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The Conservatives Democracy Problem

Canada Loves Monarchies

by YVES ENGLER

The current Canadian government has a thing for monarchy. In fact the Conservatives seem to like it better than democracy.

First it seemed quirky and quaint when they ordered portraits of Queen Elizabeth II to be put up in Canada’s overseas missions and promoted British royal visits. Then it got a little embarrassing when they reinstated “Royal” to the Canadian Air Force and the Navy’s official name.

But since the “Arab Spring” democracy struggles that began in 2011 Stephen Harper’s government has gotten down right scary, apparently supporting the divine right of kings over rule by the people.

Since 2011 the Tories have publicly backed ruling royal families from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. They’ve signed (or are negotiating) ‘free’ trade agreements and foreign investment protection agreements with Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Morocco — all ruled by kings.

During a trip to the Middle East last week Foreign Minister John Baird met royal officials in Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. In praising the leadership of these countries, the minister failed to mention human rights or the suppression of democratic struggles in these monarchies.

Baird’s comments about Bahrain, a small island nation sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were particularly odious. He blamed opposition to the 218-year monarchy on Iran and criticized the pro-democracy protesters.

“We should be very clear that Iran’s interference in some of its neighbors’ internal political affairs is something that’s distinctly unhelpful, and it’s never motivated by good,” Baird told reporters inquiring about Bahrain.

“The regime in Iran should refrain from interfering in other countries’ affairs,” he added at a press conference in the capital of Manama.

The kingdom’s press gleefully reported Baird`s comments but there’s little evidence that Iran is responsible for the political upheaval that’s gripped the country for the past two years. Even the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah to investigate the country’s political conflict, found no evidence of such a link.

Baird also attacked Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, mocking the idea that the activists were “peace-loving protesters.” “There is violence, where police officers have been targeted,” Canada’s foreign minister declared. “There’s been Molotov cocktails. Even potential use of or planned actions of improvised explosives. There have been other connections to nefarious tactics, including terrorists trying to blow up the causeway. A plot was foiled there.”

This is a highly partisan distortion of the last two years of political struggle that has left at least 87 pro-democracy activists dead. At the start of the “Arab Spring” major protests broke out against the monarchy in Bahrain. Protesters initially focused on greater political freedom and equality for the majority Shia Muslim population, but after security forces killed four and injured dozens on February 17, 2011, calls for the king to go grew more common.

Over the next month, protests against the monarchy gained in strength with 200,000, a quarter of the country’s adult population, marching on February 22, 2011. The regime looked to foreign security forces for protection. They brought in Sunni Muslims from Pakistan and after a month of growing protests 1,500 troops from the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE were sent to shore up the Al Khalifa regime. A day after these well-armed foreign soldiers arrived, the Bahraini king declared martial law and a three-month state of emergency. That same day, March 15, Bahraini security forces killed two more demonstrators and within days protesters camped out in central Manama’s Pearl Roundabout were violently dispersed, leaving five dead and hundreds wounded. The regime also began late night raids in Shia neighborhoods. They’ve arrested thousands, including bloggers, internationally recognized human rights activists and doctors accused of caring for injured protesters.

In the early days of the regime’s crackdown Foreign Affairs released two (mildly) critical statements. But with the international media paying less attention, Ottawa has not made any further comment about the repression even though the regime continues to brutally repress protesters.

While Baird claims covert Iranian meddling, the Conservatives avoided directly criticizing Saudi Arabia’s high-profile military intervention to prop up the monarchy. Rather than challenge Saudi policy, the Tories have deepened military, business and diplomatic ties with the House of Saud. At least seven Conservative ministers have visited the country, including four in the past year. As a result of one of the visits, the RCMP will train Saudi Arabia’s police in “investigative techniques”. Most ominously, in 2011 the Conservatives approved arms export licenses worth a whopping $4 billion to Saudi Arabia.

A General Dynamics factory in London, Ontario, has produced more than 1,000 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) for the Saudi military, who used these vehicles when they rolled into Bahrain. “The LAV-3 and other similar vehicles that Canada has supplied to the Saudi Arabian National Guard,” noted Project Ploughshare’s Ken Epps, “are exactly the kind of equipment that would be used to put down demonstrations [in Bahrain] and used against civilian populations.”

Already equipped with hundreds of Canadian-built LAVs, the Saudis contracted General Dynamics Land Systems for another 724 LAVs in 2009. (These sales are facilitated by the Canadian Commercial Corporation and Canadian colonel Mark E.K. Campbell oversees General Dynamics Land Systems LAV support program in Saudi Arabia.)

Since the vehicles were scheduled to be delivered weeks after the invasion of Bahrain, the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute called for a suspension of further arms shipments to the Saudis. The Conservatives ignored the call and instead, as mentioned above, they approved $4 billion worth of arms exports in 2011.

Saudi Arabia is ruled by a monarchy that’s been in power for more than seven decades. The Saudi royal family is a savagely conservative force in the region, as well as being extremely misogynistic and repressive domestically. Religious law prevails.

One is left to speculate how deep a commitment the Conservatives have to democracy, even here in Canada.

Yves Engler’s latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. For more information visit yvesengler.com