Going Along to Get Along: John Baird’s Mideast Tour

Foreign Minister Baird’s seven-country, ten-day tour of the Middle East provides final confirmation that his much vaunted “principled” foreign policy committed to promoting “freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law” is little more than empty rhetoric. So far, the Foreign Minister has visited four Arab regimes (Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain), none of them democratic, and each of them maintaining or even tightening repressive rule. Yet in none of them did he publicly raise the issue of democracy or freedom, and he barely mentioned human rights. Worse, in repeatedly stressing “security and prosperity” or “stability” as key goals Canada shared with these regimes, and omitting to emphasize individual rights, Baird’s statements will be understood by the regimes as support for their arguments that democratic reform can be postponed and that security trumps individual rights.

In Jordan, Baird met the Foreign Minister and issued a statement welcoming Jordan’s hosting of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, saying that this showed the country’s commitment to “human dignity”. While he was surely right to announce increased Canadian aid for the Syrian refugees in Jordan, there was no reference, however oblique, to what Amnesty International describes as an intensifying and “worrying pattern” of repression in the country. These developments include the routine arrests of hundreds of demonstrators, uninvestigated allegations of torture, arbitrary restrictions on free assembly and continued use of repressive laws (such as those that ban “insulting” the King).

Given the context—one in which, to a varying degree, all four countries are using grounds of security and stability to justify a largely repressive response to protests and demands for democratization—a public recognition by Canada only of security concerns will de facto be seen as standing with the regimes.

In the UAE, Baird issued a joint statement with his Emirati counterpart emphasizing “prosperity, security and development … and the threats posed by extremists, conflict and poverty.” Again, worryingly, there was no mention of democracy or human rights. One cannot help but think the Emiratis took some comfort from this, given that they are currently holding a mass trial of 94 government opponents (whom they call “extremists”), a trial that seven human rights organizations have condemned as unfair. Credible accusations of torture against some of those on trial have not been investigated; and international media and observers, as well as family members, have been excluded from attending the hearings. Human Rights Watch charges the UAE with restricting freedom of expression and of shutting down independent human rights and lawyers groups.

In Qatar, again, the statement Baird issued at the conclusion of his visit emphasized “prosperity and security”. Free expression in Qatar is nowhere near as robust as the external coverage of Al Jazeera, a station it hosts. Just the week before Baird’s arrival, two activists were arrested and held incommunicado; they had been among 150 people who signed a letter sent to the French Embassy to protest the French intervention in Mali. They remain imprisoned, although they have not yet been charged with any criminal offense. Mohamed al-Ajami, a Qatari poet, was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2012 for offences related to his poetry.

In Bahrain, Baird’s statement at least acknowledged the unrest in the country and the reform movement. He mentioned the national dialogue process underway, saying “constructive dialogue between the government and the nation’s young people is especially crucial for Bahrain as it works toward stability, prosperity and pluralism.” However, his failure to stress publicly the importance of human rights and democratic reforms in this process will not have gone unnoticed—either by the authorities who have locked up dozens of activists or by the reform movement leadership who insist that the “dialogue” is fixed on the regime’s terms. Human rights groups, both in Bahrain and internationally, argue that restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly continue despite the government’s stated commitment to dialogue.

Baird’s statement in Bahrain also specifically welcomed Bahraini support for UN measures against Iran, including issues of human rights in Iran. As the Bahraini regime claims, somewhat dubiously, that Bahraini Shi’a protestors are being manipulated by Iran, this statement too will give comfort to the regime.

To be fair to the Foreign Minister, press releases are unlikely to provide a full account of closed-door discussions. Perhaps Baird did raise in private Canadian concerns over arbitrary imprisonment, torture and ill-treatment, and unwarranted restrictions on free assembly and expression. He may even, if well-briefed, have raised concerns about particular trials underway in these countries. Confidential diplomacy to advance human rights issues is worthwhile, and there might be good reasons why forceful words in private go unremarked on in public.

But given the context—one in which, to a varying degree, all four countries are using grounds of security and stability to justify a largely repressive response to protests and demands for democratization—a public recognition by Canada only of security concerns will de facto be seen as standing with the regimes. Of course for Baird, the security issue is Iran, and perhaps the civil war in Syria. But as he ought to know, the overriding security issue for the Gulf States and Jordan is political Islam, even if it is peaceful and committed to democracy (or simply democracy activists cast as Islamist bogeymen); and in Bahrain, the security issue is the fear of being forced to share power with a long-repressed Shi’a majority.

In short, if the Foreign Minister were truly committed to the advancement of democracy and human rights, he simply could not have made such a miscalculation.

But perhaps it’s unfair to blame the Foreign Minister alone. After all, neither the opposition parties in Ottawa nor the mainstream press made any serious comment on Baird’s failure to address human rights issues during his visit. Is it that both are so inured to the Government’s hypocrisy that such a rank display of it barely gets noticed? Or is it simply that deep down they too carry the same view of the region—one that still imagines that monarchical regimes, propped up by oil revenues or American aid, are a better guarantor of long-term security than democracy and respect for human rights? No doubt there are risks to pursuing pluralism and democratic reform in this volatile region. Yet who can doubt that it is the status quo, now endorsed in person by the Foreign Minister, that contributes to such volatility?

In other words, Canadian policy seems to be ‘don’t rock the boat’. Or, to paraphrase the Prime Minister (pace his remark that Canada would no longer aim “to please every dictator with a vote at the United Nations”), let’s just go along.

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