OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says diplomatic talks with Saudi Arabia will continue but he’s not backing down on Canada’s criticism of the kingdom over the arrest of several social activists last week.
Trudeau said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had a long conversation with her Saudi counterpart on Tuesday and Canada is engaging directly with the Saudi government in a bid to restore diplomatic ties between the two countries. But an apology from Canada or a withdrawal of the human rights concerns Canada raised, is not on the table.
“As the minister has said and as we will repeat, Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights,” Trudeau said during an event Wednesday in Montreal.
The diplomatic dispute began last week after Freeland tweeted concerns about the arrests of social activists, including Samar Badawi, who has advocated for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Her brother, blogger Raif Badawi, has been in prison since 2012 for criticizing the government, but his wife and children live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens earlier this year.
On Aug. 2, Freeland called for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi and, a day later, her department tweeted further criticism and called for the “immediate release” of Samar Badawi and all peaceful human rights activists.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador, suspended diplomatic relations and slammed the door to new trade with Canada. It has since recalled thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada, moved to transfer any Saudi patients out of Canadian hospitals and barred the import of Canadian wheat. As of next week, the Saudi-owned airline will cease direct flights to and from Toronto and there is at least one report that the government has also ordered state-owned pension funds and banks to sell off Canadian assets.
Many Saudi media outlets and online personalities have taken to the web and airwaves to criticize Canada for everything from the opioid epidemic to its treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
Trudeau said Canada’s goal is not to have a bad relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“We don’t want to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia,” he said in French. “It’s a country that has a certain importance in the world and is making progress on human rights. But we will continue to underline challenges when they exist there and everywhere in the world.”
Earlier Wednesday, Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh that Canada has been given the information it needs to correct the tweets and that it’s up to Canada to step up and fix its “big mistake.”
The intensity of Saudi Arabia’s response has puzzled many, who say it is an extreme reaction to a relatively tame tweet that isn’t much different from what Canada has said before.
Former diplomat Colin Robertson, now vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says Saudi Arabia’s “Defcon 3” response is extraordinary, but thinks Canada’s decision to send the message on Twitter may be partly to blame.
“We are becoming too carefree with tweets,” said Robertson.
The 140-character limit, or 280 in some cases, is not enough to allow for the level of nuance that is required in diplomatic relations and tweets may not be subjected to the same rigorous review process, including sign off by the ambassador, that an official statement would be, he said.
“It is diplomacy by tweet that is responsible,” he said. “When you’re the government of Canada and the ministry of foreign affairs you’ve got to be careful.”
Trudeau, who was heavily criticized for his 2017 tweet welcoming refugees to Canada as the U.S. was clamping down on its asylum system, didn’t apologize for making use of the medium in this situation.
“I think people understand that in today’s world there are a broad range of communications tools available to individuals, to countries, to share messages, to make statements,” he said. “We will continue to use the full range of methods of communication as appropriate.”
Conservative foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole said his sources have told him it was patronizing language in the Arabic translation of the Canadian tweet that really got the Saudis upset. He said the Trudeau government’s apparent preference for social media over person-to-person communications is a mistake.
“Increasingly, both ministers and departments in this government have started using Twitter as a primary means of expressing concern and that has already caused a number of embarrassments for Trudeau.”
Canada needs to learn from its mistake and work on its face-to-face diplomatic skills, said O’Toole, who nonetheless characterized the Saudi response as being “over the top.”
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press