as Hélène Laverdière of the New Democratic Party has suggested. The law permits the country to levy punitive measures, including bans and freezing domestic assets, against violators for human rights abuses or corruption. The government did just that in 2017, targeting dozens of violators from Russia, South Sudan, Venezuela and, later, military leaders in Myanmar. It should do so again.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has expressed a “real concern” about Khashoggi’s disappearance while reiterating his intention to work with allies to respond. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has spoken to her Saudi counterpart, insisting on a “thorough and transparent” investigation. She has also expressed support for the joint statement issued by the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which calls for a thorough investigation. But we know what the investigation will turn up, don’t we? Lies and obfuscation. And then what? Canada must aggressively, if peacefully, sanction Saudi Arabia and limit the country’s business with the kingdom.
The reported murder of Khashoggi is the latest in a series of intolerable acts by the regime in Riyadh — acts that must now trigger consequences. The death of a journalist who worked to hold the Saudi government to account is a tragedy. But it is also an attack on democracy, human rights and decency everywhere. Punishing the Saudis would cost Canada. But the alternative is to continue to engage with and profit from the kingdom on the backs of oppressed and murdered innocents. Is that who Canadians are or wish to be? I certainly hope not.