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Canada to discuss rift with Saudi Arabia

Ministers from Canada and Saudi Arabia are hoping to meet this week to discuss the rift between the two countries.

This headline making announcement came from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who on Tuesday announced her plans to meet and discuss the diplomatic dispute with her Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York.

The goal of this meeting is to begin mending fences between the two powerhouse countries following Canadian criticism of the kingdom’s arrests of human activists, which lead to an explosive dispute over the summer.

The global headline making rift between the two countries began when Ottawa called for the release of activists who were detained for urging more rights for women in the kingdom, including women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi on August 2nd.

Samar Badawi is the sister of well known detainee Raif Badawi who is serving a 10 year prison sentence. His wife and children however are Canadian, thus making Samar the sister-in-law of a Canadian citizen.

“We feel a particular obligation to women who are fighting for their rights around the world, women’s rights are human rights,” said Freeland.

“And we feel a particular obligation to people who have a personal connection to Canada. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

To this Saudi Arabia responded by freezing new trade with Canada; blocked grain imports; ordered thousands of Saudi students on government scholarships to leave Canadian universities and relocate to other countries or return home; placed a ban on Saudi flights to Canada, along with orders to brokers and bankers to suspend transactions with Canadian entities and finally, expelled Canada’s ambassador from the kingdom.

At the height of the dispute, it was al-Jubeir who appeared to lecture Canada on its responsibility to defuse tensions, saying at a news conference, “Canada knows what it needs to do. Canada started this, and it’s up to Canada to find a way out of it.”

However, Canada has not back down and Freeland has made it clear, prior to the hoped for meeting that the country would not be changing its fundamental position of standing up for human rights.

The Saudi side has relented to some extent, and has quietly dropped at least one of their more extreme measures, where the medical students and interns who were ordered to leave Canada by August 31st, were allowed to continue at their posts for the time being.

However, at least 7,000 non medical Saudi students were forced to interrupt their studies and some have chosen to file asylum claims in Canada instead of returning home.

Leading up to the hoped for meeting, Freeland disclosed that she was in regular touch with al Jubeir who she disclosed was working very hard to also soothe the rift between the countries.

“He is very engaged on the issue … we are hoping to meet in New York this week and I think that’s a good thing,” she told an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Both Canada and Saudi Arabia have chosen to allow their foreign ministers, rather than heads of state or heads of government, to deliver their country’s addresses to the General Assembly.

That means under UN protocol they must wait until later in the week to speak as Freeland will speak on Saturday morning, and  Jubeir will be the final speaker to give his presentation on Saturday afternoon.

Saudi female activist faces possible death penalty

 

Israa al-Ghomgham could be the first female human rights activist to be sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia. On August 6, a public prosecutor in Riyadh recommended the death penalty for six political activists, including Ghomgham. She and her husband, Moussa al-Hashem who have been in prison since 2015, were sentenced to death on charges of protesting against the Saudi government and incitement to disobedience in the Shia-majority region, Qatif.

Ghomgham, 29, and her husband were arrested on December 8, 2015. She was one of the leaders of anti-government protests that started in Qatif in 2011, demanding the end of anti-Shia discrimination and the release of political prisoners.

At the final hearing, scheduled on October 28 2018, a judge will either confirm or reverse the recommendation for death penalty issued by the public prosecutor. If the decision is ratified by King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Ghongham will be beheaded by a sword.

Noteworthy is the fact that none of the charges against Ghongham relate to the use of violence, which under Saudi law warrants the death penalty. This indicates that the death penalty is being used in Saudi as a weapon to suppress dissent. Ali Adubisi, Director of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) stated “It’s largely a revenge against the Arab Spring, and a punishment for Qatif, which witnessed the largest protests since 2011.” Adubisi continues “Sentencing a female human rights defender to death is a dangerous precedent in Saudi Arabia.” ESOHR’s latest count of people on death row in Saudi Arabia is around 58.

The verdict against Ghomgham has resulted in a social media campaign asking for her release and the release of activists arrested in the past year. The Shiite minority that lives in Qatif has complained that Sunni authorities banned them from practicing their religion, and that they are not given the same opportunities for work and education. The government has denied the accusations. According to rights advocacy groups, Saudi Arabia has executed Shiite activists in the past for political reasons. A recent UN report issued last June said, “Those who peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression are systematically persecuted in Saudi Arabia, many languish in prison for years. Others have been executed after blatant miscarriages of justice.”

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia where in 2017 alone, 100 people were beheaded, remains “one of the most prolific executioners in the world.”

Trade off? Canada’s delicate balance between trade and ethics

Canada and Saudi Arabia are in the middle of a diplomatic spat that is threatening the relationship between both countries including in the area of trade. How did we get to this point?

Whilst Saudi Arabia was praised in 2018 for giving women the right to drive, there is still a lot to do to bring the country up-to-speed on women’s rights policy. From the time they are born, women are forced to live under male guardianship. The first guardian is her father, even her brother, her uncle, or her son, then if she marries it’s her husband. It’s her guardian’s role at any given point in her life to grant her permission to do things like go to school, travel, work or get married. Although the guardianship rule is not a written law, it’s has been customary practice in the country for hundreds of years. Those in favour of the system state that guardianship offers women protection and love and see it as a form of duty, those against it state that guardianship is plain slavery. Over the last few years, a movement started that has resulted in the signing of a petition by thousands of people to end male guardianship.

Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who came to power in June 2017, by giving women the right to drive, positioned himself as a young modernizer. The whole world applauded the change, seeing it as a sign of a new policy direction. However, besides that, he has shown no intention to improve women’s rights and general human rights policy; in fact, he is proving to be just as cruel and intolerant as his predecessors through repression of religious minorities and public floggings.

The woman at the centre of the current political storm with Canada, is Samar Badawi, a young woman who has devoted her life to improving women’s rights in her country. Her fight started when her father wanted to stop her from marrying the man she loved which resulted in her arrest. Samar was at the forefront in the driving campaign which earned women the right to drive early 2018. Following winning the International Women of Courage Award in 2012, given by the U.S. State Department, for championing women’s rights, she was first banned from leaving the country in 2014, then arrested in 2016. Her brother is blogger Raif Badawi who was arrested in 2012 for condemning the government of Saudi. His wife and children live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens.

Samar’s activism continued and when she and her fellow activist Nassima al-Sadah were  arrested again, Canada’s response led to the current spat. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Ministry tweeted “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” As a reaction or as some would call it an overreaction, the Saudis withdrew their ambassador, removed the Canadian ambassador, suspended flights to and from Canada, recalled Saudi students studying in Canada, barred the import of Canadian wheat, and suspended all new trade deals. The message from the Saudi’s is loud and clear and when it comes to human rights, they don’t want to be told off. Relationships with other countries are strictly business.

As the spat continued, in a statement this week Prime Minister Trudeau said “As the minister has said and as we will repeat, Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights.” Thus, Canada has made its ethical position clear even though it has already come at some cost. Meanwhile other major trading partners of both Canada and Saudi Arabia have remained relatively quiet.

5 questions with Christopher Karas, the high schooler fighting his school over homophobia

 

Christopher Karas, a gay Mississauga high school student, is currently at the centre of a battle with his French Catholic school over what he calls homophobia. While he powers on in his fight for gay rights in the courtroom we caught up with him to chat about his views on the history of gay rights in Canada, funding for religious schools, helping young people get involved, and his own future beyond the halls of high school.

What is wrong with Queer and Trans rights in Canada right now?

Queer men (labelled as MSM) aren’t able to give blood in Canada. MSM is a moniker the Canadian government has used to distinguish men who have sex with other men from the general public. As if Queer men are different from our heterosexual counterparts. MSM also applies to women who have sex with men who had sex with other men. In Canada, MSM aren’t able to give blood if they had sex with their partner in the last 5 years. This discriminatory policy has been used to bar Trans people (especially Trans Women).

Trans people aren’t protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act or the Criminal Code. Close friend Susan Gapka is lobbying the Canadian government tirelessly to amend the Act and the Code to extend protections to Trans and Non-binary people across Canada, potentially adding Gender Identity and Gender Expression for the first time.

Intersex people aren’t part of today’s important conversations. Many of today’s conversations have focused on Trans people. While a focus on Trans people is needed and an important one, we must also have conversations that focus on Intersex people while centering #BlackLivesMatter, Brown and Indigenous people as part of these conversations. As we know, LGBTTIQQ2SA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Two Spirit, Asexual (Aces as we say!), and all those not yet included or who don’t want to be defined by any label) communities are Intersectional and always will be.

What have we gotten right since the Queer and Trans movement began?

When the Queer and Trans movement first began it wasn’t owned by any one person. This in itself is one of the movement’s greatest strengths. However, some have tried to co-opt our movement (i.e. Pride Toronto sponsorship, etc.)

Should the government be funding religious schools?

I think that it should be up to the people to have a debate in [upcoming elections]. We fundamentally protect the right of freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression yet we exclusively fund the Roman-Catholic school system while denying funding to freedom of conscience and religious schools. Although, I might be a bit biased. I sued my school board when my school barred me from putting up posters of my civil rights hero Harvey Milk and a Gender and Sexuality Alliance I tried to build with my peers.

 

“Operation Soap” brought out our ugly

Today is Feb, 5th and on this day 34 years ago Toronto police organized “Operation Soap” raiding four gay bathhouses in the city and arresting over 300 innocent men. It was perhaps one of our lowest points as a city and should serve to remind all of us how easily our rights can be taken away.  Human rights are, unfortunately, easily ignored when those given power are ignorant.

Peter Bochove was co owner of the Richmond Street Health Emporium at the time of the raid in 1981 and said the police came in with crow bars and sledge hammers “ they were offered the keys to the lockers and the rooms, but they held up a crowbar and said — we brought our own. We ended up in the shower room and we were all told to strip” One of the cops who was looking at the pipes going into the shower room said, “gee, it’s too bad we can’t hook this up to gas.” http://www.yorku.ca/jspot/5/stand_together/3/

The campaign was an initiative by the metropolitan police to push gay bars and bathhouses out of business – but also to silence those who advocated for gay rights.

Instead of driving the LGBT community underground it worked as a catalyst, uniting the gay community and building support through mass demonstrations, rallies and marches.  It was the beginning of six years of steady harassment by the police of gay press and gay men across the country; but also the beginning of the gay rights movement in Canada.  Instead of hiding, gay men took to the streets, marching with their supporters, pushing the boundary and speaking out. It was the end of the silence.

Today is a day to remember, and a day to celebrate all those who stood up for gay rights and refused to stay silent.