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Saudi Arabia Doesn't Measure Up to Canada's Rights Recommendations

10/08/2015 06:04 EDT | Updated 10/08/2016 05:12 EDT
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Less than two months before Ottawa announced a $14.8-billion military export contract with Saudi Arabia -- framing it as a historic "win" for Canadian manufacturing -- Canada provided substantial input concerning the Saudi human rights situation at the United Nations Human Rights Council. And while progress has been utterly lacking in relation to every single recommendation made by Canada, it is now all but certain that the deal with the autocratic Kingdom will proceed.

In Canada's view, according to the Dec. 2013 Human Rights Council report, Saudi Arabia should:

1. Abolish, modify or introduce legislation, measures and practices to ensure the effective elimination of all forms of legal discrimination against women and to allow for their full participation in society, including in decision-making and political processes, on an equal basis with men.

2. Introduce and implement a law prohibiting all child, early and forced marriages, including the introduction of a legal minimum age of majority for marriage, and other measures to safeguard and enforce women's rights relating to marriage, choices and free and full consent.

3. Draft and implement a penal code and amend the Law of Criminal Procedure to comply with all its obligations under international law, including prohibitions on judicially sanctioned corporal punishment and the execution of juvenile offenders.

4. Take measures to foster an enabling environment for civil society, including through enacting and implementing before the next UPR a law on associations to allow for the legal creation and registration of independent civil society associations and organisations.

5. Take necessary measures to ensure the effective enjoyment and protection of the right to freedom of religious belief, with a view to promoting the equality of all peoples and respect for all faiths.

It has since been established that the export permits for the Saudi arms deal had not been issued at the time of the announcement. A key element of the export permit process consists of a "case-by-case" human rights assessment, after which the government must determine that "there is no reasonable risk" that Canadian-made goods might be used against the civilian population.

At the same time, documentary evidence has confirmed that the Saudi Arabian National Guard -- which will most likely be the end-user of the Canadian-made armoured vehicles -- has been deployed to "crush" civilian protests, as reported by Britain's The Telegraph, among other media outlets.

As The Globe and Mailrevealed in May, Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs did not conduct a human rights assessment for Saudi Arabia during 2013 or 2014 -- the fiscal year in which the Saudi deal was announced. In the absence of other human rights assessments for this period, Canada's recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council acquire special relevance. They become a key (the only?) documented Canadian assessment of Saudi Arabia's human rights situation.

How does Saudi Arabia measure up today in relation to Canada's specific recommendations?

Canada's recommendation # 1:In its 2014/2015 report, Amnesty International states that "women and girls remained subject to discrimination in law and practice." In its World Report 2015, Human Right Watch states that "Saudi Arabia's discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it." It further states that "ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian."

Canada's recommendation # 2: The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia -- the most senior religious leader in the Kingdom, appointed by the King--said in December 2014 that there was "no intention to discuss the issue" in response to the call to restrict underage marriage to girls at least 15 years old. In an interview with the Saudi Gazette, the Grand Mufti described the marriage of girls below that age as "permissible."

Canada's recommendation # 3: Human Rights Watch reported earlier this year that "detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention." According to Freedom in the World 2015 by Freedom House, "allegations of torture by police and prison officials are common, and access to prisoners by independent human rights and legal organizations is strictly limited." In AI's most recent assessment, "courts continued to impose death sentences for a range of crimes, including some that did not involve violence, such as 'sorcery', adultery and drug offences, frequently after unfair trials."

Canada's recommendation # 4: The environment for civil society has been anything but "enabling." According to a 2015 assessment by UK-based Chatham House, the Saudi government "frequently bans meetings and closes down associations." As well, AI reports that, during 2014, the Saudi regime "targeted the small but vocal community of human rights defenders, using anti-terrorism laws to suppress their peaceful actions."

Canada's recommendation # 5: Religious plurality is severely restricted in the theocratic Kingdom. To start, conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and punishable by death. Moreover, Freedom House reports that "informers monitor classrooms for compliance with curriculum rules, such as a ban on teaching secular philosophy and religions other than Islam." Perhaps not surprisingly, in 2014, Saudi Arabia was classified as a Country of Particular Concern under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

Did Canada, in the course of due diligence in the military export deal with Saudi Arabia, reflect on its own recommendations at the UN Human Rights Council? We don't know. But this much is clear: while Canada has made numerous references to the economic benefits of the arms deal, there has not been a single justification from a human rights perspective.

Every indication is that the $14.8-billion military export deal will be carried out. And, predictably enough, Canadian-made military goods will end up in the hands of one of the worst human rights violators in the world.

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