Stephane Dion Concerned For Safety Of Human Rights Sources In Saudi Arabia

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OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion says he doesn't want to risk the safety of sources who give the government sensitive information on human rights conditions in their countries.

Dion was responding to the growing clamour over the government's decision to allow an Ontario company to sell $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia in spite of its questionable human rights record.

Amnesty International has called on the government to release an internal federal human rights assessment on Saudi Arabia in light of the deal.

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Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion leaves after speaking to the media at foreign affairs headquarters in Ottawa. (Photo: CP)

Dion said Monday he wants to make public a redacted version of the report, and has asked for advice from his officials on how to do so.

"The documents are intended for internal use and are classified. I would be pleased to release, upon request, unclassified versions," he said in a statement. "I want to ensure that we respect the safety and security of identified sources."

Global Affairs Canada is in the process of updating its 2011 assessment on Saudi Arabia. Canada conducts regular human rights assessments of foreign countries, but doesn't do new reports every year, in part because of the slow pace of change in many countries.

Canada's missions abroad provide human rights updates on a continual basis. But formal country-specific reports are done on a rotating basis because the human rights situation in any given country does not change overnight, said a Canadian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I want to ensure that we respect the safety and security of identified sources."

The current one in progress on Saudi Arabia could be in excess of 50 pages, said the official, who wasn't authorized to disclose details.

The Liberal government has inherited a human rights reporting process from the Conservatives that encourages frank reporting from inside countries, one that names individuals and organizations in the countries being studied, the official added.

That's why the reports have been labelled classified to protect sources from retaliation.

Depending on the country being examined, directly quoting specific people and organizations would put their personal security at risk, which is a primary concern for Dion, the official said.

"The minister has asked for recommendations and his goal is to make the process more transparent moving forward."

Officials push closer ties with oil-rich nation

Federal officials have told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada's economic and security interests would be well-served by strengthening economic ties with oil-rich Saudi Arabia because of its powerful position in the Persian Gulf.

That advice sheds light on why the Trudeau Liberals have continued to reject calls to cancel the $15-billion sale of Canadian armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia following it execution last weekend of 47 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric.

During the recent federal election campaign, former prime minister Stephen Harper and Trudeau backed the deal.

Alex Neve, the head of Amnesty International Canada, said neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have been forthcoming to Canadians about the human rights considerations surrounding the deal.

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Protesters take part in a rally outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Ottawa in November. (Photo: CP)

"It has always been unclear what kind of human rights assessment has or has not been done of this deal. Beyond that, the outcome and assessments have not been shared publicly," said Neve.

The government declined Monday to release the 2011 assessment, saying it was now part of the review being conducted by Dion on the government's next moves.

Human rights reports on Saudi Arabia are generally universal in their condemnation of the country's rights record. The cite discrimination against women and minorities and a lack of tolerance for any meaningful dissent.

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife now lives in Quebec, is currently serving a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his criticism of Saudi clerics.

Human Rights Watch has characterized Badawi's punishment as cruel and unjust.

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