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The Big, Fat Saudi-Arms-Deal Spin

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU
Chris Wattie / Reuters
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According to Prime Minister Trudeau, proceeding with the multi-billion dollar arms deal with human rights violator Saudi Arabia is "a matter of principle." When have we heard this before? Ah yes, the previous government.

Global Affairs Canada has released a statement explaining its rationale for authorizing the deal, ostensibly in response to the widespread backlash and barrage of questions in the wake of revelations that export permits for the deal were only authorized in early April. Perhaps not surprisingly, the statement's title, "Honouring the deal with Saudi Arabia: Credibility, Security, Economy" lacks any reference to the protection of human rights.

There are further concerns:

To claim that the Liberal government's authorization of the deal was "negotiated" by the previous government perverts the process and intent of Canada's export controls regime.

1. According to the statement, the Minister of Foreign Affairs signed the export permits for the Saudi deal "as negotiated by the previous government." But to what extent could the Harper Conservatives have guaranteed the issuance of export permits? (No permits had been issued at the time the contract was announced.) How could a supposedly objective export permit assessment be "negotiated" in advance?

The crucial step for the deal to be fulfilled is not negotiation but authorization. And, thanks to a legal challenge that forced the release of vital information, we now know that it was up to the current government to approve most of the requisite export permits.

To claim that the Liberal government's authorization of the deal was "negotiated" by the previous government perverts the process and intent of Canada's export controls regime.

2. "If the contract were cancelled, the Canadian taxpayer would likely incur significant financial penalties," says the GAC statement, reiterating a frequent government talking point.

"Likely"? Would there be penalties or not?

If the implementation of the deal was contingent upon satisfying the requirements of the still-pending export permits -- as is to be expected -- on what grounds would penalties be applied?

If Ottawa is going to continue pointing to the possibility of financial penalties to justify its determination to fulfill the deal, it should at least explain why such penalties were a distinct possibility, even when it was known in advance that an export permit assessment was still to be conducted.

3. The document says that "the Minister of Foreign Affairs retains the power to revoke the permit at any time. If the equipment is abused, the permits are pulled. This is what I am committed to doing if these military vehicles are used for the wrong purposes." But this rationale is entirely inconsistent with the human rights safeguards of Canadian export controls.

The threshold that deems a country ineligible to receive Canadian military exports is reasonable risk of misuse before an authorization is granted, not evidence after a human rights violation has occurred.

4. The statement refers to Ottawa's "expressed intention to sign and implement the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)." But how can Canada accede to a treaty designed to prevent just such deals as the one it authorized with Saudi Arabia?

Canada is expected to adhere to the objectives and specific provisions of the ATT as soon as it becomes a state party -- likely by the end of 2016. However, the implementation of the deal with Saudi Arabia is expected to last until at least 2028, so it is very hard to see how Canada can simultaneously satisfy both.

5. GAC says that "working with the Saudis allows us to hold them to account and creates opportunities to make progress on a range of issues, including human rights." But where are the signs of Saudi progress on human rights? Assessments from authoritative international organizations that monitor human rights consistently point to a worsening situation. Ottawa is aware of this, as its recently-released 2015 human rights assessment reveals.

Two consecutive governments have defended the dodgy Saudi arms deal by applying highly malleable and ambiguous definitions of concepts such as "principle" and "credibility."

Despite significant redactions, this assessment clearly paints a grim, and deteriorating, picture of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. It specifically points to "a significant increase in the number of executions, restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, association and belief, lack of due process and fair trial rights." It defies credibility that anyone could review this information and conclude that there is "no reasonable risk" that Canadian equipment will be used against civilians.

Remarkably, GAC also says that the export permits for the Saudi arms deal were signed "in the context of" government efforts to increase "the rigour and transparency of Canada's export control regime" and to make it "more open, transparent, and accountable." The irony, of course, is hardly lost.

Two consecutive governments have defended the dodgy Saudi arms deal by applying highly malleable and ambiguous definitions of concepts such as "principle" and "credibility." The Harper Conservatives called their approach one of "principled foreign policy." The Trudeau Liberals now call theirs one of "responsible conviction."

In other words, "You like tomato and I like tomahto," as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to sing.

And the name of the song? "Let's call the whole thing off."

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