“Canada-Saudi spat highlights peril of Twitter diplomacy”
“Trudeau rebuffs Saudi call for an apology as diplomatic spat escalates”
These two recent CBC News online headlines left me scratching my head. Spat? Surely that describes an argument between two kids in a sandbox who both want the same pail and shovel or two siblings tussling over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car. Surely it is not the word to describe a significant political and diplomatic disagreement between two countries.
It seems the dictionaries agree with me.
According to the Cambridge English dictionary, spat means many things: sandwiched between “past participle of spit” and “a piece of cloth or leather covering the ankle and part of the shoe and fastening on the side, worn in the past by men, I found “a short argument usually about something that is not important.”
The Oxford dictionary had a similar definition: “a petty quarrel”
A squabble perhaps?
I next turned to the Toronto Star, and found that its headlines used the word “squabble,” which doesn’t seem strong enough, either.
Back to the dictionaries:
Cambridge: “an argument over something that is not important”
Oxford: “a noisy quarrel about something trivial”
How about a dispute?
The Globe and Mail, on the other hand, used the more reserved “dispute” to describe the current state of affairs between this country and Saudi Arabia.
What do dictionaries have to say about the meaning of dispute?
Cambridge: “an argument or disagreement, especially an official one”
Oxford: “a disagreement or argument, for example: ‘a territorial dispute between the two countries’”
This gets us closer to the kind of words that should be used to describe a serious diplomatic rift about serious human rights violations.
What’s it all about?
The current dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia began on August 3rd, when Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted:
“Canada is gravely concerned about arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”
Response from the Saudi government was quick and strong. In the week since Freeland’s tweet, Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador, frozen new trade and investment with Canada, suspended Saudi Arabia Airlines flights to and from Toronto, ordered Saudi students to leave Canadian schools, pulled Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals and threatened to sell off its assets in Canada and to stop buying Canadian wheat and barley.
The Canadian government has remained firm in its position. Speaking in Vancouver earlier this week, Freeland said:
Prime Minister Trudeau has backed Freeland and made it clear that Canada will continue to speak “clearly and firmly” on human rights issues around the world:
Do the headlines matter?
Human rights generally and women’s rights in particular are not a priority for the government of Saudi Arabia. While women were granted the right to drive in June of this year, since May more than a dozen women’s rights activists have been arrested, most of them women who have fought against the country’s male guardianship system. This system requires that all women have a male guardian who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on the woman’s behalf, including whether or not she can apply for a passport, travel outside the country or work outside the home.
The most recent arrests, of women’s rights activists Samar Badawi (whose brother Raif Badawi, an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, is already serving a 10-year sentence for his blogging activism) and Nassima al-Sadah, led to Freeland’s comments last week.
Obviously, the state of human and women’s rights is far more important than the language used in Canadian media headlines, and that is why the statements of Foreign Minister Freeland and Prime Minister Trudeau are so important. We must hope that Canada continues to speak out strongly against attacks on human and women’s rights, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, while also paying attention to such violations in this country.
But what about those headlines? Would we have seen the words “spat” and “squabble” if the diplomatic rift had been caused by something other than women’s rights or if the first criticism of Saudi Arabia’s actions had come from a male politician?