Friday 16 January 2015

Saudi Arabia is (not) so gay! John Baird sentenced to 600 word lashes

In Canada it is not libelous to call someone a homosexual, for the simple reason that homosexuality is nothing to be embarrassed about – it is, quite rightly, considered neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is.
Baird: playing it safe in Ottawa

In that respect, the notion of “outing” a gay person in Canada becomes somewhat moot, because sexual preference is no longer such a big deal. For example, Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister, John Baird, is a homosexual. That’s hardly news, which might be why not a single major media outlet in Canada, including the CBC, reports this fact. However, there is a political angle: the Conservative party would rather not broadcast Mr. Baird’s sexual orientation for fear of losing support among its socially conservative base.

That’s a political choice that might be craven, but hardly the end of the world. That said, Mr. Baird is minister of Foreign Affairs, which complicates matters given that many countries around the world have strict laws against homosexuality. One of the worst offenders is Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal and can be punished by life in prison, or even death.

In Saudi Arabia, the most common form of punishment for “immorality” or “promoting debauchery” is jail time and a few hundred lashes, though “chemical castration” is also used. In one recent case a gay man in Saudi Arabia received 450 lashes and a three year jail sentence. As a form of punishment, lashes are particularly cruel: in the case of blogger Raif Badawi, his sentence of 1,000 lashes has been meted out in 50 lash segments, because to receive 1,000 lashes at one time could kill him.

Baird has expressed concern about the public flogging of Mr. Badawi, while at the same time not wanting to put in jeopardy Canada’s economic relationship with the repressive gulf state.

According to Project Ploughshares, Saudi Arabia is now on track to be the biggest export market for Canadian military goods, having signed two contracts in 2013-14 for a total of $14.8-billion with General Dynamics Land Systems Canada of London, Ontario. This deal was brokered by the federal government via the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), and represents a meteoric increase in military exports to the brutal regime.

Saudi Arabia promotes the ultra-conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam. (Osama bin Laden was a Saudi national, as were 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.) This is a medieval, corrupt country, in which Islamic law is arbitrarily imposed by courts controlled by the ruling family. The brutality is, if anything, getting worse: on January 15 a Burmese woman was publicly beheaded in Mecca. Stonings are also common.

Last October Baird visited Saudi Arabia, where he commented on the progress the country was making on women’s rights, and its efforts to stop the spread of ISIS. Nowhere did he mention the rights of homosexuals. This is odd, given his willingness to speak out strongly against Vladimir Putin’s homophobic policies in Russia. Odd too given that if Baird, lacking diplomatic protection, lived the life he openly enjoys in Ottawa while visiting Riyadh he’d likely be imprisoned and subjected to violent corporal punishment.

But with Saudi Arabia Baird has chosen to walk a diplomatic tightrope, choosing engagement in the hopes of changing the regime’s policies. Good luck. The Saudis answer to their crazy ideology and to their own financial and demagogic interests, not to Ottawa.

That Saudi reality isn’t about to change. And, it seems, neither is Canada's. The Conservatives, who look as though they will be re-elected this year, will stay the course. The Liberals, if elected, have as of yet given no indication that they will not remain beholden to the same corporate military interests that drive this agenda.

And John Baird? He’ll continue to enjoy the scene, playing it safe in Ottawa.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)

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