As the decade ends, Canada stands largely alone in commitment to human rights

Despite some glaring mistakes, in recent years Canada has made a difference when it comes to human rights, refugees and conflict, especially in the Middle East. But with the bar set low globally, that work must continue, writes Kareem Shaheen.

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18 December, 2019
Students walk together near a cemetery in Aleppo's Kallaseh neighbourhood on April 10, 2019. In Syria, Canada’s actions have helped save lives. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
Kareem Shaheen
By: Kareem Shaheen

In his mandate letter to the minister of foreign affairs, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructs François-Philippe Champagne to “increase Canadian support abroad for democracy, human rights, international law and freedom of the press.”

That sentence very much sounds like an anachronism in the era of Donald Trump, in which an American president works hard to undermine multilateral alliances that have underpinned global security for decades, while boosting autocrats who are leading the pack globally in journalist arrests.

Nor are those trends unique to Washington. Even European powers that have not fallen to the tide of right-wing nationalism have continued to enjoy warm relations with blood-stained Arab regimes, or have ceded the goal of reducing illegal migration to forces like the Libyan coast guard, helping boost human trafficking networks and cruel deaths at sea. In Britain, the now-empowered Tory government will likely prioritize trade agreements over pesky matters like arbitrary detention and human rights in its quest to boost the economy after Brexit.

Canada’s record, of course, has plenty of blemishes. It equivocated in suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite mounting evidence of war crimes and abuses in Yemen. Like most Middle Eastern countries that are increasingly tied up economically and diplomatically with China, it has not spoken out against the mass detention and re-education of the Muslim Uighur community. Ottawa has been uneven in voicing support for democratic movements across the region and in speaking out against authoritarianism and muzzling of civil society. And Canada’s support for immigration and refugees when walls are going up can be seen as somewhat self-serving because of its economic model.

But Canada has taken risks in standing up and using its voice to make a difference at key points in recent years. Its continued support for the White Helmets, the civilian rescue workers in Syria, is in direct opposition to Russia’s propaganda efforts to demonize them as terrorists as they build up a substantial body of evidence for Moscow’s war crimes in Syria. It chose to confront Riyadh over the detention of human rights activists even before the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a decision that had enormous economic ramifications. And its decision to continue hosting and sponsoring refugees, and the refusal of mainstream political parties to exploit xenophobic sentiment in a close election campaign, places it above the low bar set by the United States and Europe.

As a consequence, Canada stands largely alone, at least rhetorically, in its commitment to pursuing a foreign policy in the Middle East that is oriented around empowering democratic movements, press freedom and human rights. But it must stick to it when it comes to dealing with the Middle East, even as others abandon the premise of an international rules-based order.

Backing tyrants with the hope of providing stability and a market for Canadian businesses simply does not work because that stability is short-lived.

The protest movements this year in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon show that, despite the ongoing counter-revolution and resurgence of tyranny that followed the brief moment of hope in 2011, and the catastrophic wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, Arab civilians are not cowed. The injustices that sparked the uprisings have not been addressed, and the only sure bet is that the cycle of repression and upheaval will continue in the foreseeable future.

In Algeria, the protest movement is refusing to bow to the outcome of a stage-managed election that has preserved the ruling regime. In Lebanon, the revolutionaries are demanding nothing less than the complete dismantling of a corrupt ruling class that has sucked the lifeblood out of its country. The same is happening in Iraq, where demonstrators protesting corruption are also courageously facing off against the abject brutality of Iranian-armed militias and venal security forces.

Even in Syria, where the military outcome is all but settled, economic hardships caused by mismanagement, corruption, international sanctions and political failures threaten more instability as the state fails to reprise its pre-war role as a provider of basic staples like fuel.

Things chug along for years in the Middle East, until they don’t.

Western and regional support for Lebanon’s political elites, Iraq’s post-ISIS government or Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir did not preclude the sudden and rapid collapse of their support base. In the meantime, free, independent media, grassroots activists, and civil society are adapting to the new realities, whether they are of resurgent autocrats or vigorous protest movements.

Canada has taken risks in standing up and using its voice to make a difference at key points in recent years.

