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For Canada, the G20 summit in Saudi Arabia could be far more tense than most

The coming Group of Seven summit takes place next month in Biarritz, a town known for topless bathing — not beheading.

The next Group of 20 summit, however, will be held next November in an altogether more forbidding environment: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It will take place in the modern surroundings of the new King Abdullah Financial District, with 59 towers and a few architectural wonders.

But for a taste of the real Saudi Arabia, summiteers need only take a cab south on King Fahd Road. In about half an hour they’ll come to Deera Square, colloquially known as ‘Chop-chop Square’ for its frequent public executions.

Despite praise from western governments for his supposedly modernizing ways, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (often known as MBS) has overseen a near-doubling in the number of executions.

The swordsmen were busy on April 23, when Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in one day. All but four were members of the country’s persecuted Shia minority. The body and severed head of one of the 37 was put on public display.

The next group of condemned individuals set for execution in Saudi Arabia includes Murtaja Qureiris, who has been in prison since the age of 13. He’s accused of crimes that include leading a protest of children on bicycles during the Arab Spring movement — when he was ten.

Murder in the consulate

Many of those executed in Saudi Arabia are poor foreigners. Saudi Arabia has sentenced people to die in recent years for such crimes as witchcraft, making potions and predicting the future. Under MBS, political opponents of the royal family have made up a large percentage of those executed.

But the killing that made Saudi Arabia uniquely controversial as a site for a G20 summit was — unlike the ones in Deera Square — never meant to be seen by the wider world.

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has been a public relations disaster for a kingdom that has worked hard to present a face to the world very different from the one it shows at home.

According to the report of UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard, Turkish microphones captured the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi, while his fiancee waited outside for him, unaware. Turkish cameras captured one of Khashoggi’s killers leaving the consulate wearing the dead man’s clothes.

And Turkish wiretaps captured the communications between the hit squad and home base, leading foreign intelligence services to conclude that the murder realistically could not have been carried out without the approval of Mohammed bin Salman.

The prince’s response was to deny everything and arrest the hitmen. Riyadh has made it clear that, if found guilty, they too will be headed for Chop-chop Square.

Callamard said the Saudi investigation can’t be expected to produce a true or just outcome. She wants to see a credible probe that assigns individual responsibility and examines the role of prime suspect Mohammed bin Salman.

“The holding of the G20 in Saudi Arabia next year is a slap in the face of all those who have fought and some of whom have died for accountability and human rights protections,” she told CBC News, calling for the summit to be moved.

‘Canada has taken strongest stance’

Callamard said she admires the positions that Canada has taken on Saudi Arabia, particularly when compared to those taken by other western nations.

“Canada has already taken possibly the strongest stance on Saudi Arabia and has paid a heavy price for it,” she said. “The international community as a whole failed to support Canada a year or so ago when it criticized Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women activists.”

Callamard said Canada also has “taken a number of stands when it comes to accountability for Mr. Khashoggi. I think the government of Canada has probably taken the strongest stance against Saudi Arabia of all western countries, alongside with maybe Germany.”

It was at the G20 Summit in Argentina in November 2018 that the crown prince made his first international appearance after the murder. Most leaders steered clear of him. Some, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, were friendly. But only one, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, spoke to him directly about the killing.

“It’s important that Canada exercise leadership as it has so far,” said Callamard. “But it cannot do that on its own. Other countries must rally around Canada in a way that they haven’t done so far.”

No boycott planned

The Trudeau government says it intends to keep speaking out about Saudi Arabia, but Canada is not prepared to skip the G20 summit to show its disapproval.

“The G20 provides a forum for Canada and its partners to take concerted action on some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” said Adam Austen, spokesman for Global Affairs. “Canada supports the important inquiry of Agnes Callamard … into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This murder was an unconscionable attack on the freedom of expression of all individuals and on the freedom of the press.

“The explanations provided by Saudi Arabia to date are insufficient. We continue to call for a full, international independent investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

CBC News also asked the Conservative Party if a Prime Minister Andrew Scheer would attend the summit — which happens after the coming federal election — but the answer wasn’t quite clear.

“Conservatives have always been clear and consistent when it comes to the promotion of human rights in Saudi Arabia, China or any other country,” said foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole. “We will raise these issues at the G20, the United Nations or any other multilateral gathering where members do not support human rights, the rule of law and the democratic freedom. The Trudeau Liberals have not been consistent in this regard and are not taken seriously on the world stage.”

Asked whether that meant the Conservatives would show up in Riyadh, party spokesperson Mey Fung replied: “We haven’t said that.”

Guy Caron, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said in a statement that Canada shouldn’t take part in the Riyadh summit.

“When the Liberal government was elected in 2015, it promised the return of Canadian leadership on the international stage,” Caron said. “Yet, more than eight months after committing to review arms export permits to Saudi Arabia, the government is still unable to give a timetable. In the meantime, Canadian weapons are fuelling the crisis in Yemen.”

Caron went on to say that the Liberals are “not doing much better than the Conservatives before them.”

“The atrocities committed by the Saudi regime are not consistent with Canadian values. Canada should not take part in the upcoming G20 summit in Riyadh. The Canadian government must stand up and reclaim its international leader status.”

Ambassador expelled

Dennis Horak, Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was expelled during last year’s diplomatic spat with the kingdom. He told CBC News he feels that avoiding the summit, or trying to move it elsewhere, would be an “empty gesture.”

“What would be the objective? What would we be trying to achieve?” he asked.

“Normally when you put sanctions on a country or punish them in some way, it’s because you’re trying to get them to do something. What is that something we want them to do? Are we looking for them to remove the crown prince and put him on trial? Because that’s not going to happen.”

Not a club for the virtuous

The G7, which Canada hosted last year in La Malbaie, Que., has always been a club for advanced economies that are also democracies. China has never been invited to join. Russia was expelled for bad behaviour (the annexation of Crimea) in March 2014.

The Group of 20, on the other hand, was never supposed to be about democracy. It was born as a leaders’ summit in 2008 (previous meetings had been at ministerial level only), to provide a forum where the rich western democracies could engage with some of the biggest developing nations and emerging economies — countries like Indonesia, India, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico.

A quick glance at the recent family photo in Osaka shows that the current crop of leaders is not limited to fans of democracy and civil rights. In addition to MBS, there is one other unelected autocrat: President Xi Jinping of China, who hosted the G20 in Hangzhou in 2016.

Putin’s government is believed to have ordered several deadly attacks on dissidents. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has bragged about shooting people and throwing them out of helicopters during his time as a crime-busting mayor in Davao City.

A willingness to rub shoulders with autocrats and killers is the price of bringing together leaders who represent, in whatever fashion, most of the world’s people and GDP.

But never has the group had to assemble in a venue as controversial as Riyadh. And few other members of the Group of 20 have had as rocky a recent relationship with the kingdom as Canada.

Dilemma doubly hard for women

While male visitors to Saudi Arabia may have to swallow their principles, women face additional challenges — including the question of what to wear in a country where even the most conservative western clothing is considered immodest.

Riyadh is one of the few places in the Muslim world where most women cover their faces in public.

Conversations with female members of the Trudeau government who might expect to attend the G20 reveal that they are already thinking about how to strike a balance between showing respect for local practices and upholding their own beliefs. At the same time, they’re aware that avoiding the event entirely would leave the G20 even more male-dominated than usual.

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