No more Saudi business as usual

The injustice facing one man in Saudi Arabia has brought into focus the harrowing human-rights reality that Canada routinely overlooks in its relationship with the kingdom. As concern increases for blogger Raif Badawi, who is scheduled to receive a public flogging later this week, his case exposes the lengths to which Canada and other governments go to overlook Saudi Arabia’s disgraceful rights record. It is time for a new approach.


Canada has, commendably, offered refuge to Mr. Badawi’s family. Since last fall, his wife and three young children have been living in Sherbrooke. But Mr. Badawi himself remains behind bars in Jeddah, serving a 10-year prison sentence for insulting Islam. He has also been fined the equivalent of $315,000 and placed under a 10-year travel ban. He is prohibited from appearing in the media for life. And he is to be flogged 1,000 times – 50 lashes each week, doled out in public over 20 weeks, after Friday prayers.

Mr. Badawi has already received the first 50 lashes. Last week’s second batch was postponed – but only because he had not yet sufficiently healed from the first round to endure a second flogging.

His crime? Believing in freedom of expression, women’s equality and the right to differ and disagree publicly. He was charged with insulting Islam because he criticized religious leaders for disregarding human rights.

Mr. Badawi’s case captured public attention in the same week that the Paris terrorist attacks brought the relationship between freedom of expression and religion to the fore. Governments everywhere, including Saudi Arabia’s, forcefully condemned that violence. Yet most have gone no further than to express concern about Mr. Badawi’s case, while steaming ahead, business as usual, in their dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Speaking out after – not before – the first 50 lashes, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada “is deeply concerned by the public flogging of Raif Badawi.” Mr. Baird urged clemency. A good first step, certainly, but Mr. Badawi’s family in Sherbrooke would prefer a clear demand from the country that is now their home that their husband and father be spared further rounds of this brutal punishment, and unconditionally released from prison.

For Canada, business as usual with Saudi Arabia includes a lucrative $15-billion arms deal reached last year with General Dynamics Land Systems of London, Ont. Under this deal, General Dynamics will sell many hundreds of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia over the next decade or more. Canadian armoured vehicles will be at the disposal of a military that regularly uses such weapons to control and disperse crowds or has let them roll into neighbouring Bahrain to help crush a popular protest.

There’s the rub. To what extent is Canada’s reluctance to push for Mr. Badawi’s freedom due to arms deals like this one, and the tantalizing prospect of more to come?

It would certainly be in keeping with the world’s long-established silence about women’s inequality, torture, executions, repression of dissent, unfair trials, religious intolerance and other widespread abuses in Saudi Arabia.

Be it oil wealth, arms sales, alliances in the global “war on terror” or reliance on the foreign remittances of the millions of migrant workers who are the backbone of the Saudi economy, there are a multitude of interests that governments put above human rights in their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

That can’t continue. The irony of Mr. Badawi’s case and the General Dynamics deal making headlines this past week makes that abundantly clear. The overlap of these issues indicates two key steps that Canada must take to stand firm for human rights in Saudi Arabia.

First, Canada must lead a forceful international effort to press Saudi officials to relent in Mr. Badawi’s case. Any one country acting on its own is unlikely to make a difference. But drawing governments together from various world regions might. As the country that has given refuge to Mr. Badawi’s family, Canada is well-placed to champion that effort.

Second, Canada must show that it is prepared to strictly enforce human-rights rules in arms sales decisions – no matter the country and no matter the amount of money involved. That is what Canadian controls require. Any deal that puts Canadian weapons in the hands of a government likely to use them to commit human-rights violations should not go ahead.

This invites the question: How was the Saudi deal reviewed, and on what grounds did our government demonstrate, as required by its own policy, “that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population”?

The government of Canada should release its assessment and show Canadians that it takes human rights seriously, especially when approving arms deals.


– Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada. John Siebert is executive director of Project Ploughshares. Tasleem Thawar is executive director of PEN Canada.

Learn more about Amnesty International’s work to free Raif Badawi

Originally appeared in the Globe & Mail, January 22, 2015