Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed no sign of backing down in an escalating dispute with Saudi Arabia that has seen the kingdom taking a number of drastic diplomatic and economic measures designed to punish Canada for what Riyadh says is “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.
Speaking to reporters following an event in Montreal, Trudeau refused to apologize for raising human rights concerns with Saudi Arabia and said Canada will continue “to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world.”
The prime minister’s comments came after earlier in the day Saudi Arabia’s foreign affairs minister publicly demanded that Canada withdraw its criticism of his country’s human rights record.
Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Adel al-Jubeir said there will be no reconciliation between the two countries unless Canada recants its condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s decision to jail prominent women’s rights activists Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi.
The latter is the sister of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife and three children live in Canada and have received Canadian citizenship.
Riyadh demands apology
The diplomatic spat between Riyadh and Ottawa was provoked by a series of tweets by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian embassy in Saudi Arabia last week that expressed “grave concern” over the arrest of Badawi and al-Sada and urged Saudi authorities to release them.
On Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced that it is expelling Canada’s ambassador in the kingdom and recalling its own ambassador from Ottawa along with freezing all new trade and investment deals.
More sanctions targeting Canada were announced in the following days, including an order for over 15,000 Saudi students studying in Canada to relocate to other countries, as Riyadh ratcheted up pressure on Ottawa.
“Canada knows what it needs to do,” al-Jubeir said. “It made a mistake and has to correct it.”
‘We will continue to stand up for Canadian values’
Trudeau said Canada will not apologize for standing up for Canadian values and human rights.
“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,” Trudeau said.
“We will continue to do that. We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion. It’s something that Canadians expect and it’s something that will always do.”
Engaging with Saudi Arabia
However, Canada continues to engage with the Saudi government, Trudeau said.
Freeland had a long conversation with al-Jubeir on Tuesday and diplomatic talks continue, Trudeau said.
“We continue to engage diplomatically and politically with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we have respect for their importance in the world and recognize that they have made progress on a number of important issues but we will, at the same time, continue to speak clearly and firmly on issues of human rights at home and abroad wherever we see the need,” Trudeau said.
More sanctions announced
Tuesday’s conversation between al-Jubeir and Freeland appeared to have little effect on Saudi Arabia’s desire to make an example of Canada for other Western countries.
The Saudi government announced a host of new sanctions targeting Canada on Wednesday.
Riyadh ordered all Saudi patients undergoing treatment in Canada to be transferred to other countries, as well as halting purchases of Canadian barley and wheat.
Al-Jubeir said Saudi officials are looking at implementing additional measures against Canada, amid reports that the kingdom’s central bank and large institutional investors have been ordered to sell off their Canadian assets.
Activists accused of national security breaches
Moreover, in more worrying news for the families of the detained activists, al-Jubeir announced that “the individuals were in touch with foreign entities and enemies overseas.”
“The matter is not about human rights, it is a matter of national security,” al-Jubeir said.
Trudeau said the Liberal government will step in to protect Canadian companies and workers affected by the Saudi sanctions.
“Obviously Canada will always stand up for our workers and our companies,” Trudeau said. “We need to make sure that we’re protecting Canadian interests in any situation.”