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Why Ottawa’s justification of the Saudi deal is not enough

The growing number of red flags around the $15-billion arms deal should
the Canadian government to come clean on the human rights implications of the military
exports contract.

By: /
17 February, 2016
A tank belonging to the Saudi-led coalition is seen in the sand dunes of the Yemeni front line province of Marib September 14, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Browning
Cesar Jaramillo
By: Cesar Jaramillo
Executive Director of Project Ploughshares

Since the $15-billion Saudi arms deal was announced on Valentine’s Day, 2014, there have been numerous occasions when Ottawa should have explained to Canadians how this contract is compatible with the human rights safeguards of Canadian export controls. Yet two years on, we are still waiting for an explanation.

The problem is not that questions about this export contract have not been properly articulated—or made known. 

Virtually every major media outlet in the country has covered the Saudi deal. The Globe and Mail alone has drawn attention to Ottawa’s reluctance to justify the deal from a human rights perspective over a dozen times, often as a front-page story. A related piece here on OpenCanada last September laid out 10 facts everyone should know about the deal. As well, civil society organizations, including Amnesty International Canada, Oxfam-Canada and Project Ploughshares, have publicly and repeatedly called for transparency into the process by which export authorizations are granted.

Under existing export control policy, Canada must determine that “there is no reasonable risk” that Canadian-made goods might be used against civilians before an export permit can be issued. If an arms deal proceeds, we must assume that the necessary export permits were granted. And if they were, a human rights assessment must have been conducted.

While it has now been established that the requisite permits had not been granted when then Trade Minister Ed Fast announced the Saudi deal in February 2014, it is still not known whether they already have. Even so, the confidence evident in the announcement made it seem as if the necessary export permits were all but guaranteed—and the related human rights assessments a mere formality.

Given the widely-known dismal and worsening human rights record of the Saudi regime, how could the government have concluded that there is “no reasonable risk” of misuse of Canadian-made military goods as a result of the authorization of this contract?

It is not a rhetorical question. It is also not an unreasonable question to ask. Remember: this is the largest Canadian arms deal ever, Saudi Arabia is a human rights pariah, and existing export controls are unequivocally applicable to such military export contracts.

There might be an adequate response, but it has proved elusive. And in the absence of an explanation from the government, it is hard not to be skeptical about the effective application of Canadian military export controls.

The deal might have faded from public consciousness had Saudi Arabia not regularly made headlines by violating the human rights of its own citizens and those of its neighbouring states. Recent examples include the imprisonment and flogging of blogger Raif Badawi (whose wife lives in Canada), the summary executions of close to 50 individuals in January, and the findings by a UN panel that Saudi forces systematically targeted civilians in Yemen last year.

If jobs are the key consideration when assessing export permit applications—even trumping human rights safeguards when in conflict—then perhaps Canada’s military export controls should be amended to reflect this reality. At least then policy would be better aligned with practice. What is not tenable is to claim to have strict human rights safeguards and then apply these safeguards only when there is no profit to be made. 

Canada has announced its plans to finally accede to the international Arms Trade Treaty, after a highly conspicuous absence alongside the likes of Somalia, North Korea and South Sudan. In this regard, Ottawa’s handling of the Saudi arms deal will constitute a key measure of its willingness to live up to the spirit and specific provisions of the treaty. Thus far, the signs are far from encouraging.

Referring to the Saudi arms deal, Global Affairs has declared that “the Arms Trade Treaty does not apply to this specific contract” given that Canada has not yet joined the Arms Trade Treaty. But this assertion paints an incomplete picture.

The Saudi deal requires not just one export permit, but likely a succession 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.”

It follows that when Canada completes the accession process, it will be required to abide by the provisions in the treaty—one of which in fact calls on states to reassess existing export authorizations when new relevant information emerges. Considering what is known about the Saudi regime’s consistent disregard for human rights, reports relevant to this particular arms deal can be expected to emerge with troubling regularity. 

So while it may be true that the Arms Trade Treaty does not apply to the Saudi deal at the moment, it is simply a matter of time before it does.

The growing number of red flags will make it increasingly hard for Ottawa to ignore the calls to come clean on the human rights implications of the Saudi deal. Now there are reports of a possible legal challenge to the deal, which may bring about even greater public scrutiny on the extent to which due diligence was exercised as part of the authorization process.  

This is an admittedly complex policy challenge for Justin Trudeau’s government. There is a real confluence of economic, strategic and human rights considerations. Further, it is increasingly apparent that this deal, inherited from the previous government, stands in stark contrast with widely welcomed changes in other aspects of Canada’s foreign policy.

It is not too late for Ottawa to heed the groundswell of calls to reexamine this deal and offer a clear explanation of how export controls apply to it. A recent Nanos Research poll indicated that a majority of Canadians rank human rights over job creation in the context of the Saudi deal. And it is not too late for Mr. Trudeau’s government to change course, especially if the change brings Canada more in line with its core values.

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