In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Foto: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Martes 14 de agosto, 2018

If you have been following the latest news from Canada and Saudi Arabia, you know that a recent tweet by the government of Canada expressing concern about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of human rights activists has unleashed a ferocious response on the part of the Saudis.

Indeed, the offending Canadian tweets (one of many on the subject) said that “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists”.

This has led many to question whether the message was appropriate, and if Twitter is a proper tool for diplomatic discourse.

They are valid questions.

Let’s address if the message was appropriate first

The first thing I learned when I entered the Canadian foreign service in 1974 is that words matter. Words are the main tool available to diplomats. Words can be spoken or written, but they carry weight and must be used carefully.

Canada’s message said that the Canadian government is “gravely concerned”, as is its right, especially when there are serious human rights concerns in play. The Badawi’s have close family in Canada and their concern for the safety of their relatives in Saudi Arabia is a concern shared by many Canadians. But the question remains, is the arrest of the Badawis really a consular matter?

While Raif Badawi’s wife and children became Canadian citizens on July 1, 2018, neither Raif nor his sister Samar are Canadian citizens – hence limiting the scope of Canadian government’s role with respect to consular protection.

Secondly, the Canadian government “urged” the Saudi authorities to release them all. Yet the word “immediately” is a demand, not an urging. One can urge friends to do the right thing without expecting a slap in the face. One can also do so risking the relationship if it is in the purview of the friend to decide how to react.

The Saudi authorities have taken this to represent interference in their judicial system and, technically, they may be right. But is it not the duty of people to call out injustice wherever it may occur?

I always stress the need for a risk assessment prior to engaging in any communications activity.

A proper risk assessment may well have brought to the Canadian government’s attention many of the Saudi reactions that have now become reality and could well have suggested a different course of action.

While most democratic governments have expressed similar views on human rights violations throughout the course of modern history, their impact has not often had the effect of the Canadian initiative.

The fact that the Saudis have taken extreme umbrage with this statement at this time may well be as much about the words chosen as the manner in which risk was assessed by Canada. To help shed some light, a risk assessment would have started with a review of what is presently going on in Saudi Arabia as a starting point to what the response should have been.

The Saudi regime is currently in the throes of a struggle between reformists and traditionalists, and the ruling Crown Prince probably sees this as a way to strengthen his hand with his traditionalist opponents.

In addition, the current U.S. President has expressed solid support for Saudi Arabia since he took office (his first official visit abroad in 2017 was to Saudi Arabia) and disdain for the Canadian Prime Minister after the G-7 Summit this past spring, which may have emboldened the Saudi leadership to send a strong message through Canada to other Western governments that might have been planning to criticize the Kingdom.

The Saudis have also been bitten by ongoing criticism of their proxy war in Yemen against Iran that has caused tens of thousands of deaths and has led to a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions. They see themselves as the main bulwark against Iranian expansion and, in this sense, have much support in the Middle East and in the United States.

By taking strong economic measures against Canada, at a relatively low cost to the Kingdom, the Saudis are warning others that there is a cost to criticizing their behavior.

These factors mentioned above should have been part of a risk assessment exercise that could well have steered the Canadian government in a more productive direction.

The Canadian Prime Minister has refused to back down. Taking the moral high road is often the only weapon against egregious human rights abuses. In this case, it has brought to global attention a serious case of abuse and inhumane treatment of those whose only crime is to think differently than those in power. But will it achieve the freeing of both the Badawis and other human rights activists caught up in the Saudi system?

It may well be a pyrrhic victory for now. The Canadian government may well have to engage in more delicate diplomacy now and forego the megaphone for now.

This brings us to the second part of the question – is Twitter an appropriate diplomatic tool?

Most leaders today use Twitter as a matter of course in dealing with each other and getting their messages out to the public. Communications technologies have evolved, and the traditional diplomatic note of the 19th Century has matched this evolution.

Today, governments disseminate their information and views on Facebook, on their websites, on Instagram, and on Twitter as a matter of course.

Twitter is an effective tool in today’s world – a way to get your message out to millions directly without it being filtered through third parties.

But like all forms of communications, its use requires careful planning and risk analysis to be effective.

Twitter does not replace the other tools in the diplomat’s arsenal – it complements them and allows for greater flexibility in getting the message out directly to broader target audiences.

After forty years in diplomacy, I am sure that the Canadian government has used the more sublime methods of diplomatic communications to make the concerns of Canadians known to the Saudi authorities.

However, there comes a point when if the other party is ignoring you, you can be tempted to ratchet up the volume.

In this case Canada did just that.

But is the result worth the risk? That is something that must be considered before hitting “send” and a question to ponder now as the faceoff enters another stage.

As I stated, in diplomacy words matter.

Twitter poses the danger that one can shoot perhaps too quickly from the hip without considering all of the consequences. In this case, Twitter messages have resulted in a harsh response and a diplomatic crisis.

And hence the need for constant communications risk analysis and planning.

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