Can Canada swim against the tide? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 09, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 09, 2018

'RIGHTS FIRST' FOREIGN POLICY

Can Canada swim against the tide?

Canada's determination to place human rights at the heart of its foreign policy could cost it billions in trade with an incensed Saudi Arabia -- the price of a diplomatic initiative that some observers say could pay off in the long run.

Since Riyadh announced the expulsion of Ottawa's ambassador and a severing of trade ties on Monday, several top officials have reiterated Justin Trudeau's mantra since becoming prime minister in 2015: there can be no compromise on the country's progressive principles.

"We are going to lead with our values," Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Tuesday.

"It's important that we bring Canadian values around the world, and we are going to continue to enunciate what we believe are the appropriate ways of dealing with citizens."

Canada has long pressed Saudi Arabia for the release of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, after granting asylum in 2013 to his wife and their three children.

A Twitter message calling on Riyadh to "immediately release" his sister and other women's rights activists appears to have tipped the scale.

In addition to the diplomatic rupture, Saudi Arabia also suspended scholarships for more than 15,000 Saudi students in Canada with plans to relocate them to other countries, and the state airline Saudia suspended flights to Toronto.

Canada had been eager to boost investment and exports to Saudi Arabia as the kingdom diversifies its economy.

Saudi Arabia is its second largest export market in the Gulf behind the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, exports to the kingdom stood at CAN $1.4 billion (US $1.1 billion).

The clash with the Saudis is not the first time Canada risked losing major business over its "rights first" diplomacy.

Earlier this year, the Philippines cancelled a defense contract for 14 Canadian helicopters after Trudeau's government ordered a review of President Rodrigo Duterte's rights record.

Canada's insistence on environmental protections in new trade deals has also made negotiations harder, for example, with the United States and Mexico, and with China.

But other analysts questioned what, if anything, Canada has gained by squaring off with Riyadh.

"This has nothing to do with human rights. That's just a poor excuse," Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa, told AFP.

“There are geopolitics at play, particularly the strategic and theocratic rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And Saudi Arabia is taking aim at Canada over Trudeau's refusal to endorse sanctions on rival Iran."

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