In the wake of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland’s tweet in August criticizing Saudi Arabia’s arrest of Samar Badawi, a multitude of tangential questions and commentary have surfaced. From Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and international allies’ silence over the diplomatic dispute to Canada’s own human rights record regarding Indigenous peoples—all of which are poignant issues—we’re still dodging some serious missteps in this whole debacle.
The downfall of Canada-Saudi Arabia diplomatic relations aside, including the costly domino effect for the Saudi students in Canada on a government exchange scheme, the question looms: What was Freeland’s actual motivation in tweeting about Samar Badawi’s detention?
The Minister of Foreign Affairs should be well aware of the appropriate diplomatic channels to pursue in order to free a detainee. It’s a delicate dance between official representatives to negotiate a safe release—all very hush-hush, of course. Given that Badawi is an American citizen, not Canadian, this would have best been a collaborative effort with American officials.
But Freeland did not do this. And in the aftermath of this mess, the United States has steered clear of any intervention.
It’s crucial to look more closely at the nuances for what they are: Using a human being—for what is, yes, a very concerning human rights issue—as a pawn in the international arena of political power. Such can be described at best as careless, and more bluntly as wilfully negligent. Even worse, under the guise of human rights activism, it violates just that. Samar Badawi was unable to consent to her role as a pawn. She is, for all we know, still imprisoned and given Freeland’s approach to “diplomatic relations”, it’s unlikely this will change in the near future.
Yes, Saudi Arabia has serious human rights violations that the international community must act on. Yes, this must be acknowledged, and they must be held accountable. But that is not for Freeland—the official representative of Canada to the international community—to do over Twitter, much less for her to publicly identify a woman presently imprisoned by the government that she is accusing of said human rights violations without any concrete actions to free her. On the contrary, this recklessness could get her killed.
The problematic nature of this tweet does not revolve around whether Saudi Arabia has breached human rights (it has, we know that). It revolves around playing Russian roulette with an individual’s life in an effort to move one’s own political agenda forward. This is akin to the type of “slacktivism” that can do more harm than good. Essentially, Samar Badawi’s life was leveraged as part of an international political agenda, and that in itself is a human rights violation.
Now, let’s not ignore the platform via which this happened: Twitter. This wasn’t an official press release or conference, nor was it a formal meeting of nations. This was social media’s lowly act-first-think-later podium where people rant about drivel from trashing their exes, to what they had for breakfast.
Likely in part due to Donald Trump’s rampant Twitter hysteria, this has now become the rather circus-like acceptable form of official communication known as “Twitter diplomacy”. But let’s put a stop to perpetuating this normalcy immediately: it is not acceptable.
Stooping to such a level of absurdity because it’s currently “the norm” is unprofessional and undiplomatic. And now it’s become life-threatening for the woman at the centre of the original controversy who has conveniently faded from the discussion in this diplomatic fiasco. It’s more important now than ever that we hold our officials to a higher standard in order to avoid exactly what is happening.
Even if you don’t want to acknowledge Freeland’s blunder, let’s take a frank look at her actions and re-examine this paradoxical situation. Was publicly antagonizing a dictatorial, human-rights violating, misogynistic government which is known for its volatile reactions and disregard of external commentary really going to make a positive contribution to Samar Badawi’s case? Of course not, especially when it’s via Twitter. And if Freeland, as a high-ranking government official, doesn’t know this, is she really suited for this sensitive position?
We can only hope that the magnitude of this gaffe weighs as heavily on the Canadian government as it should to ensure this does not endanger another life. And while there’s little optimism that Prime Minister Trudeau will publicly concede such a lapse in judgement, hopefully internal steps are taken to prevent another incident of this gravity.
Samar Badawi’s life may still be in danger, and because of the irresponsible manner by which this was handled, Canada has little hope of successfully aiding her release—assuming that truly was Freeland’s intention.
Jaclyn McRae-Sadik is currently an MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Prior to this, she was a journalist and photographer focussing on investigative affairs, news, and human rights
Featured image courtesy of Jaclyn McRae-Sadik