Presence of Saudi crown prince complicates G20 for Canadian government
OTTAWA -- Canada will face a central question in Buenos Aires this week as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with G20 leaders -- how will it handle the tense dynamic with Saudi Arabia and the presence of its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman?
The trip, which marks a high-profile overseas journey for the crown prince following the October murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is expected to open an opportunity for international pushback following the killing.
Canada, for its part, expects the issue to be raised during talks among leaders of the world's top economies gathered in Argentina for the G20.
The group meets annually to discuss how to enhance global economic stability. International trade will figure prominently, especially because of concerns about U.S. tariffs, as well as tensions between the United States and China. And Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are expected to sign a revamped version of NAFTA after many months of intense negotiations.
But the mere presence of the crown prince guarantees human rights will grab some of the leaders' focus.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is attending the summit, reiterated late Tuesday that Canada "very much" does not consider the Khashoggi case closed, despite suggestions to the contrary by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Canadian government has called for full accountability for those responsible for the killing and a transparent and credible investigation, she added.
"We do not believe that either of those things has yet happened," Freeland said, but she did not indicate whether Canada would have any direct meetings with Saudi Arabia at the G20.
Khashoggi's death last month placed new strains on the relationship of the two countries amid public outcry in Canada over a $15-billion arms deal with the regime.
It will be vital, said Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, to seek alliances with other countries gathered in Buenos Aires and form a united front to make it more difficult for the crown prince to ignore or dismiss concerns.
"Clearly we would not want this to be a time when, in any way, Canada starts to back away," he said.
Canada only has so much influence with Saudi Arabia, he added, pointing out that the kingdom officials demonstrated this summer they are willing to bat the Trudeau government's concerns aside when they don't like the message conveyed.
In August, Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada after Freeland took to Twitter to call on the regime to immediately release detained human-rights activists.
Saudi Arabia froze new trade, expelled Canada's ambassador, recalled its envoy from Ottawa, pulled medical students out of Canadian universities and cancelled flights to Toronto.
Neve said he is particularly interested in the content of any exchanges that play out between Canada and Saudi Arabia at the G20.
Human rights organizations have been pushing for an international investigation to seek justice in the Khashoggi murder, and also want to see greater action to address grave treatment of women's rights activists and human rights activists in Saudi prisons as well as war crimes in Yemen.
Canada has also faced calls to sanction those connected to Khashoggi's death.
It is important for Canada to send a message and sideline the crown prince at the summit, said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in Middle Eastern foreign policy.
Bin Salman will be on a quest to show off that he is in charge, she said, adding he will likely want to be seen with every leader willing to give him time.
"I am looking for the Kodak moment," she said. "I think the big thing to watch for us will be how should Trudeau handle this?"
It is unlikely Trump will have trouble shaking his hand, Momani added.
"He's done everything to defend him," she said. "We've seen the Saudis lower oil prices recently. That has made Trump giddy, quite literally, on Twitter."
Trump has also defended his country's ties to the kingdom following Khashoggi's murder.
The president has been accused of ignoring U.S. intelligence that concluded, according to a U.S. official, that it was likely the crown prince ordered the killing.
Several lawmakers have asked the CIA and other top intelligence agencies to publicly share what they told the president about Khashoggi's death at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.
With files from Mike Blanchfield and Associated Press