07/14/2016 11:55 EDT | Updated 07/14/2016 11:59 EDT

Ottawa Cannot Continue To Deny Dangers Of Saudi Arms Deal

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a plenary session at the North American Leaders' Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 29, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

When damning videos showing armoured vehicles being used against Saudi civilians surfaced last May, officials at Global Affairs Canada downplayed the obvious risk that the Canadian-built armoured vehicles at the centre of Canada's $15-billion deal with Saudi Arabia might be used for the same purpose. Instead they questioned whether the armoured vehicles shown in that particular footage were in fact made in Canada.

But the videos released by The Globe and Mail unequivocally established reasonable risk. It didn't matter whether or not the vehicles in these particular videos were made in Canada. The videos documented the proclivity of the Saudi regime to use force -- and, specifically, armoured vehicles -- against civilians. And let this be clear: the threshold established by Canada's export controls was never proof that Canadian-made goods had been involved in human rights violations. The threshold is a reasonable ‎risk that they might be so used.

Now The Globereports that explosive breaching gear that literally says "Made in Canada" has been found at the scene of a deadly raid against Shia civilians in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. This disturbing new evidence of Riyadh's heavy-handedness should silence any lingering doubt about the very real risk of misuse of Canadian military exports in Saudi Arabia.

Global Affairs Canada has stated, on multiple occasions, that it would reconsider existing authorizations for the armoured vehicle deal should new information emerge. But GAC officials responded to this latest incident with a technicality: the explosives for this gear are lined after the export has taken place, thus the breaching equipment is not subject to military export controls. Again, they seem to be missing the point.

Although no doubt aware of the recent evidence of Saudi abuse, Ottawa appears determined to proceed with this dubious contract.

Saudi Arabia's recent history is riddled with examples of use of force against civilians and disregard for the most basic tenets of human rights. In January, approximately 50 Saudis were summarily executed by the state. A UN panel report leaked in February accused Saudi forces of war crimes, denouncing "widespread and systematic" targeting of civilians in Yemen last year.

At the same time, efforts to minimize or dismiss this risk have become routine. While former Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to the armoured vehicles as "transport vehicles," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the even more innocuous-sounding "jeeps."

In fact, these ultra-modern fighting machines are as subject to the human rights safeguards of Canada's military export control policy as are Canadian-made bombs, missiles or high-calibre automatic weapons. Even so, it has now been established that the required export permits were issued by the current Liberal government, which apparently saw "no reasonable risk" that the vehicles would be used against civilians.

Although no doubt aware of the recent evidence of Saudi abuse, Ottawa appears determined to proceed with this dubious contract to supply the Saudis with armoured vehicles, "no matter what." And when pressed to justify the issuance of the requisite export permits, Trudeau simply stated that proceeding with the multi-billion dollar arms deal with human rights violator Saudi Arabia is "a matter of principle."

Authoritative organizations that track human rights internationally warn of a worsening human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Global Affairs Canada's own 2015 human rights report on the Kingdom, released in April, pointed 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."

Yet Ottawa still refuses to acknowledge the reasonable risk of misuse of Canadian military exports. If its primary line of argument is that it needs to "stick to its word," the Canadian public needs to know if there are ANY limits to Ottawa's contractual obligations. Would anything prompt the government to reconsider the authorization of this deal?

National polling has consistently shown that most Canadians disapprove of arms deals with known human-rights violators in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. The latest poll, conducted by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail in late June, left little doubt about where Canadians stand on this deal, with more than seven in 10 indicating some degree of opposition to sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

Canadians have spoken. Reasonable risk has been established. Evidence has been presented. All possible red flags have been raised. At this point, proceeding with this deal will utterly and predictably undermine the integrity of Canada's export control system.

A state simply cannot claim to protect human rights while providing arms to one of the most repressive regimes on Earth. The implications of this complicated stand will become even more apparent when Canada joins the Arms Trade Treaty later this year, and could also play a role in Canada's bid for a UN Security Council seat.

Further, it is far from clear that respecting domestic export control regulations would hurt Canada's ability to conduct international business. What is certain is that Canada's international credibility on human rights matters will be take a significant hit if the deal goes forward.

For the Trudeau Liberals, adhering to the requirements of domestic and international military export controls is not only the right thing to do. They may not have realized it yet, but it is also in their own best interests.

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