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Stop supporting Saudi apartheid, by Tasha Kheiriddin (National Post)

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May 5, 2016


Imagine if, back in 1985, a delegation from South Africa set up camp at the Ottawa Congress Centre, in order to showcase the country’s wine, cuisine and culture. Imagine it displayed images of beautiful national parks, where tourists gazed at lions, giraffes and gazelles gambolling in the setting sun, while glossing over the fact that more than half i ts population lived in a state of brutal racial repression, known as apartheid.

This would never have been tolerated. Back then, prime minister Brian Mulroney was steadfastly denouncing t he apartheid regime. “If there is no progress in the dismantling of apartheid, our relations with South Africa may have to be severed completely,” he said in a speech to the United Nations.

Mulroney pushed the British and the Americans to impose stiffer sanctions. Countries, including Canada, boycotted South African products. Celebrities organized concerts demanding that Nelson Mandela be let out of prison. And in a span of less than a decade, Mandela was freed, became South Africa’s first black president and oversaw the dismantling of apartheid.

In 2016, there is another state that brutally oppresses half its population. If you’re a woman in Saudi Arabia, you might as well be living under South African apartheid in 1985. You cannot leave your house alone, you cannot have the job of your choice, you cannot drive a car, you cannot own property and you cannot walk about in public unless you are cloaked head to foot in black cloth. Your children can be taken from you, your husband can divorce you by saying the words, “I divorce thee” three times, and if you are raped, you can be stoned for committing “adultery.”

Yet the current Canadian government does not say boo about this state of affairs. Instead, it ratified the previous government’s shameful sale of light armoured vehicles ( LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. Scratch that — it has fallen all over itself to say that it had no choice but to give the contract the green light, despite the fact that Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion still had to sign the export permits, and despite growing evidence that the Saudi government used previously purchased LAVs not for defence, but to oppress its own people.

Later t his month, t he Liberals will host Saudi folk dancing on the lawn of Parliament Hill, as part of Saudi Cultural Days, which is set to take place May 18-21 in Ottawa. The celebrations will i nclude exhibits on henna design, music, Arab cuisine and “traditional costume.” How quaint. Perhaps the Saudis will give Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and the Trudeaus’ daughter, Ella-Grace, a pair of niqabs, the better to experience life as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Then again, perhaps not.

Defenders of Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia will say that we can’t base trade on human rights; that lots of countries commit horrible violations and we still do business with them; that, as Prime Mini ster Justin Trudeau has repeated ad nauseam, thousands of Canadian jobs depend on this LAV contract; that if we pull out, Saudi Arabia will just buy its vehicles elsewhere; and finally, that we need the Saudis to help fight the spread of Muslim extremism in the Middle East.

Many of those same arguments could have been made j ust as well i n the 1980s about South Africa. At the time, it was a major mining hub with the highest per capita gross domestic product in Africa. Politically, it was one of the continent’s few functioning democracies. It had never had a coup, nor fallen prey to civil war, and i ts government was not mired in corruption. With the Cold War still raging, the South African regime stood against the spread of communism on the continent, which was a very real threat — Mandela himself had been a member of the Communist party.

Yet none of this mattered. Canada and the world had had enough. And we should take the same position today. We cannot condemn the medieval, primitive regime of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which decapitates hostages and enslaves women in t he name of Allah, while we sell arms to the Saudis and applaud their folk dances.

To the next Liberal who chirps, “I am a feminist ( like my prime minister),” I say: don’t make me laugh. Grow a spine, Trudeau, and tell the world Canada will not accept Saudi apartheid against women in 2016.

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