Saudi Arabia left Chrystia Freeland with no moral option other than calling for release of Badawis
Sometimes, it's hard not to think of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as Canada's version of Madam Secretary.
The hit U.S. TV show features Téa Leoni as the embattled secretary of state, trying to maintain a principled foreign policy in a world riven by conflict, betrayals, and appalling human-rights abuses.
Leoni's character, Elizabeth McCord, sometimes clashes with others in the White House who prefer U.S. diplomacy to be more rooted in realpolitik.
From time to time, Madam Secretary scores a triumph even as she regularly falls short of the expectations of more idealistic elements in American society.
Does this remind you of Freeland?
For her part, Freeland must match wits with the repugnant Trump administration, juggle her love for free trade with the political imperatives of protecting Canadian wine producers, and craft sound bites for mainstream media outlets that only enhance her stature with Canadians.
When Trump dumped her friend, U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson, in favour of Republican hardliner Mike Pompeo, it was a plot twist that even CBS executives would have appreciated.
Freeland's latest gambit in the international world of diplomacy involves Saudi Arabia.
She likely weighed the pros and cons—and domestic political considerations—before putting out a tweet calling for the release of Saudi human-rights activists Raif and Samar Badawi.
Raif Badawi is a writer whose wife lives in Quebec. He's been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison after he created a website called Free Saudi Liberals.
Badawi's sister Samar is also a human-rights activist who was recently arrested in Saudi Arabia.
Their lives are in jeopardy and Freeland has taken the principled position of calling for their release.
Domestically, it will play well with Ismaili Muslims and Iranian expatriates, who are fed up with the Trump administration's kowtowing to Saudi Arabia. It will also offset criticism of the Trudeau government for not raising public concerns about China's human-rights concerns or its bullying of Taiwan.
The Saudis responded by expelling Canada's ambassador from Riyadh and withdrawing its ambassador from Ottawa.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world," Freeland said in a statement today. "We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.
“The Embassy of Canada to Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, continues its regular operations, including consular services," she continued. “Canada will continue to advocate for human rights and for the brave women and men who push for these fundamental rights around the world.”
Critics might say that Freeland's selective targeting of Saudi Arabia overlooks human-rights abuses committed by Canada's allies.
But it's worth noting that Saudi human-rights abuses are among the worst in the world.
For proof, look no further than Amnesty International's 2017–18 report on Saudi Arabia, which paints a bleak picture of the country.
Torture remains "common and widespread". Death sentences are upheld based on pretrial "confessions" as detainees are tortured "with complete impunity".
According to Amnesty, just over a year ago, the families of 14 men sentenced to death "for protest-related charges" received phone calls saying the sentences weren't going to be commuted.
"Court documents showed that the 14 men were subjected to prolonged pre-trial detention and that they reported having been tortured and ill-treated during interrogation in order to extract 'confessions' from them," Amnesty stated. "In sentencing, the SCC [Specialized Criminal Court] appeared to have relied mostly on the 'confessions' for evidence against the men and failed to investigate their allegations of torture."
Saudi Arabia is also leading a coalition that's committing "serious violations of international law" and "war crimes" in neighbouring Yemen.
"In October, the UN Secretary-General listed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in his annual Children and Armed Conflict report, creating a new category specifically designed to limit condemnation of the coalition," Amnesty stated.
Last year, King Salman seized authority over public prosecution from the Ministry of Interior shortly before his son, Mohammed bin Salman, became the new Crown Prince.
This year, a former UBC student from Saudi Arabia, Loujain al-Hathloul, was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in the Arab country for raising concerns about women's rights. In the past, she was arrested for trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates across the border into Saudi Arabia.
The more recent arrest prompted UBC president Santa Ono to write to Freeland to seek her assistance in obtaining al-Hathloul's release.
The Saudi woman is not the only person with a link to Vancouver who's suffered at the hands of Saudi authorities.
William Sampson was a former member of the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver who obtained a PhD in biochemistry. He was working in Riyadh in 2000 when he was suddenly arrested in connection with a car bomb that killed a British national, Christopher Rodway.
Saudi authorities tortured Sampson, forcing him to "confess" to being part of an alcohol-smuggling plot.
He later revealed that while he was in detention over two years and seven months, he was raped by two men, whipped on his feet, deprived of sleep, and often beaten.
Sampson's book, Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison, recounted the horrific abuse he received.
Sampson and others were convinced that the bomb blast was actually the handiwork of antigovernment Saudi extremists. But Saudi authorities would never admit that, so they pinned the crime on innocent foreign workers.
Even Rodway's widow denied that he was involved in smuggling liquor. Sampson was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
The Chrétien government came under serious criticism for not doing enough to assist Sampson during his ordeal.
He died in 2012 of a heart attack at the age of 52.
"William lost touch with many friends and family after his release from Riyadh in August 2003," wrote Toronto Star reporter Francine Kopun in a heartbreaking obituary. "He never recovered from the torture or the solitary confinement he endured, sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit."
Through her actions, Freeland is clearly sending a message that she's learned from events like this.
The foreign affairs minister is not going to leave herself vulnerable to the same criticism that dogged a former Liberal regime. This is so even if it results in no more Saudi foreign students being allowed by their government to come to Canada.
More recently, Amnesty reported, "the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism...urged the government 'to end the prosecution of people including human rights defenders, writers and bloggers simply for expressing non-violent views'."
Left unsaid was that one of those writers and bloggers is Raif Badawi.
If this were a U.S. TV show, Freeland's stance in favour of human rights would lead to a happy ending.
Raif Badawi would be reunited with his wife in Canada and go on to write a best-selling book about what he endured.
Badawi's sister, Samar, would share a stage in the future with Michelle Obama to talk about women's rights.
Unfortunately, the world doesn't always work out in the same way as screenwriters imagine.
That's because the Saudi regime is still ruled by thugs and killers who want to retain power through intimidation, torture, and wholesale executions.
This was apparent to Canadians nearly two decades ago when William Sampson was in jail and it's still apparent to Canadians today.
You can't fault Freeland for giving it her best shot, even if she hasn't gone as far as some Canadian idealists might like in her criticism of the Saudi regime.
In this regard, she truly is our Madam Secretary.