OTTAWA — The government plans to release documents that it says show the "comprehensive basis" behind its decision to proceed with a controversial multibillion-dollar sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Wednesday he wants Canadians to have the details behind his decision to sign export permits covering $11 billion of the $15 billion deal between the Saudis and an Ontario company for the fleet of armoured vehicles.
Dion said the previous Conservative government signed the contract on Feb. 14, 2014, and said that commitment must be respected, adding that he can't block exports unless the armoured vehicles are being used against innocent civilians.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion speaks with reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons before Question Period, Wednesday, April 13, 2016 in Ottawa. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
So far, he said, there is no evidence of that.
"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke the permits," he said.
"We are watching this closely and will continue to do so."
Dion's office said in email that the export permits are "an administrative process and a necessary part of deal to facilitate exportation of goods."
In a news conference Wednesday, the minister reiterated the contents of government documents released Tuesday by his office: that government officials advised him _ the poor human rights record of Saudi Arabia notwithstanding _ that there was no evidence the Saudis would use the vehicles against their own people.
They also show the government is satisfied the Saudis would use the equipment to defend Canada's common security interests, which includes fighting the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke the permits."
The previous Conservative government approved the Saudi contract and the Liberals decided to honour it because they said cancelling it without cause would trigger costly financial penalties.
Dion went on the offensive against the Conservatives and the NDP, who continued to make political hay out of the controversial deal.
"Credibility matters. The Liberal party committed during the 2015 election campaign to respect the previously agreed contract. The Conservatives and the NDP did the same during the campaign," Dion said.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said if a "preponderance" of evidence shows the armoured vehicles are being used in the fight against terror, "then I'm fine with the deal." Otherwise, he said, it should be cancelled.
"The government has a responsibility to put the facts on the table for Canadians to make their own decisions as to whether this deal does in fact help the fight against terror rather than in the suppression of civil rights of innocent citizens."
Trudeau beats back NDP criticism
In the House of Commons, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said the fact that Dion signed the export permits just last week shows the Liberals have "misled Canadians about the Saudi arms deal."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Mulcair knows that contracts can't be cancelled retroactively.
"We will honour the contracts signed by Canada in February of 2014," Trudeau replied. "The fact is there are jobs in London relying on this."
The documents say Canada is concerned about Saudi Arabia's human rights record. They cite reports of the high number of executions, the suppression of political opposition and freedom of expression, arbitrary arrests, the poor treatment of detainees, limitations on freedom of religion, discrimination against women and mistreatment of migrant workers.
The documents say Canada has to weigh "whether there is a reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population. The department is not aware of any reports linking violations of civil and political rights to the use of the proposed military-purposed exports."
They say the military vehicles help Saudi Arabia defend threats to its security, including interests it shares with Canada.
"Given that ISIS is a potential threat to KSA (the kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and the general potential threat of Iran, Canada can consider that the KSA is facing legitimate threats," the documents say.
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