Foreign Affairs

A Lesson from our Northern Neighbor

For years, we have been told to stand up for what we believe in. On August 2nd, 2018, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, followed this advice and tweeted her concern over Saudi Arabia’s detainment of female activist Samar Badawi. Shortly after, the tweet’s message was reiterated by Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry and the Trudeau government’s office. Badawi had been “repeatedly targeted and interrogated” by authorities in Saudi Arabia because she advocated for basic women’s rights in a country dominated by men. In 2012, Badawi received an International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State for her valiant efforts in giving women a voice in Saudi Arabia.

Freeland’s tweet sparked outrage within the Saudi Arabian government. Not only did the Kingdom expel Canada’s ambassador, but they also recalled 15,000 Saudi students sponsored by the Kingdom to attend Canadian schools, suspended all flights between the two countries, and halted “all new trade and investment transactions with Canada.” However, oil exports — as well as a controversial $15 billion arms deal — were left untouched. Although the Canadian government has yet to act against those commodities, opposition to oil imports and weapons exports to Saudi Arabia remains vocal.

Undeterred by The Kingdom’s outrageous response, the Trudeau government’s office further voiced concern over Saudi Arabia’s jailing of more women’s rights activists. Some of those arrested, including Shia activist Israa Al-Ghomgham and five others, are even being tried by Saudi Arabia for terrorism — simply because of their peaceful protests. Through their concern, Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry affirmed that “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government are right for openly expressing their concern. The preposterous actions taken by the Kingdom following the tweet, as well as the lack of international support for Canada’s concern, almost make Canada appear to be the villain. But the people of Canada, through the actions of their elected government, are simply standing up for what they believe in. A phrase that is ingrained in our minds since childhood, we have been told time and time again to stick up for our beliefs. Through moral leadership, Canada is turning this phrase into a reality.

Moral leadership is unlike other forms of leadership. It is characterized by its “deep sense of ethics” and motivation from “the pursuit of a higher purpose” and “core ideals” — in this case, justice. Although Canada does not have a perfect history of human rights itself, most evidently from their deplorable implementation of residential schools, the Trudeau government has acknowledged that past and has taken steps towards genuine improvement. Trudeau himself issued a tearful apology to the First Nations of Canada almost a decade after the government’s historic official apology. Trudeau has also taken steps to promote equality, most notably by creating Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet. Canada — by recognizing its past wrongs, learning from them, and working toward real improvement while advocating for others to as well — is therefore exercising moral leadership.

The Saudi Arabian government, on the other hand, employs publicity stunts in order to improve its appearance on the international stage. Recently, the Kingdom finally allowed women to legally drive, but it is only a show to appease the world’s democratic institutions. The measure is actually a mere veil hiding Saudi Arabia’s deeper gender equality issues rooted in their restrictive guardianship system. So why is Canada lambasted for taking the moral high-route? Why are Trudeau and his government given a cold shoulder for exercising moral leadership and calling Saudi Arabia out for their wrongful detainment of Samar Badawi?

It appears that other nations, including the United States, seem to care about other issues more so than ones involving basic morals. Yes, different nations and people have their own morals and sets of beliefs, but can we not agree that equality and basic human rights should be universal? No other nation came to defend Canada’s concern for Badawi. Nations such as our own chose to remain on the sidelines, turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s blatant human rights violations.

Even in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a known Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist who was brutally murdered upon entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Trump government’s response was weak. Trump “criticized rapidly growing global condemnation of Saudi Arabia” in the wake of the murder. Even the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination, contradicting multiple claims by the Saudi government that it was not complicit. Although the United States government imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudi officials for their role in the assassination, which is a promising step in the right direction, Trump still casts doubt on the CIA’s conclusion, defending Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

This is a vivid example of our country’s lack of moral leadership. Instead of defending human rights, President Trump shies away from the issue. Instead of cohesively championing our nation’s strong morals of life, liberty, and justice, the Trump government chooses to avoid confrontation with the Saudis — all because of economic interest.

It is known that Saudi Arabia is a considerable American trading partner. In 2017, trade between the two countries equalled $45 billion. Among the most traded commodities were oil, aircraft, and weapons. But can we not use our economic importance as leverage for pressuring Saudi Arabia to make a genuine change regarding their human rights record? Or are we going to remain hypocritical toward our nation’s moral foundation by supporting a human-rights-violating regime with our trade, money, and weapons — especially when that regime uses those to conduct vile human rights atrocities in Yemen?

More importantly, Trump’s personal economic interest with Saudi investors motivates his inaction. In the past, the Saudis have helped save his company from the brink of bankruptcy, as well as purchased an entire floor of the Trump World Tower. In a 2015 presidential rally in Mobile, Alabama, Trump bragged that the Saudis “buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!”

The Saudi government also argues that these human rights violations should not concern the international community since they are part of the Kingdom’s internal affairs. But is it right to ignore blatant human rights abuses merely because they occur under another country’s authority? Before World War II started, was it right for the United States government and other allied nations to overlook the Nazis’ systematic genocide of Jews, doubt the possibility of it, and refuse to accept more Jewish refugees outside of their quotas — all because the human rights atrocities did not involve their respective countries?

At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, the international community “affirmed their responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.” It was also agreed that “when national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations,” the international community should be prepared “to take timely and decisive action.” Therefore, even under the United Nations, Canada is justified in their concern over Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations.

What Canada is doing right now is what we regretted not doing in the past — standing up for our morals and making our voice heard for what is right. Although not perfect, Canada is setting an example that we should follow by projecting their moral leadership on the international stage. In a world of globalized information, we cannot isolate ourselves from the real matters at hand. We learned in the past that inaction can lead to devastating consequences. So, I urge President Trump and his government to value the American morals of life, liberty, and justice. I urge the American leadership to learn from the example that Canada set and do what is right by taking action against human rights violations, as free societies agreed to do. Most importantly, I urge everyone, citizens and leaders alike, to exercise moral leadership by letting their voices be heard and standing against injustice.

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