Walid al-Hathloul: Canada must defend women's rights at G20 summit in Saudi Arabia

As a G20 member state, Canada has a unique opportunity to stand steadfast on its core values of defending human rights

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This weekend, Saudi Arabia will chair the G20 Leaders’ Summit, which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, had planned to use to revitalize his image on the world stage.

As a G20 member state, Canada has a unique opportunity to stand steadfast on its core values of defending human rights. As one of the few countries with a feminist foreign policy, one would expect that Canada would prioritize raising human rights — and in particular women’s rights — at the summit, and indeed in all G20-related meetings.

I am the brother of Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist who has been imprisoned for two and a half years in Saudi Arabia, simply because of her activism. My sister has faced an onslaught of unsubstantiated allegations that remain unproven in court. She has been on a hunger strike for two weeks. I believe her hunger strike is ongoing, but I truly do not know, because she has not been allowed to contact her family since her hunger strike began.

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I have endured so much pain and distress in my quest to advocate for my sister, Loujain. I would meet a similar fate if I returned to Saudi Arabia. I now live in Canada, and I have not seen my parents in three years because of a travel ban imposed by Saudi authorities that prevents them from leaving the kingdom.

Since taking over as president of the G20, Saudi Arabia has put great effort and money into improving its image on the international stage, showering delegates with a facade of enormous luxury and technology, in order to sugar coat its ruthless repression of those who demand profound changes in the country.

To encourage states and companies to invest in the kingdom, Saudi authorities advertise their agenda as one guided by progress and inclusiveness. They spend obscene amounts of money on vast public relations campaigns carried out by major advertising agencies, to wash the abhorrent stains of their own making.

Under the leadership of MBS, the de facto king, Saudi Arabia claims to want to bring the country into the 21st century and never misses an opportunity to boast about the prince’s royal decrees, such as loosening the restrictions on women and reforming the repressive male guardianship system. Saudi women are now able to drive, move more freely and engage in certain entertainment and cultural activities that were not long ago prohibited and bordered on heresy.

These reforms are certainly welcome and should be encouraged. But how sustainable are they when the very women who peacefully advocated for them remain behind bars?

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Loujain, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz, and Mayaa al Zahrani are among the prominent human rights defenders who dared to demand change. Today, they find themselves behind bars — enduring horrible conditions, including torture and sexual violence — for the “crime” of campaigning for the right to drive, to abolish the male guardianship system and for the kingdom’s civil and political rights to apply to all its citizens.

Saudi history will forever remember them for their courageous actions, which sparked a discussion within Saudi society about women’s rights. These peaceful activists should be released immediately. The Saudi authorities should introduce genuine human and women’s rights reforms, otherwise this so-called “progress” or “positive change” will be nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Let’s not be fooled once again: Saudi Arabia is trying to use its G20 presidency to refurbish its horrendous image. Canada and the other members of the G20 must seize this opportunity to demand the release of my sister and the other human rights defenders. Otherwise, their silence will be interpreted as tacit consent.

I’m confident that the Canadian government is fully aware of the tough choice it faces over whether to engage Saudi authorities over issues of human rights. MBS is a ruthless man who has little understanding of diplomacy, decorum, laws or even decency. Do not be surprised if he unleashes his trolls on Twitter to promote the idea that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s participation in the G20 Leaders’ Summit is an act of submission to the Saudi leadership.

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Yet Canada proved beyond a shadow of doubt that human rights are not up for debate, or a political chip to be bargained with.

In August 2018, during the now infamous Saudi-Canada Twitter dispute, then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted her support for women’s rights defenders jailed in Saudi Arabia. In response, the kingdom tried to strong arm Canada into capitulating, but to no avail. It was a moment of pride for Canada, which stood alone as many countries took a position of neutrality.

I hope to see the Canadian government remain steadfast again at the G20 and address the abhorrent, uncivilized and abysmal human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and to once again call for the release of all the women’s rights activists who are being held as political prisoners.

National Post

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