Those defending human rights are used to the many contradictions involved. They demand of the same governments responsible for torture and discrimination that they uphold international prohibitions on such abuse. Their impartial reporting is seized on at politically opportune moments to embarrass another regime, and then otherwise ignored. And they appeal to governments that have their own tarnished human rights record to take up the cause of human rights in other countries.
Yet even amidst these contradictions, the debate over the Liberal government’s decision to sell Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV) to the Saudi government must come as somewhat of a surprise. The decision is painted as being inimical to human rights, as it allows for the shipment of weapons to a regime with a dismal human rights record. Yet, that very decision has brought unprecedented attention, in Canada at least, to that very record. In so doing, it may, paradoxically, achieve those “name and shame” tactics at the core of human rights advocacy.
Over the past several weeks, Canadian media have been full of stories of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. UN human rights reports, the complaints of NGOs and other credible sources, Saudis living in exile, a US State Department report — all repeatedly cited to challenge the Liberal government’s decision. Human rights experts have spoken out in the media to confirm that Saudi Arabia is run by a deeply repressive regime that practices systematic gender and religious discrimination. It severely curtails civil and political rights, arbitrarily detains thousands, including many hundreds of political prisoners, tolerates and indeed condones torture, and is responsible for numerous indiscriminate attacks in its bombing campaigns in Yemen. Further, unlike a few years ago, there is no real reform plan on the table — the current King and Crown Prince, rotated into the leadership, are hardliners and have made it clear that no challenge to their authority will be tolerated, peaceful or not.
So dominant is this narrative that even the Conservative party has finally taken up the cause of human rights in Saudi Arabia. Tony Clement, the Tories’ foreign affairs critic, called on the government to review its decision to proceed with the deal — initiated by his own party — arguing that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia might be worsening. This stands in stark contrast to the complete lack of concern for human rights in Saudi Arabia — at least publicly expressed — by the Conservative government during their long term in office. Foreign Minister Baird made two visits to the country without any public reference — before, during, or after the visits — regarding the human rights situation.
Internal debates in the NDP too (with some union backers supporting the deal), seemed to dissipate with the Liberal decision to proceed. While Tom Mulcair supported the deal during the federal election, he now takes issue with it on the grounds of a lack of transparency on the part of the Liberals regarding internal government assessments of the current human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
Perhaps surprisingly too, in defence of the decision to proceed with the deal, Foreign Minister Dion has not sought to paint the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia in a better light. None of his many statements, nor those issued by his department since he took office, has challenged the veracity of the many reports regarding the Saudi’s disregard for human rights at home and indiscriminate attacks on civilian and other protected persons and property in their bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only claim Foreign Affairs makes is that there is no evidence that similar vehicles sold in the past by Canada to Saudi Arabia were used in the actual commission of human rights abuses.
Now consider — what would have been the likely result had the Liberals, on assuming office last October, simply cancelled the deal? Most likely, it would have been a news story for a few days at best, mostly centred on the job losses in southwestern Ontario with perhaps some coverage of the resulting diplomatic spat with the Saudis. Now, with an ongoing court case challenging the legality of the deal, and the continuing inability of the government to explain satisfactorily why they proceeded, it seems likely that the human rights record of the Saudi regime will continue to feature in the Canadian media.
From the perspective of those campaigning to improve the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, the current furor following the decision to proceed with the deal should be seen as a gift. Certainly, there is a risk that the LAVs might be used by the Saudis to suppress internal dissent, or to shore up repressive regimes elsewhere in the Gulf (as in Bahrain).
No doubt, too, proceeding with the contract sends the wrong signal to the Saudis — that economic and strategic concerns will outweigh any foreign concern for human rights in the kingdom, even among supposedly progressive-minded middle powers like Canada. Above all else, the Western policy of pouring arms into the region, which has proceeded without letup for decades, has manifestly not brought peace and stability. A strong case can be made that these weapons — and those eagerly sold in the Middle East by Russia, China, and others — have simply fuelled old and new wars.
Weighed against these concerns, however, is the undoubted fact that the Saudi’s dismal human rights record is now front and centre in the public debate, whereas for years the Canadian media barely examined it. Foreign Minister Baird’s silence on human rights raised no notice in Canada. The current publicity, of course, was hardly the government’s intention when it proceeded with the deal. One can’t help but forgive the Saudi Ambassador, as he wakes each morning to yet another story about his government’s dismal human rights record, for wishing that the Liberals had cancelled the deal. Indeed, if this spotlight on his country continues, perhaps it will be the Saudis who decide it’s time to cancel the contract.