If there is one thing that separates Canada from other countries in the world, it is its strong international support for promotion of human rights. From Foreign Minister Freeland’s Tweet about civil rights activists in Saudi Arabia to Canada’s annual resolution at the UN Human Rights Council with respect to Iran’s human rights record, the Liberal government has made it clear that human rights are an integral part of the Canadian foreign policy.
Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) August 2, 2018
But has Canada’s approach to human rights been effective in the Middle East? Dennis Horak, former Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was expelled and declared a persona non grata in a diplomatic row, doesn’t think so. “”The least effective way to approach human rights is the approach we have taken. To stand on the sidelines and yell at countries is not effective… If our objective is to affect change, then you need to engage and have a comprehensive relationship.” Horak said last week in a panel discussion on Parliament Hill organized by the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.
While Prime Minister Trudeau promised a different foreign policy approach, evidently his re-engagement efforts with Iran have failed.
Canada’s tense relations with the two major powers in the Middle East have curtailed its influence in the region. In the case of Iran, there has been no relations since the Harper government cut diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012. While Prime Minister Trudeau promised a different foreign policy approach, evidently his re-engagement efforts with Iran have failed. In surprising move, his party also voted in support of a Conservative motion that calls on the government to “abandon its current plan and immediately cease any and all negotiations” to restore diplomatic relations with Iran.
For Saudi Arabia, there was full diplomatic relations between the two countries, allowing Canadian diplomats to engage with the Saudis on a wide range of issues including human rights. However, the Liberal approach to vocally and publicly address human rights situation downgraded the diplomatic relations and caused costly retaliations from Saudi Arabia.
Make no mistake, Canada needs and must be serious in advocating and promoting human rights in the Middle East. Yet, it requires to re-examine its approach. While Twitter diplomacy and calling out rulers of Middle Eastern countries for their abysmal human rights record might be well-received by domestic constituencies, the approach has not produced any positive results in these countries. In fact, it has been counterproductive by gravely limiting the Canadian influence to advance its interests in the region.
With a large diaspora community from the Middle East, Canada has a special advantage to rebuild and strengthen its relationships with powerful countries in the region.
In order to be effective, the diplomats need to create a channel of dialogue with the high-ranking officials who have a great deal of influence in the country’s decision-making process. This requires a full engagement on all political, economic, and commercial levels. It also requires Canada to invest more in its public diplomacy efforts by growing its student exchange programs and working with domestic civil society actors. It is only then that the important subject of human rights could be addressed effectively, particularly when it is part of a multifaceted discussion with the country.
Yet, it is important to underline that human rights should not be merely confined to civil and political rights. There are many areas in which Canada could play a more instrumental role that would have a greater chance of success and betterment of human rights situations in these countries. The Head of United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Iran, Amirhossein Barmaki, says; “we have seen a lot of attentions for the political side of human rights but we have lots of subjects within human rights… access to health, education, water, and sustainable development are other aspects of human rights, which people of the region have been deprived of due to the one-sided Western obsession with political and civil rights.”
With a large diaspora community from the Middle East, Canada has a special advantage to rebuild and strengthen its relationships with powerful countries in the region. More importantly, it has the potential to become a prominent and influential player in peace-building, mediation, and conflict resolution in this volatile region. It is ironic that while Sweden and Norway are actively engaging and mediating between various stakeholders of complex regional conflicts, Canada is still deciding whether having diplomatic relations with Iran is necessary or not.
Cover photo: Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada