The question now is whether Europe and the U.S. will support Canada’s call for improvement in the kingdom’s human rights record, or will remain silent in the face of the country’s economic muscle. So far, the official response from the European Union and the U.S. has been muted.
The European Commission said it was looking for clarification about the arrest of the Saudi rights defenders. But it was clear the E.U.’s executive was not eager to be drawn into the diplomatic dispute.
European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said “we have been seeking clarification from Saudi authorities” over the arrests since May. “We don’t comment on bilateral relations,” she said.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has simply urged both countries to show “restraint.”
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that U.S. officials had “regular dialogue with Saudi Arabia” on human rights. “This particular case regarding Canada, we have raised this with Saudi Arabia. They are friends, they are partners, as is Canada as well.”
But Nauert made it clear the U.S. would not play an active role in helping to settle the dispute. “It is up to Saudi Arabia and Canada to work this out,” she said.
Canada is a NATO member and America’s third-most important trading partner after China and the E.U. The close economic and cultural affinity between Washington and Ottawa is longstanding, although the U.S. has also maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia’s rulers.
There are signals, however, of the Trump administration’s preferences. President Donald Trump has publicly bashed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while Saudi Arabia was the site of the president’s first overseas trip.
And he has made it clear that human rights are not a priority for his administration, saying during a May 21, 2017, speech to Arab leaders that “we are not here to tell other people how to live.”
Bin Salman’s actions have to be seen against a broader backdrop, according to Charles Freeman, the United States ambassador to Riyadh in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
Since the late 1970s and President Jimmy Carter’s explicit emphasis on human rights as part of American foreign policy, the U.S. and other Western nations have “felt emboldened to comment on internal conditions and political developments” in Saudi Arabia, Freeman said.
But the end of the Cold War after the collapse of the Soviet Union also dealt a blow to the global order that saw Western democracies freely lecture about human rights conditions in other countries.
“Unity within what used to be called the Western bloc has disappeared,” Freeman said. “But you also have the devolution of authority to regional actors and powers among which is Saudi Arabia. There will very likely be more forceful reactions by third-world countries to Western pontificating on their lack of liberal institutions.”
These days, Western nations — in particular the U.S. — have a harder time occupying the moral high ground, Freeman added.
“The state of liberty in the West is not what it once was under the impact of terrorism,” he said, adding that examples of U.S. forces torturing detainees and officials engaging in extraordinary rendition undermined its claims to the moral high ground.
“There is a lot of hypocrisy, which is to say the moral standing of countries like the United States and Canada to preach to others about liberal values is not what it once was,” he said.
This trend has only accelerated under Trump, Freeman and other analysts said.
As for bin Salman’s forceful reaction to Canada’s criticism, he said it is most likely aimed at sending a message to those tempted to weigh in on the kingdom’s internal workings.
“To borrow the Chinese phrase, this is killing a chicken to scare the monkeys,” Freeman said. “The idea is that nobody else is going to mess with Saudi Arabia.”
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