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Trudeau Could Honour The Saudi Arms Deal - And Not Ship A Single Weapon

03/22/2016 02:08 EDT | Updated 03/23/2017 05:12 EDT
Pacific Press via Getty Images
UN HEADQUARTERS, NEW YORK, NY, UNITED STATES - 2016/03/16: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a press conference at UN HQ. In conjunction with his participation at the 6oth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference upon his arrival at UN Headquarters. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Legitimate questions have long been raised by a vigilant media and civil society about how Canada's $15-billion arms deal with human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia can satisfy the human rights safeguards of Canadian military export controls, which are intended to ensure that "there is no reasonable risk" of misuse of Canadian-made military equipment. So far, however, there have been no satisfactory answers from either the previous Conservative or the current Liberal governments.

Among the litany of unconvincing responses are some that are completely devoid of ethical considerations (if Canada does not sell weapons to the Saudis, somebody else will) and others that set a troubling precedent (the prospect of profit and job creation makes even the worst human-rights offender eligible to receive Canadian-made weapons). Almost all miss the point entirely.

Is this the sort of international relationship that will help Canada to the coveted UN Security Council seat?

Now it seems that the Trudeau Liberals have settled on a new talking point: they are contractually "bound" to honour the agreement brokered by the Conservatives. Canada's reputation in the world, they argue, would suffer if it reneged on the contract.

The prime minister recently declared that it would be "just about impossible" for Canada to conduct business internationally if it got a reputation as a deal breaker. According to Mr. Trudeau, "Decisions taken in the past, we will not overturn. But moving forward, we are committed to the kind of openness, transparency and rigour that, quite frankly, Canadians voted for in the last election."

This latest statement came during the PM's announcement that Canada will seek a seat on the UN Security Council. And so we might ask: Has Ottawa also considered the cost to Canada's reputation of helping to sustain an utterly repressive regime? Is this the sort of international relationship that will help Canada to the coveted UN Security Council seat?

But even this concern, while significant, is really beside the point. Because here is the key implication of the government's latest position: honouring the agreement with Saudi Arabia does NOT necessarily guarantee the shipment of weapons.

Any agreement signed by the Harper Conservatives must have been contingent upon the subsequent issuance of export permits, which are key to the integrity of Canada's military export control system. Honouring the deal with Saudi Arabia -- as Prime Minister Trudeau has pledged -- simply means allowing the export control system to function as it should. And, assuming a process that is unbiased and free from political interference, there is no such thing as a predetermined outcome for an export permit assessment.

It has now been established that the deal was completed and announced without a single export permit having been issued. Whatever the terms of the deal, had the Harper government entered into an agreement that guaranteed the still-pending export permits "no matter what," this overt subversion of Canada's export control system would be scandalous in its own right.

Quite simply, the outcome of objective export control assessments cannot be guaranteed by any law-abiding democratic government. If this particular deal is found to be incompatible with the human rights safeguards of Canadian export controls and cannot proceed, Trudeau still honours the agreement by accepting the export control assessment.

Global Affairs Canada has acknowledged that the Saudi deal will require a succession of export permits over the 14-year contract. As Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has explained, the contract is "for many years so over the years the minister of foreign affairs will have the duty to consider the export permits." Thus the principles of "openness, transparency and rigour" promised by Prime Minister Trudeau should cover the vast majority of decisions related to the Saudi Arms deal going forward.

Even if one of the successive required export permits has already been issued (Ottawa will not say), the deal is far from irreversible. In fact, only weeks ago, Global Affairs Canada conceded that the department could consider suspending or cancelling existing permits if relevant reports emerged.

Further, the Liberal government has announced that Canada will become a state party to the international Arms Trade Treaty. Article 7 of the ATT specifically encourages states parties to reassess export permits, even "after an authorization has been granted," if there is new, relevant information.

Reports relevant to this deal emerge almost daily. Some of the latest relate to summary executions by the Saudi regime and damning condemnations by the UN of "widespread and systematic" targeting of civilians by the Saudi forces.

So make no mistake: there are clear avenues for Ottawa to handle -- and honour -- this contract that do not result in Canadian-made military equipment shipped to one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth. Ottawa's hands are only as tied as it wants them to be.

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