OTTAWA — Finance Minister Bill Morneau doubled down Tuesday on Ottawa’s message that the federal government will continue to stand up for Canadian values even as it finds itself at the centre of an ongoing diplomatic tumult with Saudi Arabia.
It’s important to propagate Canadian values around the world, and the Liberal government will continue to “enunciate” what it believes are the “appropriate ways of dealing with citizens,” Morneau told a news conference in Mississauga, Ont.
Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada’s ambassador, declared a freeze on new trade and recalled thousands of students attending Canadian universities following a tweet last week from Global Affairs Canada that expressed concerns about the arrest of activists in the kingdom.
Morneau’s comments reiterated the position expressed Monday by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, but did not directly address the larger question of what sort of lasting economic impact the dispute could have, including on Canada’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
“We’re going to stand with the values that we know are important to Canadians and Saudi Arabia will take the decisions that they will take,” he said, reiterating for business owners that Canada is doing well economically and must continue to remain competitive.
“We are going to look at how we can ensure that we’re competitive broadly … we have very strong trading relationships around the world. This is something where we know we need to lead with our values.”
Freeland said Monday in Vancouver that there was “nothing new or novel” about Canada’s long-standing position on human rights around the world, and that Ottawa is awaiting more details from the kingdom before responding further.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department offered a tepid response to the sanctions that took pains to avoid taking sides, saying it is “aware” of Saudi Arabia’s actions and considers both countries to be “close partners” of the United States.
The U.S. continues to support respect for freedoms and liberties, “including dissent and due process,” the department said on Twitter.
While both countries are friends of the U.S., “both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a media briefing later Tuesday.
“This particular case regarding Canada — we have raised that with the government of Saudi Arabia. They’re friends, they’re partners, as is Canada as well.”
The Global Affairs Canada tweet that triggered the spat said Canada is “gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi.”
It went on to “urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”
The Saudi foreign ministry singled out the words “immediately release,” calling the phrase “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states.”
“Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” the ministry said.
Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders called Saudi Arabia’s decision an “outrageous move” on Twitter, saying, “The U.S. must be clear in condemning repression, especially when done by governments that receive our support.”
Amnesty International said Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, was recently detained along with Nassima al-Sada, another prominent female activist.
According to State, the U.S. has asked Saudi Arabia for more information about the detentions, and to publicize details about the status of legal cases.
The European Commission also struck a neutral tone in its response, saying it is seeking clarification about the arrest of activists, but avoided being drawn into the dispute between Riyadh and Canada.
Asked Tuesday about the tensions, European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said “we have been seeking clarification from Saudi authorities” over the arrests since May.
Kocijancic said the commission wants to understand the allegations against the activists and to ensure they receive a fair trial.
On the diplomatic spat, Kocijancic said “we don’t comment on bilateral relations.” She said “we are in favour of a dialogue