WASHINGTON ― The State Department made its first comments on the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada in a statement to HuffPost that signaled the U.S. will not take sides.
“We are aware of Government of Saudi Arabia’s statement recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and expelling Canada’s ambassador,” a State Department official wrote in an email Monday afternoon. “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States. I refer you to the Canadian and Saudi Ministries of Foreign Affairs for further information.”
Saudi Arabia is not, in fact, a treaty ally of the U.S. ― though Canada, a member of NATO, is.
The spat began after Canada called on the Saudis last week to release two recently arrested human rights activists. On Sunday, Riyadh called the move a violation of its sovereignty and announced punitive measures, including ejecting the Canadian ambassador.
The Trump administration issued its first statement on the matter nearly 24 hours later. It chose not to endorse the Canadian position, even though Ottawa had already doubled down.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement released shortly before the U.S. comments. “We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
The mismatch between the strategies of the U.S. and its neighbor to the north suggests Washington has given the Saudis the green light to continue the quarrel, according to Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“The Trump Administration does not care about human rights in Saudi Arabia or about Canada. Hence this non-answer,” Paris wrote on Twitter Monday. “The Saudis know what this means. They have an opportunity to strike back at critics (even mild critics) of their human rights record.”
The kingdom is employing a range of tactics to pressure Canada to drop the issue. Saudi authorities say they have canceled future investment plans in the country ― a largely symbolic move, since the Saudis are only a middling player in the economy of Canada, itself a huge oil producer ― and will relocate thousands of Saudi students studying there on government scholarships.
But rights groups and officials in some other countries are standing with Trudeau’s government. Lawmakers in the European Parliament are hoping to secure a statement of support from top European Union foreign policy official Federica Mogherini.
“The world cannot continue to look the other way as this relentless persecution of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia continues,” Samah Hadid of Amnesty International said in a Monday press release. “It is now time for other governments to join Canada in increasing the pressure on Saudi Arabia to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and end the crackdown on freedom of expression in the country.”
Asked about the U.S. position on the jailed activists, the State Department official said America will “encourage” the Saudis to uphold international standards on human rights.
“The United States supports respect for internationally recognized freedoms and individual liberties including dissent and due process,” the official wrote. “We have asked the Government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists. We continue to encourage the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process and to publicize information on the status of legal cases. We address these broad concerns in our annual Human Rights Report.”
The official did not respond to a question about whether Saudi Arabia had given the U.S. advance notice of its actions against Canada.
This story has been updated throughout.