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The Saudi-Canada rights/engagement trade-off

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The Saudi-Canada rights engagement trade-off

I’m of at least two minds on the sudden diplomatic blow-up between Canada and Saudi Arabia. More like four or five.

As a general matter, our Canadian eagerness to preach to the world about “Canadian values” is one of our least admirable national characteristics. In fact, as Terry Glavin points out in the National Post, the values in question are basic ones shared by lots of people in many countries round the world. And for the most part they did not actually originate here. (They’re sometimes called “universal” values but that’s ambitious: We don’t actually know how well they’re understood or respected on Alpha Centauri.)

We used to argue humility was an important Canadian value but humility suggests we not condemn others’ behaviour too vehemently or often. Of course, some of our leaders argue—proudly, boastfully—that we still are admirably humble. Self-awareness evidently escapes many in public life.

On the other hand, if anything is worth speaking up about, it’s imprisoning people for peacefully proposing social change, or giving them 1000 lashes for any reason or even crucifying them, the sentence Saudi Arabia reportedly carried out this week against a Myanmar man found guilty of murder and attempted rape. (Granted, there seems to be a difference between Saudi crucifixion, which involves beheading followed by corpse display, and the kind Christians automatically think of, involving spears, vinegar and hours of torture. But still… )

If you do make a pointed criticism that you believe to be true and correct, you obviously can’t back down or apologize simply because the criticized party engages in what the Guardian calls “absurd overreaction.” If what you’ve said is incorrect, then of course you must apologize. But if it’s not, you can’t possibly retract. Not if you value your self-respect, that is. We often hear about people who have made great sacrifices to stand up for human rights. Here’s our chance, albeit an unexpected one, to do the same, even if the sacrifice required of us is only a slightly higher price of gas or somewhat longer wait to see a medical resident.

It follows that we now also can’t submit to sanctions chill. The next time the Saudis do something that rises to the level of imprisoning peaceful activists, we will be obliged to point it out. To remain silent in the face of extortion would (I hope) offend Canadian values.

We can also thank our lucky stars (including Alpha Centauri, if it’s one of them) that we don’t live in a society in which because one of the higher-ups takes offence at another government’s tweet ten thousand students have to pick up and leave the country they’re studying in, investments get shut down or sold and trade is cut off. We can also sympathize with people who have to live under such regimes. We do want to be humble about recommending our way of life to others but the idea that ordinary humans might actually prefer living under a system in which their lives can be turned upside down and inside out at the stroke of an autocrat’s pen is a fiction popular mainly among autocrats. We should also be inspired by this episode to reinforce protections in our own society against the arbitrary exercise of power.

All that said, as someone who generally favours less intervention by government, I’m not sure why Ottawa does have to express its disapproval of what goes on in other countries. If Canadians belonging to rights organizations or other civil society platoons or even acting as individuals are moved to do that, and many are, more power to them. If other Canadians are of a mind to confine their moral instruction to the example of their own lives, more power to them. Do we really need an official line?

On the more general question of the rights/engagement trade-off, the usual argument from free-traders—of whom I am one—is that in the long run economic engagement and instruction by example are best. When the Harper government’s rather mild criticism of China’s human rights records sparked Chinese anger and a freeze-up in diplomacy this was the argument made by many Canadians, including the official opposition, to justify a more discreet line on China, which the government eventually took.

Adam Smith taught that repeated trading requires good behaviour from both parties to the exchanges: people have to keep their word, they can’t lie or commit fraud or seize goods without payment, and they likely get a better deal if they’re nicer to their counterpart. That’s all true so far as it goes. But I suspect the effects may be limited mainly to the commercial realm. Whether trading with people eventually leads them to adopt the social mores of their trading partners is another, empirical question. Unfortunately, many, maybe even most empirical questions don’t have clear answers.

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