Friday, February 05, 2016

Human rights should trump job creation in Saudi arms sales case

The Liberal government's response so far to the scandalous Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia has been disappointing to say the least.
It was the Harper Tories that initiated, brokered and agreed the $15 billion deal to sell "light-armoured vehicles" to the egregious human rights abusers. But Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion appear to be desperately playing down the deal, in the hopes that no-one notices. That's not going to happen.
These are not just "jeeps", as Trudeau disingenuously tried to suggest recently. They are armoured combat vehicles sporting medium- or high-calibre weapons, such as a powerful cannon designed to fire anti-tank and armour-penetrating missiles.
And the destined customer is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is dedicated to protecting the Saudi monarchy from internal threats, but also to suppressing civil unrest, such as the Shia uprising in the Eastern State. There is no guarantee that these vehicles will not be used in Saudi Arabia's devastating war against Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, just as the Canadian government admits it can not rule out the possibility that previously-sold armoured vehicles were not used in the Saudi suppression of the nascent Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia is widely regarded as one of the worst human rights violators in the world, from its rampant capital punishment to its oppression of women to its strenuous prohibition of non-Islamic (even non-Sunni) religion. It has also long been accused of exporting violent Islamic fundamentalism, a scourge that Canada has vowed to oppose. Canada's arms control rules clearly state that arms should not be supplied to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens", and particularly not if there is any chance that they might turn the arms against their own population. What clearer case can there possibly be?
Mr. Trudeau himself admits that he DOES have the power to suspend the deal - this in itself is a recent volte face after initial assertions that the deal is a fait accompli - and the contract is still in its early "materials procurement" stage. Yes, cancelling the contract may result in the lay-off of up to 3,000 workers at the General Dynamics Land Systems plant in London, Ontario, and probably substantial contract-breaking fines. But sometimes ethics need to trump practicalities.
So, Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion throwing his hands up in despair and claiming that a contract is a contract and there is nothing he can do, or, even worse, that cancelling the deal would be futile because some other country would simply supply Riyadh instead, just will not wash.
The mood of the country is clear on this matter: in a recent Nanos Research poll, nearly 60% of Canadians (including over 67% of Canadian women) agree that human rights should rank above job creation in this case. Trudeau and the Liberals need to show that they have principles and cojones, and that they are not just the Harper Conservatives under a new name.

The Liberals continue to mismanage this file, in what is probably their worst public relations debacle since coming to power. Evidence has come to light that Foreign Affairs Minister St├ęphane Dion quietly signed off on export permits for the largest part of the arms deal in early April - something that most people had assumed had already been done by the previous government - effectively giving a green light to the contentious sale. The Tory opposition (which actually originated the contract, and put the Liberals in this awkward position) are predictably making hay by alleging that he is guilty of double standards by claiming that he was powerless to change an irreversible contract that the country was already committed to before he arrived on the scene, etc, etc.
To some extent, Dion's claims are actually true: the Tories did indeed sign the contract, and all Dion is doing is following through with the necessary administrative step of export permits to fulfil that contract, a contract that all major parties agreed was a necessary evil at the last election. But it is an administrative step that moves the process along, represents a vital step in establishing the legitimacy and "legality" of the transaction, and implicates the Liberals ever deeper in the deal. Bad, bad optics, to say the least.
Even worse is the Department of Global Affairs memo to Mr. Dion claiming that the light armoured vehicles would specifically be used to "counter instability in Yemen" (Saudi Arabia is the one creating that instability in the first place). More bad optics.
A Federal Court lawsuit, led by University of Montreal professor Daniel Turp, is being mounted to challenge the legality of the exports on the grounds that they contravene international human rights law in shipping arms to a known human rights violator. A win there would be a victory for democracy and the rule of law, but a huge embarrassment for the government.
Both Dion and Trudeau seem totally committed to the contract, at least publicly, and the moment has probably already passed when they could reasonably cancel it. What a shame, though, and what a wasted political opportunity. Cancelling the deal may alienate one small segment of the electorate of London, Ontario; not doing so risks diaapponting and alienating a major part of the popular base of this young government.

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