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Saudi Arabia Punishes Canada for Criticizing Human Rights Defenders’ Arrests

Retaliation and Threats Should Alarm All Rights Respecting Countries

Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, attends a bilateral meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the Executive Suite at UN Headquarters in New York. © 2018 Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is bringing the diplomatic hammer down on Canada, sending a warning to countries around the world: criticize our human rights record and pay the price.

Following a tweet by Canada’s foreign ministry calling for the immediate release of detained human rights activists, Saudi Arabia instigated a full-blown diplomatic crisis. In a statement on August 5, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would expel the Canadian Ambassador and freeze all new trade and investments because of Canada’s “interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.” A few days later, Saudi Arabia announced the suspension of state airline flights to Canada and the withdrawal from Canadian universities of all Saudi students.

This deepening diplomatic crisis should alarm Saudi Arabia’s allies and all rights respecting countries. Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, not only brutally silences its own human rights defenders, but tries to muzzle other countries’ criticism of its actions. The Crown Prince is signaling that to reproach Saudi Arabia for its abysmal human rights record risks a complete rupture in trade and diplomatic ties with the Kingdom.

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has threatened diplomatic and economic retaliation against those who criticize them. Last year at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia warned of adverse political and economic consequences for countries voting in favor of a resolution to establish an international commission of inquiry into the Saudi-led coalition’s abuses in Yemen. And in 2016, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted that Saudi Arabia had put “undue” pressure on him to remove the country from his annual “list of shame” for violations against children in Yemen – which the UN ultimately did.

To its credit, the Canadian government supported the establishment of an investigative mechanism into violations in Yemen and has not backed down in the face of Saudi Arabia’s latest intimidation tactics. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday.

The message here is not only for Ottawa, but for anyone who challenges Saudi’s human rights record and underscores the hollowness of the Kingdom’s “reform agenda.”

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