Complicit silence has been the way most of the Western world has been dealing with Saudi Arabia up until now.
We’ve been muddling along with our own politics, treading a very uncomfortable, uneasy, and deliberately unaware line when it comes to trading with them, preferring to favour a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to their human rights abuses.
We continue to feign ignorance of the atrocities back at home and in Yemen — where a full-blown famine is unfolding and where banned-by-treaty cluster munitions are bombing innocent civilians with no thought or effort to mitigate casualties — and we continue to pretend that real reform is taking place. We think of foreign investment and weapons sales as we tell ourselves we could never sway the kingdom.
Cognitive dissonance and physical distance, coupled with self-serving complacency, enable Western indifference.
Breaking our silence
But sometimes the barbarity of the act is so brazen, so violently thrust in our faces, the target too close to home, the details so ghastly, the coverup so pathetically amateur — indicating both the wanton carelessness of a habitual act and the certainty it would go unpunished — that the world can’t look away, that we can no longer ignore it. The spotlight is irreversibly and glaringly pointed at what we knew all along but had convinced ourselves had nothing to do with us or was beyond our scope of exercising any meaningful influence on.
We willingly bought the lies about Saudi reforms, the Hollywood trips of a handsome young prince who offered the illusion of a modern, more humane and more liberal version of a brutal theocracy. We bought it because we wanted to. Because there were weapons to sell, and alliances to establish, business deals to broker and peace to maintain.
Like so many other Western countries who purchase Saudi crude oil and sell them armoured vehicles and weapons, Canada too looked the other way. We knew. We knew about the mass incarcerations, the torture and beheading of political dissidents, the stoning of children and rape victims, the mass amputations of limbs for minor crimes, the absolute and utter lack of freedom of speech. But, somehow, it didn’t concern us.
Until it did.
Until a murder so grotesque, so inhumane, so James-Bond-villain-like in its stomach-churning details forced us to keep our eyes open and see what we were so unwilling to until now. That, despite our big talk of defending human rights and freedom of the press around the world, we, too, were no better than they were, because by continuing to do business with them we were supporting and propping up a regime we claim we are appalled by.
Human rights must guide foreign policy
It’s time to ask ourselves as a country, and as a people, where our values lie. Do we care about the money or do we care about disassociating from this savage regime and washing our hands clean of them? Are we a country that preaches about human rights only in vague hypotheticals, in grandiose UN speeches, or on Twitter? Or do we walk the walk when it matters — when money is on the line and there is a price to pay for our convictions?
“If the stories that have been widely circulating turn out to be the case, then Canadians expect us to act,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in what is the closest confirmation we’ve seen so far of possible retaliatory sanctions and a freezing of arms deals with Saudi Arabia. What are we waiting for? How much longer do we need to listen to the inane and frankly embarrassing attempts at a murder cover-up by the Saudis before we stand up and say “Enough!”
How much longer do we need to condone and enable such barbarity by looking the other way and going along with the pretence that the Saudis are conducting a thorough investigation right now that will reap any form of consequences for the real perpetrators?
Why did it have to take the murder of a journalist based in the West for the world to take notice when innocent children have been dying in Yemen by the hundreds almost daily for close to four years now, women are jailed for wanting basic human rights, and dissidents are arrested, never to be seen again?
Why would any so-called civilized and democratic country want to tacitly approve of and do business with a brutal despotic kingdom that has absolutely no respect for human life and freedom?
Following Germany’s lead
Germany has halted arms deals with Saudi Arabia and has encouraged allies to do the same. Yet Canada has remained silent on this. Yes, we may lose $1 billion dollars if we cancel our $15-billion arms deal. Yes, the previous Conservative government was responsible for inking the sale of the military vehicles, but it’s the current Liberal government that gave it final approval. We’re all complicit in this. As a Canadian taxpayer, I’m not interested in propping up this regime, in bowing down to it for our balance sheet or because senior advisors and former Canadian politicians like John Baird currently have business dealings there.
That’s between them and their conscience.
The United States will not react to any of this. We are on our own. Trump is devoid of a moral compass and only views the international spotlight as an inconvenient speed-bump on the road of his many financial dealings with the Saudis.
His only comment on this whole affair so far has been to criticize how badly they botched the murder. That’s not criticizing a regime for its atrocities; that’s wishing it were more efficient at hiding them.
He is idly sitting by, allowing the vicious monarchy the freedom to do as they please, despite mounting evidence that the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was planned and executed with extreme brutality to send a clear message back home that no form of vocal opposition or criticism will be allowed or tolerated. That, even outside the kingdom’s borders, you are not safe from retribution.
Trump won’t let a murdered journalist come between him and his chosen ally.
Sitting back and allowing this travesty of an internal investigation to play out without halting all arms deals, imposing the Magnitsky Act (which would give our government the power to freeze Canadian assets of foreign individuals who have been found to have violated human rights), or publicly and loudly condemning the murder also sends a clear message: we don’t really care.
Are we going to do something of consequence about this? If so, what are we waiting for? If not, how can we so proudly claim to be a country that stands up for human rights?