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Baird’s Tough Talk on Human Rights Rings Hollow in Bahrain

Canada’s “principled” foreign policy keeps running into problems in Bahrain, the Gulf monarchy that violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in 2011.

When Foreign Minister John Baird visited the country in April, he made no public comment about Bahrain’s repressive practices, including the regime’s continued incarceration of democracy activists. His silence was troubling, not least because the Conservative government has repeatedly portrayed itself as an uncompromising defender of human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

As it happens, Mr. Baird was back in Bahrain’s capital last weekend to address the Manama Dialogue, a regional security conference. In his speech, Mr. Baird rightly rebuked Iran for its human rights abuses. Once again, however, he refrained from publicly criticizing – or even directly acknowledging – Bahrain’s own lamentable human rights practices.

Canada’s actions could be interpreted as condoning the continuation of political repression in Bahrain – and perhaps even abetting it, depending on what kinds of military equipment have been supplied.

If Mr. Baird wished to signal Canada’s discomfort with these practices, he could have easily added a line to his speech encouraging the Bahraini government to deliver on the reform promises it made two years ago, including its commitment to release political prisoners. Alternatively, or in addition, he could have arranged to meet with local human rights organizations or dissidents – a gesture that, if properly publicized, would have spoken volumes.

But Mr. Baird did neither of these things. Instead, he held a meeting with Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. A published photo of the two men smiling is the dominant image of Mr. Baird’s visit to Bahrain.

Juxtapose that image with what happened next. On Sunday, the final day of the Manama Dialogue, the Crown Prince met with members of Bahrain’s cabinet. Rather than loosening restrictions or releasing political prisoners, the cabinet indicated that it would “tighten penalties on those who offend His Majesty the King.” That’s right – tighten.

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Also on Sunday, the Canadian Press reported that the value of Canada’s military equipment exports to Bahrain rose from zero in 2011 to $250,000 in 2012. A quarter-million dollars is small potatoes in the global arms trade, but the fact that Canada has increased its military exports to Bahrain at this delicate moment sends a terrible message: If you violently crack down on democracy activists and toss them into jail, Canada will provide you with military equipment.

Together, these developments make Ottawa’s talk about human rights and democracy seem hollow. Although considerations of human rights must sometimes be balanced with other foreign policy imperatives, in this case Canada’s actions could be interpreted as condoning the continuation of political repression in Bahrain – and perhaps even abetting it, depending on what kinds of military equipment have been supplied.

At the very least, Canadians deserve an explanation from Mr. Baird.

Published in the Globe and Mail, December 10, 2013.

Postscript

In a Postmedia interview on December 16, Mr. Baird dismissed concerns about Canadian military exports to Bahrain and about human rights abuses in that country. “I think if you look in that region, there would be more freedoms in Bahrain than there’d be in many of its neighbours,” he said. Regarding the provision of military equipment to the Bahrain regime, he added: “I’m not sure there’s a lot of Canadians that are concerned about it.”

This is precisely the type of moral relativism that Mr. Baird has condemned repeatedly in the past.

As it happens, on the day Mr. Baird gave the Postmedia interview, Amnesty International released a new report on Bahrain accusing the regime of systematically torturing children: “Scores of children arrested on suspicion of participating in anti-government protests – including some as young as 13 – were blindfolded, beaten and tortured in detention over the past two years the organization said. Others were threatened with rape in order to extract forced confessions.”

For whatever reason, however, Mr. Baird is willing to “go along” with the Bahraini regime: by refusing to criticize its human rights abuses in public, by increasing Canadian military exports to the regime at this sensitive time, and by trivializing the concerns expressed by Canadians who wish to see their country stand for the values that Mr. Baird claims to uphold.

– R.P., December 17

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