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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia, human rights and Raif Badawi

Posted on June 12, 2015

(As originally published in The Montreal Gazette)

Like many Canadians, when I heard that Canada had agreed to sell billions of dollars’ worth of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, my first thought was of Raif Badawi.

Since 2012, Badawi has been in a Saudi prison, arrested for establishing an online forum and exercising his right to free expression. Accordingly, I recently joined Amnesty International at a demonstration in Montreal marking one year since he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a decade behind bars.

The first 50 lashes were administered in January. Subsequent floggings have been postponed, but the Saudi Supreme Court recently confirmed the sentence, leading to fears that the floggings may resume as early as this week. Moreover, Badawi is facing the possibility of new charges for offences punishable by death.

Badawi’s case should be of particular interest to Canadians because his wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three young children have taken refuge in Sherbrooke. I had the privilege of joining Haidar in Ottawa earlier this year for a day of action calling attention to her husband’s case. Her courage and strength remind me of the spouses of other political prisoners on whose behalf I have advocated — Nelson Mandela’s wife Winnie, Natan Sharansky’s wife Avital — and in her meetings with MPs, she made a compelling and passionate case for direct Canadian involvement.

Certain signs from Parliament have been encouraging. In February, the Human Rights Subcommittee unanimously endorsed my motion calling on Saudi authorities “to end the corporal punishment of Raif Badawi, repeal his sentence, release him, and permit him to reunite with his family in Canada.” In April, the House unanimously supported my colleague Marc Garneau’s motion demanding that the Saudi government “cease (Badawi’s) punishment and release him from prison immediately.”

At the same time, the Canadian government’s approach to the case has given cause for concern. Government spokespeople have limited their appeals to “clemency” for Badawi, which may imply only a lessening of his sentence. Time and again, I have risen during Question Period to ask the government to issue an outright call for Badawi’s release, exoneration, and reunification with his family in Quebec; time and again, the government has stuck to its “clemency” script.

This timidity on the government’s part was troubling enough. Now, however, we learn that, while a family in Canada pines for a father’s return — and indeed, fears for his life — the federal government has given its blessing to the sale of $15 billion in military equipment to the regime responsible for his capture and torment.

At first, the government would not say whether it had assessed the deal from a human rights perspective, as is required. Now, the minister of International Trade says that the government has done so and, astonishingly, has found the sale to be “consistent with Canada’s foreign and defence policies, including human rights.” As such, the government issued a permit allowing the transaction to proceed.

That assessment — which the government refuses to release — would make for fascinating reading, because the appalling state of human rights in Saudi Arabia is thoroughly documented.

Freedom House, which rates countries on the basis of political rights and civil liberties, includes Saudi Arabia in its “Worst of the Worst” category. The organization reports that Saudi authorities have “responded harshly” to peaceful demonstrations, “issuing a most-wanted list of activists and violently dispersing protests.”

Migrant workers, religious minorities, human rights activists and women are among the primary victims of the country’s human rights violations. Indeed, Saudi Arabia practises gender apartheid, and Saudi women need the permission of male relatives to travel, study or even undergo certain medical procedures.

The 2014 annual report by Human Rights Watch found that Saudi Arabia “stepped up arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents, and forcibly dispersed peaceful demonstrations.” In recent days, Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia has executed 90 people thus far in 2015 — more than in all of last year — and that at least 41 received the death penalty for non-violent offences.

Saudi Arabia is one of a handful of countries — the others are Iran, Somalia, and North Korea — that still practice public executions and corporal punishment. Those who run afoul of the Saudi government can have their heads or limbs cut off in a public square, and decapitated bodies are often put on display, with plastic drop cloths below to catch the blood.

If the arming of such a regime is “consistent” with Canadian policy, then there are serious questions to be asked about the principles and priorities of Canada’s government.

According to the website of the department of foreign affairs, the government of Canada does not permit the export of military goods to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”

The government insists that such a determination has been made in this case, but must remain confidential. In other words, Canadians must take it on faith that the armaments we are selling to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world will not be misused.

And Haidar and her children must try to go about their daily lives while the government of their adopted country arms the regime from which they fled. It is a regime that continues to hold hostage their husband and father, and threatens him with 950 more lashes, because he had a blog.

Irwin Cotler is the member of Parliament for Mount Royal, former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and professor of law emeritus at McGill University. He is serving as international legal counsel to Raif Badawi.

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