Weeks after Canada incurred Saudi Arabia’s wrath by daring to publicly call for the release of imprisoned human-rights activists, one of whom has strong Canadian ties, this country remains a lonely critic of the Islamic Kingdom’s abuses.
It’s to the credit of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland that despite Saudi attempts to bully Ottawa into silence, through sanctions that included expelling Canada’s ambassador and ordering home many students studying here, she has raised a fresh concern – this one related to Saudi Arabia’s reported plans to execute a female political prisoner. And it’s to the shame of the Saudis' other trading partners that, while Human Rights Watch and other international organizations sound alarms, they remain silent.
Israa al-Ghomgham would be the first Saudi woman to face the death penalty for her activism, which points to an escalation in dissidents' persecution. She and five other activists who could face the same punishment – most often carried out in Saudi Arabia through beheading – have been imprisoned since 2015 without legal representation because they peacefully protested systemic discrimination against their Shia minority. They are now being tried by a “terrorism tribunal” despite no accusations of violence. For Saudi trading partners who care about human rights, this should not be a difficult issue on which to take a stand.
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It is possible that other countries are more quietly raising concerns through diplomatic back channels, which Ottawa has done previously. And it may be that sharp public criticism causes Riyadh to get its back up, which may explain why Ms. Freeland’s latest comments stopped short of calling for prisoners' “immediate” release, as she did in prior ones.
But public pressure can be valuable, too, in raising awareness and demonstrating courage of conviction. If it is comparatively easy for the Saudis to lash out at Canada, a relatively small trading partner, they might be given more pause if criticism came from countries on which they are more reliant – not least the United States, which under Donald Trump has fostered a relationship cozier than ever.
The government Ms. Freeland represents, which before its recent advocacy green-lit a $15-billion agreement to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudis, is itself an unlikely fit to be leading the world in confronting Riyadh about its behaviour. But sadly, that is presently a low bar.