OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that Canada will continue to speak out “clearly and firmly” on human rights around the globe, refusing to back down in an escalating dispute with Saudi Arabia sparked by Ottawa’s criticism over the detention of activists in that country.
In his first comments since the crisis with Saudi Arabia blew up over the weekend, Trudeau was unbowed by the sharp reaction from the kingdom’s leaders who seem determined to make Canada pay an economic price for raising human rights concerns.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during an investment announcement at CAE in Montreal on Aug. 8, 2018. Trudeau would not apologize to Saudi Arabia over comments made by Canada’s foreign affairs department.
“Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world. We will continue to do that, we will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion,” Trudeau said during a Wednesday visit to Montreal.
Trudeau was unwilling to serve up the apology apparently sought by Saudi Arabia, which has called on Canada to “fix its big mistake.” Instead, he vowed that the federal government would continue to voice concerns publicly and privately about human rights abuses.
The prime minister said “it’s no secret” that Canada raises such topics in its discussions with other leaders as part of what he called “constructive engagement,” the very approach he said the government has taken with Saudi Arabia.
“We will also remain firm on standing up for human rights,” Trudeau said.
He also defended the fact that Canada’s concerns related to Saudi Arabia were delivered via social media, saying that the federal government has to use as “many tools as we can to get our message across in a modern world.”
But the prime minister did reveal that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had a “long” conversation with her Saudi Arabia counterpart on Tuesday though he would say nothing about that discussion.
“We continue to engage diplomatically and politically with Saudi Arabia,” Trudeau said.
“We do not wish to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia. This is a country of some importance around the world that is making some progress when it comes to human rights.
“But at the same time we have to talk about the challenges that are being faced there and elsewhere,” the prime minister said.
Amnesty International is among the organizations that has flagged concerns with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, citing severe restrictions on freedom of expression, detention of activities, extensive use of the death penalty, sometimes following what it called “grossly unfair trials” and systemic discrimination of women.
Yet Freeland’s conversation appeared to have done little to resolve the bitter dispute as Saudi’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Wednesday ruled out mediation to defuse the crisis, declaring that Canada knew what it needed to do to “fix its big mistake”
“There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected,” al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh, according to a Reuters report.
He hinted that further repercussions could be coming in the fast-moving spat that has already seen the Middle East country freeze future trade and investment with Canada, suspend diplomatic ties, begin withdrawing more than 15,000 Saudi students enrolled in Canadian universities, halt the purchase of Canadian wheat and barley and suspend air service to Toronto.
The Financial Times reported Wednesday as well that the Saudi central bank and state pension funds have issued orders to asset managers to sell off Canadian holdings “no matter the cost.”
All of this is the angry reaction to social media comments by Freeland and her department calling for the release of activists recently detained in the kingdom.
Subsequent tweets from the Saudi foreign ministry Wednesday drove home the sense of offence felt by the kingdom as it cited Canada’s “blatant and unacceptable interference” for the sudden chill in relations.
It said the issue was about national security, not human rights.
“There is no need for mediation. #SaudiArabia did not interfere in the affairs of #Canada in any way. Therefore, Canada must correct its actions towards the #Kingdom,’ the ministry said.
It’s not the first time that Saudi Arabia has lashed out at countries. In 2015, the country reacted in similar fashion after Sweden criticized the scheduled flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose case is one of those at the centre of Canada’s concerns.
And earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered that German companies were to be shut out of government contracts, apparently irritated by German policy in the Middle East, according to a Reuters report.
Earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered that German companies were to be shut out of government contracts, apparently irritated by German policy in the Middle East, according to a Reuters report.
Experts say that Saudi Arabia’s sharp reaction to Canada is a deliberate attempt to make other countries think twice before speaking out on human rights concerns.
Few countries have rushed to Canada’s defence. The U.S. and U.K. both declined to support Ottawa’s position, a view that Trudeau shrugged off Wednesday. “Every country has its right to make its own decisions and make its own diplomatic choices,” he said.
Other nations have joined Saudi Arabia and chided Canada for what they deem as interference in the kingdom’s affairs. Russia on Wednesday said that Saudi Arabia is on the path to “large-scale socioeconomic reform” and should make its own decisions as to how it proceeds on human rights.
“We have always said that the politicization of human rights matters is unacceptable,” foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.
“What one probably needs in this situation is constructive advice and assistance rather than criticism from a ‘moral superior’,” she said, adding that she hopes the two countries find a “civilized” solution to the dispute.