MEPs call for EU to stand with Canada amid Saudi rights row

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas (R) leaves the opening of the Ambassadors Conference with his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland (L) at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, 27 August 2018. [Hayoung Jeon/EPA/EFE]

The foreign minister of Canada, which is embroiled in a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia, called for German support on Monday in Ottawa’s campaign to promote human rights around the world.

More than 60 MEPs, MPs and intellectuals from around the world have signed an open letter calling for heads of state to stand with Canada in condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. The letter comes as Canadian Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, appealed for support from the German government in conflict with Riyadh.

The letter, signed by many MEPs across the political spectrum, reads:

“Saudi Arabia still allows women to be sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. The Kingdom whips bloggers who dare speak critically of their strict version of Islam, and they regularly lock up peaceful women’s rights activists. And the Kingdom continues to enforce a medieval male guardianship law which prevents women from making crucial decisions for themselves without the explicit consent of a man. […] “The time has come to finally stand up to Saudi Arabia and all other governments that commit gross human rights violations. It is our collective responsibility – as stewards of our people – to speak up again and again, no matter how many diplomats are expelled as a result.”

The German government, trying to repair its own strained relationship with Riyadh, has been silent on the spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia, drawing criticism from some politicians and rights groups.

Chrystia Freeland, speaking at an annual gathering of German ambassadors in Berlin, did not specifically mention Saudi Arabia in her address. However, she touched indirectly on the row which was triggered by her tweet demanding the release of jailed human rights activists in the kingdom.

In response, Riyadh has frozen new trade with Canada, expelled the Canadian ambassador and ended state-backed educational and medical programs in Canada.

Freeland said Canada would always stand up for human rights “even when we are told to mind our own business … and even when speaking up brings consequences”.

She added: “We count on and hope for Germany’s support.”

Ties between Berlin and Riyadh have been strained since former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel denounced “adventurism” in the Middle East in November of last year, comments that were seen as criticism of Riyadh’s actions in the region.

Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Berlin and, since early 2018, has excluded German healthcare companies from public tenders.

Riyadh is at loggerheads with many European countries which have criticized its intervention in Yemen’s civil war and support dialogue with its arch-enemy Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stressed at the conference Europe and Canada’s shared interest in preserving a “rules-based international order” in the face of US President Donald Trump’s unilateralism.

“It hits Europe and Germany when the United States, suddenly and without consulting, introduces random sanctions against Russia, China, Turkey and in the future perhaps more of our important trading partners,” he said.

Europe needed to become more autonomous in order to defend its commercial and trade interests, Maas said. “It won’t be easy,” he added.

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