Human rights our new religion
We Canadians live in such a comfortable cocoon. Because we have a government and social culture that is, for the most part, rational and compassionate, we look askance at the political infighting and partisan loyalties that afflict our neighbour to the south.
We find it hard to believe that 300-million presumably right-minded people — those who qualify to sit on a jury — allow themselves to be governed by a man who doesn’t seem to know the truth from one hour to the next, and who takes umbrage at the least of slights.
“Umbrage” — to take offence, to react strongly. It implies flying off the handle at minor slights.
But, recent events suggest we Canadians have tunnel vision. Obsessed with President Tweet, we have ignored an even more explosive personality on the international stage: Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
The National Post’s Terry Glavin describes him as “a chubby 32-year-old war criminal with a taste for fine art, French mansions, and luxury yachts, (who) launched a barbaric bombing campaign in Yemen that has resulted in the deaths of at least 15,000 people and has left half the population of that desperately poor country at the brink of famine.”
The furore started when Canada sent a tweet that said, “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia .... We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”
The vehemence of bin Salman’s response outdid even Trump’s tantrums. He immediately: • expelled Canada’s ambassador; • froze new trade with Canada; • ordered his global asset managers to dispose of their Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings “no matter the cost”;
• pulled 16,000 Riyadh-funded students out of Canadian universities and medical schools;
• transferred Saudi patients receiving medical care out of Canadian hospitals;
• suspended Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to Toronto;
• and stopped buying barley any wheat from Canada.
He also accused Canada of meddling in his sovereign nation’s internal affairs.
His anger ignores the fact that the Canadian tweet used a relatively diplomatic term, “urge.” It didn’t “demand,” it didn’t “insist.” It also specifically referred to “peaceful” activists.
Should Canada have made its view known through traditional diplomatic channels? Possibly. Although Trump has pretty much rendered conventional diplomacy obsolete with his own inflammatory tweets. Like Trump, bin Salman takes any criticism of his policies personally.
Saudi Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir ruled out mediation. He warned of further measures to further punish Canada. It was Canada’s fault, he said: “There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected.”
How can a simple — and relatively mild — tweet lead to such a conflagration?
Basically, think, we misread the core beliefs of the Saudi ruling family. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, the ultimate patriarchy.
As such, it bans on political activism. It deals harshly with dissidents. One of the activists for whom Canada pleaded has been sentenced to 100 lashes and 10 years in prison.
Last month, it crucified — yes, crucified! — a man convicted of theft, murder, and attempted rape.
Earlier this year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did permit women to drive — the last country in the world to do so. But, many of the those who campaigned for women’s right to drive have since been arrested and imprisoned.
In the same way, though, the Crown Prince failed to recognize Canadian core beliefs.
As one of my readers, Steve Roney, currently teaching in the United Arab Emirates, pointed out recently, we no longer expect to impose our religion, Christianity, on other nations. But, we will not tolerate their rejection of our science, our technology (including medicine), and especially our human rights.
These have become an unofficial religion in Canada. We expect any nation, anywhere, to welcome our polio vaccines. Our mines. Our money.
And, whether it’s Indigenous peoples in Canada, victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, slaves in Sudan, or young girls facing genital mutilation in Somalia, human rights are sacred.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared, “Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world... We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion.”
Trudeau is right not to back down. If human rights are indeed our new religion, they are not negotiable. Canada must speak up in their favour. Even if taking a stand has economic implications.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appears Saturdays.