Manitoba·Opinion

Canada's problematic relationship with the U.A.E.

Steven Zhou discusses Canada's problematic relationship with the United Arab Emirates in face of known human rights violations.

A lack of political will has left a Libyan-Canadian behind Emirati bars, Steven Zhou writes

The skyline of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates. (The Associated Press)

The global refugee crisis has put Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party under intense scrutiny for dragging their feet instead of responding with urgent humanitarian assistance.

An image of a dead Syrian boy's corpse washed up on a beach, has, among other things, highlighted the Harper regime's woeful international record. Ottawa has been forced to act on the matter, as it was compelled to do so on a number of other international issues, such as the plight of Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian citizen imprisoned in Egypt for what the international human rights community observes as trumped up "terrorism" charges.

These are all high-profile cases that have kept the Tories on their toes, perhaps even damaging the party's political image in a crucial time of electoral uncertainty. But one particular case that should be drawing as much public anger has instead gone relatively unnoticed.

It also concerns the plight a Canadian citizen imprisoned in the Arab world, though it's the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) that has to be scrutinized this time around.

The darker side of the Emirates

Salim Alaradi, a 46-year-old Libyan-Canadian, was one of 10 Libyans arrested in the U.A.E. between August 13, 2014 and September 4 of this year. He was taken away along with his brother Mohamed by Emirati government agents while on family vacation. No one knew their whereabouts for months until the guards allowed them to call home. Neither Salim nor Mohamed have been charged with any crimes, though Salim has now been imprisoned in a secret U.A.E. jail for more than a year.

Mohamed Alaradi was released after four uncertain months in U.A.E.'s infamous network of secret prisons. The details of his stay consist of brutal episodes of torture, including systematic beatings, sleep deprivation, and psychological torture, among other "techniques." The global press has covered the story, though this hasn't translated into the kind of political pressure needed to force the world to act.

The U.A.E. is a federation of seven emirates, including Dubai, which has an international reputation for being cosmopolitan and affluent. The country puts a lot of resources and effort into the way it markets itself to the world, though its dark side is being gradually illuminated by international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which have condemned the treatment of the Alaradi brothers.

Mum's the word in Canada

Curiously, the same can't be said for Stephen Harper, whose administration has said and done virtually nothing about Salim Alaradi's continuous imprisonment at the hands of the U.A.E. security establishment. 
Canadian Salim Alarad, left, is seen in a 2013 family handout photo. (The Canadian Press)

Of the jailed Libyans, one is also an American citizen and another a French resident (married to a French citizen). Yet both Barack Obama and Francois Hollande have been equally silent on their plight. This kind of apparent political nonchalance will certainly result in these men's continued detainment and, according to Mohamed Alaradi's detailed verbal and written reports, systematic torture.

The U.A.E. is infamous for maintaining its secret system of prisons, using it to disappear political dissidents and other inconvenient figures. But, according to the Alaradi family, Salim doesn't have a political bone in his body, let alone an appetite for seditious activity. He is a life-long businessman with a family of several children. Perhaps this is why authorities haven't charged him or any of his fellow Libyan prisoners with any crimes.

What makes the Canadian government's silence even more intolerable is the fact that it benefits from a profitable relationship with the U.A.E., its largest market in the Middle East and North African region. Then Foreign Minister John Baird visited the Emirates last year to renew the two countries' so called "Shared Strategic Agenda," which includes plans for everything from business opportunities to handling the Islamic State (ISIS). Other than a brief period of tension in 2010, the two nations have been on friendly terms, even inking a nuclear power deal in 2012.

Canada is an important supplier of nuclear energy to the Emirates, which has been expanding its nuclear sector recently. In other words, a long list of reasons exist to suggest that Canada would have a good amount of leverage for negotiating the release (or at least humane treatment) of one of their own. Instead, both the Canadian public and its elected representatives have been mute in terms of bringing this crisis to light.

The U.A.E. has used its image of affluence to mask its serious human rights problems. For all of their rhetoric on supporting individuals around the world, it's not hard to point out the selective nature of the Harper administration's actions on human rights. Nor are the Conservatives alone in the prioritizing of politics and money over human decency. It's a political problem that, like the Syrian crisis, calls for a good deal of public outrage.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist and writer.

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