“We discussed the latest developments concerning the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, including the various intensive conversations we had over the weekend with our international partners,” she said. “There are very important questions about the entire relationship with Saudi Arabia that need to be asked.”
The “emergency response group” meeting came a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would cut arms sales to the Saudis, the first major U.S. ally to take action over Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. A close Merkel ally, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, urged other nations to follow suit.
Canada would, in some ways, seem a country likely to take action. Canada this summer protested the arrest of human rights activists by Saudi Arabia. Faced with two critical tweets, the kingdom vowed to suspend trade and investment with Canada, recalled its ambassador from Ottawa and gave Canada’s ambassador 24 hours to get out of Saudi Arabia. Ottawa, naturally, was not pleased.
At the time, some Canadians urged the Trudeau government to do more than simply call out the kingdom on Twitter by, for instance, freezing arms sales to it. In 2014, Canada struck a deal worth billions to sell armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The agreement was controversial from the start and grew more so as Saudi Arabia pressed ahead with bombing campaigns in Yemen and punished Canada for critical tweets. But it still stands.
Now, the diplomatic fallout over the Khashoggi case has focused global attention on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and bolstered domestic calls for the Trudeau government to move beyond expressions of concern.
On Saturday, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), called on the government to cancel the arms deal. Saudi Arabia’s “implication and involvement in the death of a journalist makes it very clear at this point that we can no longer continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia,” Singh said. “There’s no way that under the current context we should be selling weapons that might be used to further oppress its citizens.”
In an interview recorded for a French-language talk show on Oct. 18, before Saudi authorities confirmed Khashoggi’s death, but broadcast on Oct. 21, Trudeau said Canada would “always defend human rights, including with Saudi Arabia.” Asked about the arms deal, he pointed to clauses in the deal relating to human rights. “If they do not follow these clauses, we will definitely cancel the contract,” Trudeau said.
In Parliament on Monday, he went a step further. “We strongly demand and expect that Canadian exports are used in a way that fully respects human rights,” Trudeau said. “We have frozen export permits before when we had concerns about their potential misuse, and we will not hesitate to do so again.”
Tony Clement, a Conservative member of Parliament, floated a different idea: using a new law, known as the Sergei Magnitsky Law, that gives the government the ability to freeze Canadian assets of foreign nationals found to have violated human rights.
The law shares a name and a purpose with the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, the second of two laws named after a Russian whistleblower who died while in detention in Moscow. The man behind the U.S. law, Bill Browder, has been calling on governments, including Canada, to use it to target Khashoggi’s killers.
“The Magnitsky law is perfectly designed to deal with the Khashoggi case,” Browder told the Globe and Mail. “Canada has a great advantage because Canada’s already in the penalty box with Saudi Arabia. It gives Canada the perfect opportunity for no cost and all benefit to be out in front on this.”
But if the Trudeau government moves on either front, it could find itself at odds with the United States, where President Trump has defended his Saudi allies and shown little interest in rethinking ties. The question is whether Canada will stand with the Germans, stand with Trump, or take some middle path.
For today, at least, Germany is on its own.