Trudeau rebuffs Saudi call for an apology as diplomatic spat escalates

The diplomatic brawl between Canada and Saudi Arabia showed no signs of abating today as the kingdom's foreign affairs minister publicly demanded that Canada withdraw its criticism of his country's human rights record — something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to do Wednesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rebuffed a Saudi demand Wednesday for Canada to fix what it calls a 'big mistake' - a reference to the Trudeau government raising concerns about the jailing of human rights activists in the kingdom. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The diplomatic brawl between Canada and Saudi Arabia shows no signs of abating after the kingdom's foreign affairs minister publicly demanded that Canada withdraw its criticism of his country's human rights record — something Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to do Wednesday.

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 Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah.

"Canada knows what it needs to do," he said.

Trudeau said Canada will not apologize for standing up for Canadian values and human rights — even if it risks ruffling the feathers of a global partner.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explains how his government is dealing with the diplomatic issue between Canada and Saudi Arabia 0:28

"Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly and politely about the need to respect human rights around the world. We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and human rights. It's something that I will always do," the prime minister told reporters after an announcement in Montreal.

"We continue to engage diplomatically and politically with the government of Saudi Arabia [but] Canada will always speak strongly in private and in public on questions of human rights. People around the world expect that kind of leadership from Canada. We will remain firm."

Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi dissident blogger who has been imprisoned by the Saudi government since 2012 on charges of apostasy and "insulting Islam through electronic channels." Raif Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children have been living in Quebec since 2015 after fleeing the desert kingdom.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland sent a tweet last week saying she was alarmed by Badawi's imprisonment and calling for the release of "peaceful" human rights activists — a statement which drew the ire of the Middle Eastern kingdom's governing monarchy.

"A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected," al-Jubeir said Wednesday. "Canada needs to fix its big mistake."

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir says Canada must withdraw its recent criticism of his country's human rights record. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A subsequent tweet from the Saudi foreign affairs ministry said the country would not "accept dictates" or "interference" in its internal affairs from Canada.

"The matter is not about human rights; it is a matter of national security. Saudi Arabia build (sic) relations based on mutual respect, respect for the sovereignty of states and not interfering in the affairs of other countries," one of the Saudi government tweets said.

Trudeau confirmed Freeland had a telephone conversation with her Saudi counterpart on Tuesday, and lines of communication between the two countries remain open.

In addition to dealing directly with Saudi Arabia, a government official speaking on background told CBC News that Freeland is calling or arranging calls with countries in Europe and the Middle East to see if they can help resolve this standoff.

Freeland has already spoken with Sweden and Germany, two countries that have had similar battles with Saudi Arabia in the past.

The official told CBC News that commenting on human rights is a key part of the Trudeau government's foreign policy and that approach is not about to change. The official said that Freeland privately raised human rights concerns directly with the Saudi foreign minister earlier this year in Bangladesh, during a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Council of Foreign Ministers.

Trudeau, meanwhile, said he doesn't want Canada to have "poor relations" with the kingdom.

"This is a country that has some importance around the world. It is making progress when it comes to human rights. But, at the same time, we have to speak out about the challenges there and elsewhere," Trudeau said in French.

The government has faced criticism from some quarters — from former Conservative foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay, among others — for admonishing Saudi Arabia through a tweet, rather than voicing concerns through the normal diplomatic channels.

But Trudeau said Canada is in direct discussions with countries around the world and that he saw nothing wrong with using modern communication tools to share Canada's position.

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau explains why his government sometimes uses twitter to get its diplomatic message out to the public 0:21

"We will continue to make statements and we will continue to use the full range of methods of communication as appropriate," he said.

"We have to use as many tools as we can to get our message out across in the modern world," he added in French.

Al-Jubeir's comments come as the country — an autocratic state controlled by the House of Saud — recalls Saudi nationals attending Canadian universities and pulls Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals.

Saudi Arabia reviewing Canadian investments

The Financial Times reported Wednesday that the country's rulers also have asked asset managers to sell Saudi-owned stakes in Canadian enterprises. The country also will stop purchasing Canadian wheat and barley — a trade move that is not expected to be all that damaging, since Canada hasn't sold any wheat or barley to the kingdom this year.

The fate of a $15 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) from London, Ont.-based General Dynamics remains unknown.

The kingdom is considering "other measures," al-Juberi said without elaborating. Saudi Arabia already has expelled the Canadian ambassador.

A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News the department "continues to seek clarity" from the government of Saudi Arabia on "various issues."

"The embassy's trade officers, in addition to the wider Trade Commissioner Service, are actively engaged with Canadian business interests and will continue to work with them and the relevant authorities in the coming days," the spokesperson said. "Our government will always support Canadian workers and industries, and defend their interests at home and abroad.‎"

Liberal MP Omar Alghabra, a parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, said the government was "surprised" by the heavy-handed Saudi response to the tweet, given how Canada has repeatedly voiced concerns about the state of human rights in the country — a place frequently cited for its abysmal treatment of women, minorities, foreign labourers, dissidents and human rights advocates.

"It was their decision to escalate the situation — we have done nothing out of the usual — and we're interested in maintaining dialogue with Saudi. The Saudis made this decision and hopefully the Saudis will come to the table and engage us in a frank and constructive way," he said in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Omar Alghabra tells Power & Politics that Canada has done nothing out of the usual in the diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia. 8:57

So far, Canada's closest allies — the United States and the United Kingdom — have issued rather tepid statements and are refusing to condemn the Saudi actions.

Heather Nauert, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday the U.S. is urging Canada and Saudi Arabia to use diplomacy to resolve their dispute.

"Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can't do it for them, they need to resolve it together," Nauert said in a briefing.

In a written statement, the State Department referred to both Canada and Saudi Arabia as close allies.

Similarly, a spokeswoman for the U.K.'s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said the two countries are "close partners" of the United Kingdom and urged restraint.

"The U.K. is a strong supporter of human rights. We regularly raise our concerns with the Saudi government about human rights issues, including the recent arrests of human rights defenders," the spokeswoman said.

Former Defence Minister Peter MacKay joins Power & Politics to discuss the ongoing deterioration in relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia. 7:37

With files from David Cochrane and Reuters