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Canada's foreign policy: Business before human rights

The Canadian government has an inconsistent record of reacting to human rights abuses abroad.

Last updated: 18 Mar 2014 10:43
Steven Zhou

Steven Zhou graduated from Carleton University with a Masters of Journalism and went on to work for the CBC and The Ottawa Citizen as a reporter. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, and J-Source, among other publications.
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Saudi troops used Canadian-made armour during the clamp down on the uprising in Bahrain in 2011 [Reuters]

The latest arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia exposes the ideological hypocrisy that underpins the Canadian Conservative Party's present foreign and trade policy.

The Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems (a subsidiary of the Virginia-based aerospace and defence company, General Dynamics) outbid Germany and France to win a US$10bn deal to export military hardware to Saudi Arabia, with a poor human rights record.

The deal is the largest of its kind in Canadian history, and was announced by Trade Minister Ed Fast this past February. Fast portrayed the deal as a triumph of effective diplomacy that will generate thousands of jobs for Canadians. The agreement is also meant to fulfil Canada's "Global Markets Action Plan," which aims to extract commercial and economic benefits from Canada's international relationships. Concerns with respect to Saudi Arabia's human rights have largely gone unaddressed by Canadian Tory officials.

A Toronto Star editorial from February notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government "rarely shrinks from bemoaning the state of the world". This is especially accurate with regards to the administration's stances vis-a-vis the Middle East. Yet when it comes to doing business, Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird, among others, have time and time again demonstrated a willingness to suspend their artificial affinity to principle.  

Money comes first

As Canadian writer and journalist Derrick O'Keefe notes, for all the Conservatives' talk about free market ideology, "the Saudi deal confirms that the Conservatives […] do believe in industrial strategy and government intervention in the economy - at least when military hardware and arms, or bitumen, are involved."

Bahrain: Shouting in the dark excerpt

Both the Canadians and the Saudis refuse to reveal the specifics of the deal, but GLDS is famous for manufacturing the LAV III armoured vehicles used by Canada in Afghanistan, as well as the Stryker armoured vehicles used by the United States. US$10m can buy hundreds of such vehicles.

The deal was announced shortly after Postmedia News, a prominent Canadian wire service, reported that the Tories have planned to help the Canadian arms industry through "hard times" by looking for more international buyers of Canadian military equipment.

It's long been revealed that Saudi Arabia's forces have previously used military hardware from General Dynamics to crush dissent in the Gulf region. In March 2011, Saudi forces rolled into Bahrain with armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics to help suppress a growing protest movement. Inspired by the "Arab Spring" in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the mostly peaceful protests were violently crushed.

The Harper government didn't say much, and maintained its silence even when it was revealed that a Canadian citizen, Naser al-Raas, was tortured for over 30 days for taking part in the protests. Raas was finally assisted by Canadian consular services and released, but still seeks justice for the inhumane treatment he received.

When FM Baird visited Bahrain around two years later in April 2013, he made sure not to publically denounce what happened in 2011. So for all of the Harper regime's rhetoric on its clear and principled stance regarding international human rights, the record shows that for Canada, business and money come first.  

The exercise of silence

Of course, the Harper administration's human rights hypocrisy doesn't start or end with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Similar to Human Rights Watch's recent (though in keeping with a long and unfortunate tradition) denunciation of Saudi Arabia in its 2014 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has reported Egypt as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to report from/in.

A military regime, the current Egyptian government has essentially put freedom of the press on trial. The primary manifestation of this chilling development is the arrest and detention of 20 Al Jazeera journalists who have been branded enemies of the Egyptian state. According to state prosecutors, the journalists attempted "to weaken the state's status, harming the national interest of the country, disturbing public security, instilling fear among the people, causing damage to the public interest."

Among the detained and charged is Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, who, along with his colleagues, was captured late last December. Since then, he has suffered through solitary confinement and was only recently dumped into a lower security prison. Of course, Fahmy and his colleagues have pleaded not guilty to the Egyptian state's charges.

So what does Harper and his party colleagues have to say about all this? On his first trip to Israel, Harper congratulated Egypt's "return to stability" under the auspices of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has become de facto ruler of Egypt.

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Editorials and op-eds from across the political spectrum in Canada have called for more action on the part of Harper's government. The Australian government has advocated for the release of its citizen, Peter Greste (though some say not enough), also an Al Jazeera journalist. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for the "prompt release" of all those captured.

Even President Barack Obama has put out a statement condemning Egypt's abysmal devolution into journalist purgatory. And yet, so far, the Harper administration has shown itself capable only of mere platitudes regarding "consular services."

Lecturing the world

It's important to note, then, that just like every other governing political party or administration, Harper and his Conservatives operate with an ideological agenda in mind when it comes to foreign policy. This means that their selective condemnation of human rights abuses around the world is done on a strategic basis (or so they seem to think).

Sure, Baird had no problem condemning the blasts that killed four people in Beirut this past January. Harper also had no trouble expressing his disapproval of the bombings in Iraq that killed 37 people last Christmas. All this is well and good, but observers inside and outside of Canada would do well to treat the Harper administration's self-proclaimed commitment to clear-cut and "principled foreign policy" with a substantial dose of scepticism.

There's truly no shortage of speechifying by high-level Tory officials when it comes to proclaiming how principled the Conservative administration is with regards to human rights issues. Baird has, by now, lectured the rest of the world on the matter several times.

But his speeches, in front of the United Nations to "defend" the state of Israel, provide the best window for those who care to look, beyond the rhetoric, at Canada's true stance on human rights.

It's not a secret that numerous human rights organisations have condemned Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, both inside and outside of Israel. But for reasons of ideology and politics, Harper and his Conservatives, much like those who came before them, don't really care. 

Steven Zhou graduated from Carleton University with a Masters of Journalism and went on to work for the CBC and The Ottawa Citizen as a reporter. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, and J-Source, among other publications. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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