Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ottawa keeps under wraps plan to foster ties with Arab Gulf states

Steven Chase,  The Globe and Mail

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The Trudeau government will not make public the text of a “Joint Action Plan” it recently hammered out with six Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, that spells out how Canada might deepen its relationship with these countries in coming years.

This is despite the fact that Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion publicly touted the signing of the plan during his brief visit to Saudi Arabia last month where he sat down with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Five of these Gulf Arab states are also members of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that conducted a devastating aerial bombing in that country over the last 14 months.

The Joint Action Plan announced by Mr. Dion on his Twitter account May 24 sets out areas of co-operation between Canada and Arab Gulf states on everything from politics and security dialogue to trade and investment, energy, education and health.

Mr. Dion’s office initially said the release of this document would require agreement from all the parties involved and that the government was working on enabling the release.

Later his spokesman said the plan couldn’t be released – and he played down the significance of the Joint Action Plan. Its full title is the 2016-2020 Canada-GCC Strategic Dialogue Action Plan.

“These are not shared because they are constantly evolving and fairly basic, really just setting out that we’ll meet, discuss issues of mutual concern,” said Joseph Pickerill, director of communications for Mr. Dion.

Mr. Pickerill said the public statement or communiqués released after such meetings are more important because they describe how Canada and its allies are putting the working document “into effect.”

This May 24 communiqué on the Canada-Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, however, consisted largely of restatements of policy positions already taken by Canada, such as a commitment to the “unity, stability and territorial integrity” of Iraq and Syria, “serious concerns over Iran’s support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region,” and the “rejection of terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms and manifestations.”

One of the only concrete measures it mentioned was “ongoing cooperation … to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.”

There is a reference to “human rights” in this communiqué where it said Canada and the Arab Gulf states in question want to expand relations through further co-operation in a host of fields including “human rights.” Mr. Pickerill said this was added after Mr. Dion’s intervention.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement, a member of the former Harper government that was heavily criticized for secrecy, said Mr. Trudeau’s government needs to follow through on its pledge to be more open.

“They’re not living up to their promises,” he said.

The department of Global Affairs carefully documented Mr. Dion’s trip to Saudi Arabia in May on social media. The Liberals have come under heavy criticism for allegedly overlooking human rights in their determination to protect a $15-billion combat vehicle sale to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its dismal treatment of dissidents, prisoners and atheists.

During Mr. Dion’s May visit to Jeddah, his department tweeted photos of him meeting with Saudi women “to highlight women’s rights” and urging Saudis to promote human rights. He also met with the National Society for Human Rights, a group funded by the Saudi government.

Mr. Clement said it’s wrong to make a display of public diplomacy but then withhold the actual document that was worked on and trumpeted.

“This is all public diplomacy and the whole point of public diplomacy is to be public and so I do not agree the results of our diplomatic missions that are being touted are somehow not available to the public,” Mr. Clement said. “That makes no sense.”

He said he could understand if Ottawa withheld information for “strategic issues of a military nature,” but said the Liberals “should tell us that.”

“That is the whole point of public diplomacy that you make the fruits of that diplomacy available to the public.”

The government of Canada is actively pursuing defence deals for Canadian firms with the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, many of which have poor human-rights records.

Earlier this week, Canadian firm CAE, makers of flight simulators and training devices, announced it landed contracts with the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces that could be worth half-a-billion dollars over 15 years.

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