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Baird in Bahrain: What about those Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

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The destruction of Bahrain's Pearl monument.

I knew it had to be a hoax, even if the dateline didn't read April 1.

A story buzzing around social media yesterday morning claimed that John Baird had been embarrassed by reporters at a press conference in Amman, Jordan.

The piece asserted that journalists had peppered Baird with a series of questions about Canadian politics, concluding: "An unidentified reporter suggested that Canada sounded more like an autocracy than a democracy ... At this point Minister Baird indicated that the Press Conference was over."

Now come on.

We know that scenario is not going to happen. Because if there's one thing Harper's government does do almost as well as many autocracies, it's limit access and manage the media. Besides, Baird was visiting a genuine autocracy -- they wouldn't be so rude as to let an important foreign guest be put in the compromising position of having to answer questions from curious and critical reporters.

Later in the day there was a real embarrassment for Baird, when it was confirmed that at least two young Canadian citizens were indeed part of the attack on foreign oil workers in Algeria earlier this year.

Back when the incident happened, Baird had aggressively questioned Algeria's claims about the Canadian citizens. So, with these new revelations, Baird stayed mum on the issue, and the file was handed off to the highly capable spin machine known as Jason Kenney, who busily went to work turning this into a story that would serve the overall Conservative agenda. The egg on Baird's face was noted, but the media quickly turned its focus towards 'homegrown terrorists' -- perfectly in synch, as it happens, with the preferred 'law and order' and security focus of Kenney and the Harper government.

No doubt talk of 'homegrown terrorists' will now dominate the media, but there should be much more scrutiny on Baird and his current trip's itinerary. Canada's foreign minister is, after all, in the midst of a veritable tour of dictatorships in the Middle East. Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain -- all dictatorships, all autocratic regimes. I know, I know, they are always referred to as "moderate" regimes, but that is just code for regimes the West doesn't presently want to overthrow.

The official press release announcing Baird's trip is a study in platitudes and message control. Take, for example, the bizarrely vague statement of purpose for Baird's visit to Qatar and Bahrain: "In visits to Qatar and Bahrain, the link between peace and prosperity will be explored in detail -- to the benefit of those in the region and beyond."

The words "human rights" do not appear anywhere in the press release.

The only regimes whose crimes are alluded to at all are Syria and Iran -- and that's because the Harper government is, in perfect alignment with the Gulf state dictatorships, among the most hawkish in pursuing regime change in those two countries.

The UAE -- where Baird enjoyed a widely reported Tim Horton's photo-op with his counterpart -- is an apartheid state, where migrant workers do the bulk of the labour in the country while being denied their most basic rights. Ditto for Qatar. The "moderate" monarchy that rules Qatar has even imprisoned a poet for daring to recite and post to the Web verses that celebrated the Arab Spring.

And then there's Bahrain. In March 2011, within days of the NATO bombing of Libya, Saudi troops and armoured vehicles rolled into tiny Bahrain to help the ruling monarchy crush that country's inspiring and determined democratic movement. Many were killed or jailed. Doctors were imprisoned for the crime of tending to the movement's wounded. The odious regime even went so far as to demolish the Pearl monument in the main square where the democratic movement had rallied (see the accompanying photo above.)

The Canadian government has much to answer for with respect to this brutal suppression of Bahrain's Spring. That's because none other than Saudi Arabia -- with its totalitarian, misogynist regime -- was, other than the U.S., the top recipient of Canadian arms sales in 2011.

Last year, the Ottawa Citizen reported these damning facts about Canadian complicity in Saudi Arabia's repression against Bahrain's popular movement:

...the total in government-approved arms export licences for Saudi Arabia was more than 100 times the $35 million approved in 2010.

The Middle Eastern kingdom also has quietly purchased hundreds of LAV-3s from General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont., over the years and was expected to receive more than 700 last year.

The LAVS are synonymous in Canada with this country’s combat mission to Afghanistan, where the wheeled, armoured vehicles earned their stripes as the military’s main workhorse.

Video and photos shot by protesters and media outlets in March 2011 showed Saudi troops using LAV-3s to suppress an uprising inspired by events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and opposed to Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family.

More than 30 protesters were killed, hundreds wounded and nearly 3,000 arrested in the joint Saudi-Bahraini crackdown, which was largely ignored by Canada and other Western states because of Bahrain’s strategic relationship with the U.S.

With John Baird in Bahrain this week, he should be having to answer hard questions about these facts.

All the Tim Horton's photo-ops in the world can't hide the shame of this government's complicity in gross violations of human rights. 


Update: Late on April 3, Foreign Affairs Canada released a statement on Baird's visit to Bahrain. There is not one word of genuine criticism of the regime and its well documented human rights abuses. Instead, Baird thanks Bahrain for its strong stand on human rights ... in Iran! 

I thank His Majesty the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and my counterpart, His Exellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, for their robust engagement on issues of concern to this region.

“I was pleased to learn of progress on the National Dialogue, which is meant to ease sectarian tensions and advance the rights of all Bahrainis. Frank and constructive dialogue between the government and the nation’s young people is especially crucial for Bahrain as it works toward stability, prosperity and pluralism.

“I again applauded Bahrain for recently listing Hezbollah as the terrorist organization it is. Bahrain, like other Gulf states, faces a significant threat from Iran’s nuclear intransigence, military posturing and support for terrorism. Canada stands by Bahrain and its neighbours in their quest for a stable, secure and prosperous future. I also want to thank Bahrain for its position on the 2012 UN Security Council resolution on human rights in Iran.

“Canada and Bahrain can share a growing commercial relationship that will benefit both countries by jointly focusing on creating jobs, growth and long-term prosperity. We are already applying the air transport agreement concluded last year, and we will also be taking steps to bring a tax information exchange agreement into force in the near future.”



Photo: http://www.bagnewsnotes.com/

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