In 2015, former US president Barack Obama refused to raise concerns about Saudi Arabia’s flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and defended his administration’s willingness to cooperate closely with Riyadh on national-security issues despite its human-rights record.
“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human-rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counter-terrorism or dealing with regional stability,” Obama said in a CNN interview aired while he was on his way to Riyadh to pay his respects to the late Saudi king Abdullah who had died a week before.
At the time, nothing could have underscored better how such human-rights concerns in the West can wax and wane than Obama’s assertion that the United States must balance its focus on human rights and equality with other vital security, economic and foreign-relations issues.
The case of Badawi, convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia, has now re-entered the limelight after Canada became entangled in the case after it blasted the arrest of Badawi’s sister Samar by the Saudi authorities.
The dispute was promoted by a tweet by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who wrote that “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi.”
The remarks were retweeted by the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh with Freeland’s demands that the Saudi government should “immediately release” the activists.Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later upheld his foreign minister’s stance on promoting human rights.
The Saudi reaction was swift and decisive. Riyadh denounced the tweet as “blatant interference in the country’s domestic affairs” and a “major and unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process”.
The oil-rich kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador, froze new business deals, suspended flights to Toronto, ordered the return of thousands of Saudi students studying at Canadian universities, and stopped all medical treatment programmes in Canada and ordered all Saudi patients currently receiving care in Canadian hospitals to be moved outside the country.
Ratcheting up the retaliatory measures, the Saudi Grains Organisation, responsible for wheat and other imports, stopped wheat or feed barley imports from Canada, while the Saudi Central Bank instructed asset managers to sell Canadian bonds and stocks.
The kingdom’s sanctions will hit trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which came in at slightly over $3 billion last year divided between $1.1 billion in exports to Saudi Arabia and $2 billion in import of Saudi goods, mostly petroleum.
Saudi Arabia’s regional allies, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, expressed their support for Riyadh in the dispute with Canada and defended what they considered to be its sovereignty and its taking the necessary measures to protect its laws.
This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has been enmeshed in a dispute over Badawi or human-rights issues. The kingdom has consistently rebuked foreign countries and international rights groups for “groundless” criticisms of its human-rights record.
In November 2017, Riyadh summoned the German ambassador in Riyadh after German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel remarked that the then Lebanese prime minister Saad Al-Hariri was being kept against his will in Saudi Arabia.
Gabriel also made remarks seen as critical of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Riyadh reportedly blacklisted German companies as a result of the incident.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia protested to Sweden after what it called “flagrant interference in Saudi internal affairs” by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström. She had criticised the kingdom’s treatment of Badawi and what were called “nearly mediaeval methods” of punishment.
In both cases Saudi Arabia retaliated by recalling its ambassadors in Berlin and Stockholm, blocking business visas for German and Swedish nationals, and blacklisting some of their companies.
However, the sharp Saudi rebuke to Canada has showed the increasingly aggressive foreign policy being pursued by Saudi Arabia in particular in response to what it considers to be infringements of its sovereignty.
It has reopened discussion about human-rights policies, increasingly becoming one of the biggest and most controversial issues in world politics at a time of increasing global momentum in international relations.
The Canadian-Saudi tension is just one example of political scuffles in the international arena between one group of countries that believes that human rights are above politics and crucial for justice and equality and a second group that says they can be exploited for political aims and interference in internal state affairs.
At the heart of the problem is the historic disagreement on the concept and practice of human rights and their machinery and ramifications in contemporary world politics.
The debate over approaches to realising human rights is as old as the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the subsequent international documents that are broadly considered as expressing concerns about human rights on a global scale.
Countries differ primarily on whether a practical or an ideological approach should be taken to achieve the human-rights goals of life, free speech, greater equality and justice.
The other basic difference has been over a human-rights-based approach to trade and investment that entails obligations under trade agreements and how these might impact states and their ability to fulfil human-rights obligations.
The problem has manifested itself numerous times in post-1948 international relations, as conflicts have arisen between countries on ways of developing human-rights culture, laws, practices and beliefs and their realisation in the real world.
In almost all these cases, the international community has failed to resolve whether in cases of conflict priority should be given to advancing human rights or continuing the emphasis on profit-making and strategic interests.
One of the most-glaring examples of human-rights disputes has been over China’s policies, in which Beijing has insisted that human rights should be implemented according to a country’s national conditions, while the country’s Western critics want it to accept the universality of human rights as well as their legal norms.
The result has been a standstill, and China has continued to resist `western interventions and to work to shape the international human-rights system in its own image. It has also sought to weaken any UN mandate on human-rights violations.
In the war of words over human rights between China and the West, it is hard not to be amazed by the levels of hypocrisy on both sides.
The damage to China has been slight, as trade and investment with Beijing have always taken priority over human-rights considerations.
Another example of a country that always escapes blame or punishment is Israel, whose human-rights record is rarely criticised even when it comes to the wanton killing and destruction of the Palestinians on a large scale.
The Canadian-Saudi dispute and the diplomatic crisis and economic sanctions it has provoked have once again exposed deep tensions between countries with traditional statist conceptions of sovereignty and governments that want to exercise moral authority in defence of freedoms and human rights.
It is still unclear if Canada will hold firmly to its concerns on Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record or if this is mere posturing. Canada has had the support of some around the world, and its call has been echoed by some prominent voices.
Yet, Ottawa seems alone in the stand-off after the United States and other Western allies remained on the sidelines of the dispute while Riyadh lashed out over Canada’s call to release jailed civil-rights activists.
There are also reports suggesting that Freeland has spoken to her counterparts in two European nations, seeking their help and advice on how to resolve the dispute.
The Canadian government also apparently plans to reach out to the United Arab Emirates and Britain in order to help resolve the dispute.
One thing remains clear, however, which is that balancing human rights with trade, politics security concerns and strategic goals will remain a dominant theme in international relations. It is a marriage of convenience that the stakeholders want to endure.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Of politics, trade and human rights