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Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion speaks at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion speaks at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Politics

Dion quietly approved arms sale to Saudi Arabia in April: documents Add to ...

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has quietly issued export permits for the bulk of the shipments tied to a controversial $15-billion sale of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a crucial green light for the deal that many thought had already been granted.

Mr. Dion approved six export permits on Friday covering more than 70 per cent of the transaction, newly released documents show – a decision that represents the most vital step in the Canadian government’s arms-control process. The Liberals have long said they could not interfere with what they described as a “done deal” arranged by the Harper Conservatives.

The Saudi arms deal: What we've learned so far, and what could happen next

The permits cover light armoured vehicles, spare parts and “associated weapon systems,” the memo signed by Mr. Dion says. The fighting vehicles will be equipped with machine guns and anti-tank weapons.

Information on Mr. Dion’s decision was released by the federal Department of Justice Tuesday in response to a lawsuit that seeks to block exports of these military goods – and the revelations in the documents run contrary to the Liberal government claim that their hands were tied on the Saudi file.

The remarkable department of Global Affairs Canada memo, stamped “secret” and obtained by University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp, who is challenging the Saudi deal in Federal Court, lays bare the Liberal government’s rationale for the mammoth Canadian arms sale.

Canada’s arms export control regime makes it clear that a transaction can only proceed after Ottawa has issued export permits, and the new Global Affairs memo reveals that the Conservatives had only approved minor permits related to the Saudi deal for the export of technical data.

It has fallen to Mr. Dion to approve the vast majority of the transaction and that is what he did last week.

A department of Global Affairs Canada memo shows Mr. Dion’s signature beside the words “I concur” below the memo recommending the issuance of six permits that cover $11-billion of the $15-billion deal.

This memorandum is sure to be controversial because it shows, among other things, that the department of Global Affairs recommended approval of the Saudi export permits because it could help Saudi Arabia wage war in neighbouring Yemen. The Netherlands has banned arms exports to Saudi Arabia in part because of Riyadh’s conduct in Yemen, where it is fighting Houthi rebels aligned with Iran, and the European Parliament has passed a motion urging an embargo on weapons exports to the Saudis.

Global Affairs tells Mr. Dion the light armoured vehicles will help Riyadh in its efforts at “countering instability in Yemen” as well as fighting Islamic State threats.

“The acquisition of state-of-the-art armoured vehicles will assist Saudi Arabia in these goals,” the memo says.

Records obtained and published by The Globe and Mail last year show Global Affairs staffers saying that export-permit approval is the stage at which Ottawa really sanctions shipments. In 2014, the department undertook an initial review of the deal to check for “red flags.” It found none but Debbie Gowling, a senior official in the export-controls division, reminded colleagues in an e-mail that there was no guarantee that the sale was officially approved by Ottawa until actual export-permit applications were processed.

“There has been no confirmation of any decisions/assurances … with regard to the export of these items,” Ms. Gowling wrote in February, 2014, adding “a more thorough analysis would be conducted when actual permit applications were received” and “there were no guarantees as circumstances could evolve.”

The memo requesting Mr. Dion approve the export permits is dated March 21, which happens to be the same day that Mr. Turp filed a lawsuit to try and stop the Saudi deal. Written across the memo is the phrase “approved by the foreign affairs minister April 8, 2016,” and a Justice Department lawyer in an accompanying letter said Mr. Dion’s decision on the exports was made “as of April 8.”

Critics, including former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, have opposed selling arms to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it has among the worst human-rights records in the world.

The federal export-permit memo shows the department didn’t consult human-rights groups but rather asked only the Department of National Defence, several bureaus within the department of Global Affairs – such as defence and security-relations division – and Innovation Canada. “No concerns were raised,” the Global Affairs memo said.

The disclosed memo, which reveals Mr. Dion also approved the export of the jeeps’ weapon systems to Saudi Arabia, further undermines Justin Trudeau’s characterization of this deal with Riyadh as merely a sale of “jeeps,” as the Liberal Leader famously called them last October.

Top Trudeau aides expressed discomfort with the arms deal and the Saudi human-rights record as recently as 2015 when the Liberals were in opposition. Mr. Trudeau’s top adviser, Gerald Butts, criticized the Harper Conservatives for the Saudi deal. “Principled foreign policy indeed,” he wrote on Twitter last year, circulating a social-media post that compared Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State.

During the 2015 election campaign, University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, now a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau, was quoted by the CBC as criticizing the armoured-weapons deal. “We don’t know whether assurances were obtained from the Saudis. “We’ve allowed an arms sale to trump human rights.”

One reason the Department of National Defence gave for supporting the deal, when it was consulted, was that it would keep defence contractor General Dynamics Land Systems, based in London, Ont., in business and able to build similar machines for Canada when needed. “The export of these vehicles is key to ensuring a strong and viable defence industrial base in Canada,” the Global Affairs memo said.

Canada’s export-control regime clearly stipulates that Ottawa must not issue export permits for weapons sales to countries with poor human-rights records “unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.” Saudi Arabia regularly ranks among the “worst of the worst” on human rights by Freedom House.

In the memo to Mr. Dion, Global Affairs officials choose their words carefully. They say that of the many light armoured vehicles sold to Saudi Arabia by Canada in years past, there is no proof they have been deployed to abuse people.

“To the best of the department’s knowledge, there have been no incidents where they have been used in the perpetration of human-rights violations,” the memo says.

The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year that older Canadian-made armoured vehicles appear to be caught up in Saudi Arabia’s fight in Yemen. Photos and videos posted on social media show the General Dynamics-made vehicles fighting in the Yemeni war.

Canada is supposed to consider whether the arms it is shipping to a customer may be used in an imminent conflict.

Again, the department of Global Affairs treads carefully when it comes to Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has already been accused by a UN panel of violating international law. “There has been no indication that equipment of Canadian origin, including light armoured vehicles, may have been used in acts contrary to international humanitarian law.”

In submitting the request for export permits to Mr. Dion, the department notes that normally civil servants approve export permits.

In a nod to the controversy surrounding this arms sale – the largest manufacturing export deal in Canadian history – Global Affairs said it was seeking Mr. Dion’s approval because of the extraordinary circumstances. “This exceptional measure is warranted by the high public profile and dollar value of these proposed exports.”

Mr. Dion’s office defended approving the arms exports, saying that if it blocked the shipments and cancelled the contract it would have less leverage over Saudi Arabia. It noted that current Canada-Saudi relations have led to 16,000 Saudi students studying here “which will help to promote a greater appreciation of Canadian values, including the importance of diversity and gender equality.”

Joseph Pickerill, Mr. Dion’s director of communications, said ending the transaction could reduce Canada’s ability to influence Saudi Arabia.

“If we drop the contract, we set back the clock on positive efforts like this, too. And we will simply hand the contract to another non-Canadian – possibly more ambivalent – provider.”

This effort to justify the deal is different from what Mr. Dion’s new adviser Jocelyn Coulon wrote in January, weeks before joining the minister’s office, when he said Saudi Arabia has “bought the silence” of Western countries by awarding them lucrative contracts to supply it with military and civilian goods.

Mr. Pickerill said the Liberals are committed to improving export controls for weapons and reiterated Mr. Dion’s earlier statements that he could rescind export permits if evidence arises that the LAVs are being used to violate human rights.

The Global Affairs memo also warns Mr. Dion that the Saudis could sue Canada for damages if Ottawa cancels the deal.

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