Human rights

Trudeau lags behind allies in taking action on Saudi Arabia’s grisly crimes

Liberal government’s feeble foreign policy undermines claim to global leadership
Photo: Nathan Rupert
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The Canadian government is looking at the possibility of halting a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The $15-billion agreement for light armoured vehicles (LAVs) built by General Dynamics in London, Ontario, has come under increasing criticism following the Saudi regime’s grisly murder of a journalist earlier this year. “We are engaged with the export permits to try and see if there is a way of no longer exporting these vehicles to Saudi Arabia,” Justin Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday.

Already the company and local officials in London are warning about potential economic consequences if Trudeau actually stops or suspends arms shipments to the Saudis, as a number of European countries have already done. As the saying attributed to U.S. president Abraham Lincoln goes, “Moral principle is a looser bond than pecuniary interest.” But should this continue to be true of Canada’s foreign policy?

In Saudi Arabia, human rights violations and atrocities are stacking up

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney once advised Margaret Thatcher, then the British prime minister, that to oppose Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress and to oppose economic sanctions for Apartheid South Africa would place the United Kingdom on the wrong side of history. Consequently, Mulroney is still revered in South Africa for Canada's leading role in fighting against an immoral system.

Now, in Saudi Arabia, human rights violations and atrocities are stacking up under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The Saudi regime has tried to cover up the truth about the torture and murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while fuelling a famine and crisis in neighbouring Yemen. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struggles under domestic pressures over whether to stop the delivery of LAVs to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a deal tied to the previous Conservative government — critical moral questions arise.

Is Canada abandoning international responsibility by not immediately cancelling the LAV contract?

Is Canada abandoning international responsibility by not immediately cancelling the LAV contract? Is our government aligning itself with an amoral U.S. administration, placing us in a negative light compared to countries such as Norway, Germany, Finland, and Denmark, which have suspended existing and future arms sales to Saudi Arabia? What should Canadians make of Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland’s announcement at the G20 Summit that Canada is copying the U.S. approach of applying sanctions against 17 Saudis said to be involved in Khashoggi’s murder?

The Irvings and the Saudis

Pecuniary interests in London, Ontario, site of the LAV manufacturing, may not be the only ones holding sway with Trudeau.

Eastern Canada’s family-run plutocracy of industry also does business with Saudi Arabia. The Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, receives approximately 100,000 barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia — approximately 35,500,000 barrels annually. New Brunswick's largest city (and the Port of Saint John container cargo infrastructure) also has a hefty economic interest at stake. Additionally, Irving Oil has no foreseeable plans to change its long-standing fossil energy supply channels and end its import relationship with the Saudis.

In light of Canada’s present foreign policy feebleness, can it really make a claim to a seat at the UN Security Council?

In Saint John-Rothesay, MP Wayne Long — who promotes respect for LGBTQ rights — up until recently was relatively quiet on the question of cancelling the LAV deal or imposing economic sanctions via anything resembling effective Magnitsky Act–style penalties. In a Facebook post this week, he finally said that Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are unacceptable. With a 2019 federal election approaching, has the MP been trying to avoid pressing for federal actions that would hurt Irving Oil interests?

Ernest Hemingway said: "So, about morals. I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

Feeble foreign policy

Trudeau’s federal ministers and diplomats have been soliciting support from other nations in an attempt to get Canada elected to the UN Security Council — a prominent position from which to advocate for diplomatic resolutions in sustaining peace and security and promoting human rights and global freedoms.

But in light of Canada’s present foreign policy feebleness, can it really make a claim to a seat at the UN Security Council?

At this crucial juncture, our country has taken a pathetic diplomatic position on violations concerning international human rights and press freedoms. Canada is acquiescing to U.S. economic and military hegemony, ignoring the fallibilities of Trumpian foreign policy.

Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi regime should not be allowed to avoid moral accountability and economic retribution for the Khashoggi murder and the plight of millions of Yemenis. Even Trudeau's former foreign affairs advisor, Roland Paris, thinks Canada should suspend any further LAV shipments to Saudi Arabia.

How can Canadians take pride in our prime minister's act of diplomatic timidity and moral shrinking?

Across Canada critics have long argued for outright cancellation of the LAV deal. In response, Trudeau had until the weekend only mustered up weak excuses about a $1-billion penalty if "the feds" nix the $15-billion LAV contract. Yet his government had no qualms writing off $8.9 billion in Chrysler’s default on Canadian taxpayers’ bailout after the 2008 recession.

Trudeau’s dithering comes amid global outrage over the Saudi leadership’s role in the murder of Khashoggi. The CIA's "certain" assessment that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the torture, murder, dismemberment, and disposal of the journalist’s body has been condemned resoundingly by many other countries including G7 nations. The odious act received rebuke from many UN members and human rights groups.

Canadians need to do some deep soul searching about the values underlying Trudeau's global grandstanding and how easily we sell out our moral principles, especially by not acting as courageously as Norway, Germany, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands in their condemnations toward Mohammed bin Salman and his obscene sense of entitlement over Saudi subjects.

With Trudeau failing to assume real leadership on the correct side of history, acquiescing to amoral U.S. foreign policy, and not severely reprimanding a barbaric strongman and historically nepotistic monarchy at this juncture — against a clear violation of international principles enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights — how can Canadians take pride in our prime minister's act of diplomatic timidity and moral shrinking?

While attempting to fill a seat on the UN Security Council, perhaps Canada needs to look at other frames of moral reference. How can human-rights-championing Canadians feel good when our federal leader lacks moral courage and places pecuniary interests above press freedom and human dignity?

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