Op-Ed by NATHAN INKS
The United States has dozens of allies across the globe; therefore, it is inevitable that disputes between two countries with whom the United States is allied will arise from time to time. One such spat is currently happening between Canada and Saudi Arabia.
On August 3 the Canadian foreign ministry sent a tweet indicating that the Canadian government was “gravely concerned” about the recent arrest of women’s rights activists by the Saudi government; the tweet also urged the Saudi government to immediately release the activists. While the underlying sentiment behind the tweet was commendable, the tweet itself was a blunder—280 characters is hardly ever a good avenue for substantive foreign policy discussions.
The ill-advised tweet set off a diplomatic firestorm. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been praised by some as a reformer on issues of anti-corruption and women’s rights, has also been known to take a hardline stance when it comes to dissent and criticism. Despite lifting the longstanding ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia and taking other pro-women stances, bin Salman has continued to arrest women’s rights activists, and it was those actions that Canada was criticizing. The Crown Prince reacted to that criticism with an extreme overreaction, recalling its ambassador to Canada, expelling the Canadian ambassador, and ordering all Saudi students studying in Canada on state sponsored scholarships—including over 1,000 medical students—to return home immediately. The Saudi government has also suspended trade and investments between the two countries.
The Canadian government has in turn stood its ground. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the country will continue to engage with Saudi Arabia diplomatically but that “Canada will always be very clear on standing up for human rights.”
Despite being a major player at the international table, Canada seems to be standing alone, and that is a shame. No major Western country has taken a real position on the underlying issue; instead, most—including the United States—have avoided taking a side, arguing that the dispute is for Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve on their own.
The reason for countries like the United States, Britain, and those in the European Union not wanting to get involved is readily apparent. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest arms purchasers in the world and a strategic partner in the war on terror, and many of Canada’s allies have significant trade and economic ties to Saudi Arabia. Defending Canada could come at a steep economic price.
But this is not just about defending Canada; this is about standing up for human rights. Western countries, including the United States, have not shied away from calling out Saudi Arabia on its human rights violations in the past. More significantly, the Western world should not allow a country to take one of our allies diplomatically and economically hostage for standing up for human rights— even if the means of doing so were ill conceived. It is indisputable that Saudi Arabia is committing human rights violations, and the fact that the Saudis are our allies should not stop us from acknowledging that fact.
The United States plays a powerful and important role in world affairs. If the United States hopes to remain that “shining city on a hill” that President Reagan talked about, we need to stand with our allies to defend human rights. The Canadian government made a mistake in trying to convey diplomatic policy through Twitter, but it would be a far graver mistake for the United States and other Western countries to sit on the sidelines and not defend the substance of Canada’s criticism of the Saudi government.