Three human rights challenges in Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty

There has been considerable debate recently about the revelations that Ottawa’s Algonquin College (as well as Niagara College in Welland) has reached a lucrative deal to operate a campus in Saudi Arabia that will offer courses to men only.

It puts a third story about Canadian connections to human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia on the public record. That unenviable statistic is, sadly, not at all surprising. Amnesty International released a briefing paper this month in which we documented a sharp deterioration in respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia over the past year, including a serious clampdown on free expression and deeply troubling findings that Saudi forces that have intervened in the conflict in neighbouring Yemen have been responsible for extensive violations, including war crimes.

Canadian connection No. 1 is the continuing worry about the fate of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife and three young children were welcomed to Canada as refugees and live in Sherbrooke, Que., as permanent residents. Raif Badawi has been sentenced to a 10-year prison sentence and a punishment of 1,000 lashes to be meted out 50 at a time. He was flogged 50 times back in January 2015 but the remaining 950 have been in abeyance since, due likely to the considerable international outrage about his case. Each week comes around, however, with the agonizing prospect that the lashes may resume. And there is no sign yet that Raif Badawi, who is a prisoner of conscience, is about to be freed.

The other Saudi human rights story that circles back to Canada of course is the contract that will see the sale of $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles to Saudi security forces by London, Ontario-based General Dynamics. That deal was approved by the previous federal government and is still going ahead under the current government. What assessment was carried out of the human rights consequences of selling military hardware to a country which notoriously crushes dissent and opposition and stands accused (including in a recent UN report) of committing war crimes in Yemen is unclear and has certainly not been shared publicly.

That brings us back to Algonquin and Niagara Colleges and Canada/Saudi human rights story No. 3. With the growing awareness of Raif Badawi’s plight and the arms deal and given Saudi Arabia’s notorious record of extensive, entrenched disregard for the equality rights of women and girls, the questions that have come up are not at all surprising and are certainly well-placed.

Premier Wynne has demanded more information and has made it clear that she is not comfortable with institutions that are substantially funded by the provincial government operating programs that exclude women.

Among other considerations that should include careful consideration of two important universally protected human rights that are at stake: the right of women and girls to equality and non-discrimination; and the right to education.

And on that front there are many questions unanswered.

The fact that Algonquin and Niagara will operate men-only campuses from which women will be excluded is clearly objectionable and evidently uncomfortable. But it may go further and contravene the colleges’ responsibility to uphold human rights as well as the obligation of the provincial and federal governments to ensure that Ontario-based Canadian institutions live up to that responsibility.

Did the colleges make full and probing inquiries to satisfy themselves, for instance, that women excluded from their campuses would nevertheless have access to the same programs elsewhere? Did they assess whether any such programs offered to women by other institutions would be comparable in terms of course offerings, quality of instruction and accessibility? We don’t have those details, just as we don’t know what human rights assessment was done of the arms deal. We need to know.

Closing deals to sell arms or open college campuses in Saudi Arabia may be enticing, given the money at stake. But that can never excuse ignoring a company or institution’s duty of due diligence to ensure that United Nations-guaranteed human rights, as precious as women’s equality and access to education, are not sold short.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Sun