by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa
The federal government’s 2015 report on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia is in its final stages of preparation, but no date has been set yet for its release to the public, says an official at Global Affairs Canada.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said over the weekend he would release a redacted version of the report upon request when it is completed.
The report, which is separate from the human rights assessment conducted as part of the export approval process for the government’s $15-billion arms deal with the kingdom, is expected to run between 60 to 70 pages and to be similar in style to those posted publicly by the U.S. State Department and the U.K. Foreign Ministry.
Meanwhile, the human rights assessment completed to meet federal arms export control requirements for the light armoured vehicles deal is not expected to be made public.
It’s been four years since the government last completed a country report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
Country reports under the previous Conservative government were not released publicly; Dion said the current government wants to move away from that approach — and is open to suggestions on how best to balance security concerns with the public’s right to know what the government knows about how human rights are handled in allied countries.
“I have asked my officials to review current practices regarding these reports and to provide me with recommendations,” Dion said in an e-mailed statement. “I want to ensure that we respect the safety and security of identified sources.”
Canada-Saudi relations point of controversy in the past
Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been a source of controversy in recent years. The country has been widely condemned internationally for its treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists; it’s also a powerful Western partner in Middle Eastern affairs.
The State Department’s 2014 assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia flagged multiple issues ranging from denial of due process and arbitrary arrest to human trafficking, discrimination, citizens’ lack of ability to change their government and “pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the Internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children and noncitizen workers.”
The issue of relations with Saudi Arabia popped up briefly during the election campaign, when party leaders were asked whether Canada ought to cancel the deal to provide light armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard — essentially the royal family’s private army.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper defended the deal, saying it didn’t make sense to deprive Canadian workers of the jobs it would bring.
“Look, we express our outrage, our disagreement from time to time with the government of Saudi Arabia for their treatment of human rights,” he said in September. “I don’t think it makes any sense to pull a contract in a way that would only punish Canadian workers instead of actually expressing our outrage against some of these things in Saudi Arabia.”
Speculation of little change to come for Canada-Saudi relations
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then debating Harper as leader of the Liberal party, declined to give a clear answer on whether he would scrap the deal — leading to speculation that he would do little to change the relationship if elected.
That’s proved to be the case so far, despite increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and its regional rival Iran over the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Saudi Arabia announced two weeks ago it had killed Nimr al-Nimr, who was charged with terrorism offences over allegations he incited anti-government sentiment during the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.
Protestors firebombed Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran in response, prompting the kingdom to cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran and urge its allies to do the same.
Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries in the region announced over subsequent days that they were severing or downgrading relations with Tehran — but reaction from Canadian political leaders was tepid.
“Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is strategically important, for our security and for the security of the region,” said interim Conservative Party Leader Rona Ambrose in a press release.
Dion also issued a press release in which he stressed that Canada regularly chats with Saudi Arabia about what it should do better to protect human rights.
“The Government of Canada raises concerns about human rights and due process with senior Saudi Arabian officials on a regular basis and will continue to do so,” the release said.
“In the wake of these executions, we reiterate our call to the Government of Saudi Arabia to protect human rights, respect peaceful expressions of dissent and ensure fairness in judicial proceedings.”
Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca.