Human rights abuses under-reported during COVID-19

The Canadian government will continue to allow sales of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia
Canadian LAVs similar to those sold to Saudi Arabia, often condemned for its human rights abuses.

Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has all but eliminated other stories from the news. In Ottawa, the prime minister sprints down a few steps from his cottage to deliver an ever-lengthening list of financial supports to beleaguered organizations and individuals. In Washington, the president offers home cures for the virus such as ingesting Lysol while his health experts cringe in the background. Meanwhile other important stories related to human rights which have received little recent attention. Here are three of them.

Israel to annex more Palestinian territory

There have been three elections in Israel in the past year and in each of them Benjamin Netanyahu, surely one of the world’s shadier public figures, campaigned on annexing more Palestinian territory. The electoral results have been inconclusive and Netanyahu has been forced to share leadership with his rival Benny Gantz.  They loathe one another but do agree on annexing up to 30 per cent of the remaining Palestinian Occupied Territory beginning as early July 1.

Israel’s continued military occupation since 1967 is illegal and inhumane. If this latest land grab goes ahead it will be thanks to the wholehearted support of the Trump administration, which is literally helping to write the regulations. The Canadian government has been mute on this issue and a recent statement containing a summary of a conversation between Prime Minister Trudeau and Netanyahu made no mention of it either.

Netanyahu, by the way, has just made his first court appearance on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The Haaertz newspaper says that he used every available subterfuge at his disposal in an attempt to avoid his day in court.

Canadians languish in Chinese jails

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor continue to languish in Chinese jails 18 months after being detained on trumped up charges. They were imprisoned just days after Canada detained Chinese tech giant Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou as she passed through Vancouver. The Americans asked Canada to detain her and extradite her to the US. They say that she lied to a bank financing her company in an attempt to circumvent US sanctions against Iran. The Chinese government was furious and Kovrig and Spavor were arrested soon after.

While the two Canadians are held in harsh conditions, the same cannot be said of Meng.  She has been released on bail while her extradition case is being prepared and heard. She has spent the past 18 months residing comfortably in a $15 million dollar home, one of two that she owns in Vancouver, and she can move about the city.

Meng is about to return to the spotlight as a British Columbia judge rules on the case against her. It is complicated but can be reduced to two arguments. Her lawyers argue that while the US has sanctions in place against Iran Canada does not. So the argument is that Meng cannot have broken a Canadian law and should be released rather than being extradited. However, the prosecution argues that at the least Meng is still guilty of having lied to a bank about financial arrangements in place between Huawei and a subsidiary company doing business with Iran.

The US sanctions were reinstated after President Trump withdrew from an agreement negotiated by President Obama in which Iran limited its nuclear weapons program. Meng may (or not) have lied to a bank but when it comes to the embargo why should Canadians or anyone else feel any obligation to support President Trump’s foreign policy blunder?

The Chinese government has been playing rough and perhaps not surprisingly the Canadian prime minister and his foreign affairs minister have been careful to measure their words. The truth is that Corvig and Spavor are being held hostage by an authoritarian government and should be released.

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia

In April the Canadian government lifted a moratorium on new permits for military exports to Saudi Arabia. In 2014, Stephen Harper had approved a large sale of $14 billion in light armoured vehicles (LAVs) which are built at General Dynamic Land Systems Canada, a factory based in London, Ontario. Amnesty International, Project Ploughshares and other groups opposed the deal, fearing that the vehicles, which can be mounted with 105-millimetre cannons, could be used in the bloody conflict which the Saudis are conducting in neighbouring Yemen. The groups were also concerned, given the Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, that the vehicles equipment might also be used against that country’s own citizens.

After the Harper deal it became obvious that there would be huge penalties if Canada withdrew from the contract, an agreement which also contained provisions that prevented an open discussion of its terms. At the time, the opposition Liberals left open the possibility of suspending the deal, but once in office they argued that they had a contractual obligation to fulfil and that reneging would cost billions. They promised a further review, which has now been delivered.

On May 15, Amnesty and half a dozen other groups sent an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Trudeau expressing their “deep concern” regarding the analysis which the Department of Global Affairs Canada used in reviewing the export permits.

The groups did not mention it in this context but in October 2018 a team of Saudis lured regime critic Jamal Khashoggi to their embassy in Turkey and proceeded to butcher him like an animal on the hoof. His body has never been recovered. The official Saudi response veered from denial to insisting later that the murder and dismemberment had been a rogue operation, albeit by individuals close to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. US intelligence told President Trump that no such killing would have occurred without the prince’s approval.

Five people were sentenced to death but that has now been commuted. The Khashoggi family, no doubt under threat from the Saudi government, has forgiven the murderers, allowing them to evade the death penalty and possibly even prison terms. But Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz, said in a Tweet that no one has the right to pardon the killers and that she is not prepared to forgive and forget.

Saudi Arabia. China. Israel. There is nothing new about having charlatans, opportunists and despots in power, but shining a light on their misdeeds is our responsibility as global citizens, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament.

6 thoughts on “Human rights abuses under-reported during COVID-19

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  1. It’s concerning that ongoing news about the COVID-19 pandemic has left little room for media coverage of other important events including those mentioned above. However, the Globe and Mail has covered, although too briefly, stories about Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor where the reporter has asked why the Canadian government hasn’t done more to deal with this situation. The Globe and Mail has also had short news items related to the April decision to renew arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The federal government lifted a moratorium on new permits for military exports to Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares have both issued releases opposing this decision. It’s disappointing to learn that the federal government hasn’t commented on Israel’s continuing annexation of Palestinian territory. The greater problem isn’t not just the fact that the media fails to report on other urgent matters but the reality of the pandemic has overtaken our lives in general. It’s become a central reality in our daily lives that ends up pushing other realities to the edge of our lives.

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  2. I agree that the Covid-19 coverage has overshadowed not only HR but practically all other news. I can’t understand why CBC devotes the whole day’s slot with covering each region’s press conferences ad nauseam. Not that people should not be thoroughly informed but to me it is overkill especially for in the west coast which has to endure the daily briefings from east to west. And do our public health officials perhaps spend more time planning and responding to the crisis rather than preparing for their daily briefings?

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    1. Thanks Ted. I am sure journalists want to do their duty to inform us about COVID-19. But I wonder if perhaps its is also easier and cheaper to do a lot of talking heads programming when it is difficult and potentially dangerous to have your reporters and camera people on the front lines.

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