The smart thing to do, then, is for Champagne, Canada’s new top diplomat, to continue the work that began under Chrystia Freeland’s mandate and to build upon it by strengthening ties with these movements — to help shape the gradual change that will inevitably lead to more democratic societies. This will give Canada a crucial role in laying the groundwork for greater political participation, a path that can perhaps pre-empt further large-scale violence. These civil society organizations include Radio Fresh, an independent media outlet, whose popular founder Raed Fares was assassinated by al-Qaeda-linked extremists last year, and Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which catalogued ISIS human rights abuses until the militants were ousted from their capital. These groups and others with more focused mandates, like women’s empowerment, act as a bulwark against extremism. In Syria, as indicated earlier, they have opposed and protested the agendas of extremist groups in opposition-controlled areas.

During Trudeau’s first four years as prime minister, Canada’s stance towards Middle Eastern issues had been rhetorically consistent on matters of human rights and democratic freedoms, despite failing to uphold them in egregious cases, such as the equivocation on suspending Saudi arms sales.

The Saudi case is instructive, because Canada’s stance did not lead to greater leverage with Riyadh. When Freeland condemned the arrest of Saudi human rights activists in August 2018 — the latest step in a wide-ranging crackdown by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against all forms of dissent — the response was furious. Freeland’s innocuous, standard-issue tweet triggered a petulant suspension of diplomatic relations and even the self-defeating recall of Saudi students studying in Canadian universities, as well as a media blitz by the kingdom’s media arms condemning Ottawa’s human rights record.

A few months later, Canada offered asylum to Rahaf al-Qunun, a Saudi teenager who fled her family’s mistreatment. Al-Qunun’s case triggered a few subsequent escape attempts by Saudi women, and the publicity surrounding her case and others embarrassed Riyadh and highlighted issues of legal discrimination against women in the kingdom, such as oppressive guardianship laws. Some aspects of these laws have since been repealed as part of modernizing reforms — women are now able to obtain passports and travel without permission from a male relative, for example.

On the war in Syria, Canada’s actions helped save lives, which is more than can be said of any of the international or regional powers that have involved themselves in the conflict. Its consistent support for the mission of the White Helmets, the volunteer rescue workers who rush to the scene of Russian and government airstrikes to save people trapped in the rubble, despite ongoing propaganda efforts by Moscow to tarnish their reputation, is a small ray of hope in an otherwise murderous and intractable conflict. Ottawa helped evacuate members of the rescue teams and their families a year ago from an impending advance by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which brands them terrorists for their documentation of war crimes.

Canada also resettled tens of thousands of refugees amid a global moment of increasing xenophobia and right-wing populism.

This consistent moral stance places Ottawa in a unique position of positive influence with the Syrian opposition, amid on-going talks that began two months ago to draft Syria’s post-war constitution. Canada can offer support, advice and legal expertise to the opposition and civil society delegations, helping to move forward a peace process that may be the only hope of achieving any kind of democratic reform in the war-torn country. Support for civil society organizations that have popped up all over Syria, particularly in rebel-held areas and in the diaspora, can help achieve central Canadian goals like women’s empowerment.

These are only two examples of how a consistent, moral foreign policy in the region rooted in human rights can help achieve Canada’s objectives and promote its role as a positive influence in the region.

Finally, the foreign minister ought to double down on Ottawa’s commitment to press freedom around the world, a goal that was codified at a conference last summer in London (full disclosure: I was invited to the conference and continue to collaborate and work with independent Arab media outlets). The joint UK-Canada commitment to support press freedom is the only concrete action in support of journalism after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was dismembered by a team of intelligence operatives in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul, and stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s refusal to take concrete action.

Khashoggi is of course not the only journalist to have been tortured or disappeared by the security apparatus of Middle Eastern states. Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are all leading jailers of journalists around the world. The fierce and repressive response of Arab leaders to any signs of discontent or protest has meant that Arab citizens have little physical space for debate. Instead, independent media have cropped up in the virtual space to provide an outlet for ordinary citizens fed up of being muzzled. They feature vigorous debates on identity, the role of religion in society, creative expression and how to resist oppression. Supporting them is a crucial component of supporting democratic changes in the region, allowing the airing of a multiplicity of views, which in turn undermines autocracy and totalitarianism.

The global stage can seem like a somewhat lonely space for a country advocating decency and morality rooted in universal human values. But Canada ought to take heart in the fact that, very often in the Middle East, the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do.

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