Canada, in particular under the Trudeau government, has been pushing to promote itself as a refugee- and human-rights-loving nation. But Canada’s behaviour doesn’t always align with this narrative. Its relationship with Saudi Arabia poses a challenge to this narrative.

Canada as a Refugee- and Human-Rights-Loving Nation

In 2015, Trudeau ran on a platform prioritizing the provision of aid to refugees. His current message is one of moving forward in that same direction. In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other nation through the UNHCR resettlement program.

On Canada’s promotion of human rights, the Government of Canada website explicitly states that part of the Canadian identity is to “recognize the impact of the promotion of gender equality and the protection of human rights.” Trudeau himself has said “…it’s part of Canada’s identity that we stand up for human rights.”

Women’s rights have been a key issue for Trudeau, as indicated by his Feminist International Assistance Policy which targets “gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” across the world.

Canadian Arms Deal with Saudi Arabia

There is evidence that “Canadian-made [light-armoured] vehicles were being used in the Saudi proxy war in neighbouring Yemen…and even against Saudi citizens within Saudi Arabia.” Saudi Arabia’s aggression has contributed to the fragility of other nations; in particular Yemen. Saudi Arabia is itself in the category of “elevated warning” on the Fragile States Index.

State fragility is recognized as a factor contributing to the refugee crisis. Canada’s efforts that target state fragility and the refugee crisis could in part be offset by its arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Canadian arms contribute to the worsening of the global refugee crisis as Yemenis are forced to flee due to Saudi attacks.

Samar Badawi posing with Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and after winning the 2012 International Women of Courage Award; years before her arrest. Source:

Canadian Response to Human Rights Violations

Women in Saudi Arabia require the consent of a male guardian to marry, and to leave prison or a domestic violence shelter. Those who want to file a complaint on the grounds of domestic violence must obtain a guardian’s authorization, which is particularly problematic if the charge is against the guardian.

Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, was arrested for challenging the Kingdom on its oppressive laws. She is said to have faced torture and sexual harassment while on trial. Moreover, in 2018, the Saudi government was deemed responsible for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi is said to have been killed because of his criticism of Saudi policies.

In response to the Badawi incidence, Minister Freeland tweeted: “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi…has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call [her] release….” Canada has also granted asylum to Badawi’s brother’s wife and children. Her brother, Raif Badawi, is also an activist who was arrested for his activism promoting free speech and secularism.

These actions resulted in a retaliatory response from Saudi Arabia. This included Canadian visa rejections, ban on Canadian food and shipments into Saudi Arabia, the removal of the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and the return of its own representative in Ottawa.

In response to the death of Khashoggi, Canada’s imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis directly responsible for the death; Prince Mohammad bin Salman, however, was spared.

Canada’s strong calls, provision of asylum to individuals, and limited sanctions, hardly qualify as a minor slap on the wrist for the Kingdom. Should such retaliations by Saudi Arabia stop Canada from stronger action? Could stronger sanctions in response to Khashoggi’s death have provided the opportunity to affirm Canada’s commitments to human rights? What does Canada’s chosen action say about its commitment to its values?

What now?

Considering these facts, should Canada continue its diplomatic relations with the Kingdom? Is it important for Canada to align its action with its identity? Is there a moral or ethical responsibility on the part of Canada to respond more strongly—by cutting trade ties or imposing more widely applicable sanctions on the Saudis, for instance?

Canada continues selling arms to a nation known to violate human rights and one that is contributing to the refugee crisis. Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia challenges the image of Canada propagated by the Canadian government. If Trudeau wants to continue promoting an image of a refugee- and human-rights-loving Canada, he might consider aligning his policies with his narrative about Canada.



Anika Rak is an MA student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.

Image courtesy of Flickr

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect iAffairs’ editorial stance.

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