Baird’s Tough Talk on Human Rights Rings Hollow in Bahrain

How seriously does Canada take defending human rights and democracy? Foreign Minister John Baird's recent visit to Bahrain begs the question, argues Roland Paris.
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December 10, 2013
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Canada’s “principled” foreign policy keeps running into problems in Bahrain, the Gulf monarchy that violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in 2011.

When Foreign Minister John Baird visited the country in April, he made no public comment about Bahrain’s repressive practices, including the regime’s continued incarceration of democracy activists. His silence was troubling, not least because the Conservative government has repeatedly portrayed itself as an uncompromising defender of human rights, democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

As it happens, Mr. Baird was back in Bahrain’s capital last weekend to address the Manama Dialogue, a regional security conference. In his speech, Mr. Baird rightly rebuked Iran for its human rights abuses. Once again, however, he refrained from publicly criticizing – or even directly acknowledging – Bahrain’s own lamentable human rights practices.

If Mr. Baird wished to signal Canada’s discomfort with these practices, he could have easily added a line to his speech encouraging the Bahraini government to deliver on the reform promises it made two years ago, including its commitment to release political prisoners. Alternatively, or in addition, he could have arranged to meet with local human rights organizations or dissidents – a gesture that, if properly publicized, would have spoken volumes.

But Mr. Baird did neither of these things. Instead, he held a meeting with Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. A published photo of the two men smiling is the dominant image of Mr. Baird’s visit to Bahrain.

Juxtapose that image with what happened next. On Sunday, the final day of the Manama Dialogue, the Crown Prince met with members of Bahrain’s cabinet. Rather than loosening restrictions or releasing political prisoners, the cabinet indicated that it would “tighten penalties on those who offend His Majesty the King.” That’s right – tighten.

Also on Sunday, the Canadian Press reported that the value of Canada’s military equipment exports to Bahrain rose from zero in 2011 to $250,000 in 2012. A quarter-million dollars is small potatoes in the global arms trade, but the fact that Canada has increased its military exports to Bahrain at this delicate moment sends a terrible message: If you violently crack down on democracy activists and toss them into jail, Canada will provide you with military equipment.

Together, these developments make Ottawa’s talk about human rights and democracy seem hollow. Although considerations of human rights must sometimes be balanced with other foreign policy imperatives, in this case Canada’s actions could be interpreted as condoning the continuation of political repression in Bahrain – and perhaps even abetting it, depending on what kinds of military equipment have been supplied.

At the very least, Canadians deserve an explanation from Mr. Baird.