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Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada plant, next to a LAV 6.0 (Light Armoured Vehicle) being built for Canada, at the facility in London, Ont., Friday, May 2, 2014. The company is also manufacturing vehicles being sold to Saudi Arabia as part of a controversial $15-billion deal. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tours the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada plant, next to a LAV 6.0 (Light Armoured Vehicle) being built for Canada, at the facility in London, Ont., Friday, May 2, 2014. The company is also manufacturing vehicles being sold to Saudi Arabia as part of a controversial $15-billion deal. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa aims to keep lid on details of Saudi arms deal Add to ...

The Canadian government is refusing to make public the assessments it conducts to determine whether Ottawa’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia is compatible with foreign policy or poses a risk to the civilian population in a country notorious for human-rights abuses.

The Department of Foreign Affairs argues it must keep deliberations secret regarding this deal – by far the largest export contract ever brokered by Ottawa – citing the need to protect the “commercial confidentiality” of General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, which makes the light armoured vehicles.

Ottawa maintains this despite the fact that Foreign Affairs, by its own stated rules, is required to screen requests to export military goods to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.” Among other things, it must obtain assurances “there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”

The $15-billion sale of fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia, first announced in 2014, represents a big win for the Harper government’s efforts to build up Canada’s role as a global arms dealer by championing weapons exports. But Ottawa is not going to share its analysis of how this transaction will pass muster with the federal export controls regime.

“Permit applications from third parties are treated in confidence … this includes analysis conducted during their review,” said Amy Mills, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs.

The government is determined to keep a lid on details of this deal, which is coming under under increased scrutiny following much-publicized incidents of torture and mistreatment by Saudi authorities. These include the flogging sentence for blogger Raif Badawi, whose family obtained refuge in Canada.

Ottawa, which is the prime contractor in the deal, refuses to say what kind of fighting vehicles it’s selling to the Saudis. Canada has underwritten previous arms sales to Riyadh but nothing close to the magnitude of the 2014 deal.

As an example of how light armoured vehicles (LAVs) might enable human-rights abuses, rights activists allege it was Canadian-made fighting vehicles that Saudi Arabia sent into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell a democratic uprising. Asked if it believes the Saudis used made-in-Canada LAVs when they went into Bahrain, the Canadian government doesn’t deny this happened. It only says it doesn’t believe the vehicles were used to beat back protests.

“Saudi Arabia’s support to Bahrain during the violent upheavals in 2011 was under the auspices of the GCC Peninsula Shield” force, said Ms. Mills, referring to a regional military defence pact. “To the best of the government of Canada’s knowledge, Saudi troops were stationed to protect key buildings and infrastructure and did not engage in suppression of peaceful protests.”

Foreign Affairs will not even confirm whether a human-rights assessment has yet been conducted for the big LAV deal, again saying it is worried this might affect General Dynamic Land Systems Canada’s commercial interests.

It’s already championing subcontracts for the deal, though, which suggests Ottawa has found a way to justify the transaction. Earlier this year, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Lynne Yelich issued a press release congratulating a Saskatoon company for a $11.7-million deal to supply General Dyamics with parts.

The Conservative government, trying to boost arms sales by Canadian companies overseas as defence budgets are trimmed in the United States and Europe, has nevertheless styled itself as a champion of human rights during its latest term in office. It created an Office of Religious Freedom with an ambassador-level appointment, Andrew Bennett.

This week, however, Foreign Affairs refused The Globe and Mail’s request for an interview with Mr. Bennett on the arms sale to Saudi Arabia. “An interview cannot be arranged but please send your questions for Ambassador Bennett and we will have answers prepared,” the department said.

Arms-control advocates accuse Ottawa of ducking accountability, saying there’s no reason a human-rights assessment can’t be released on its own, separate from commercially sensitive information.

“It sounds like an excuse to perpetuate a lack of transparency,” said Cesar Jaramillo, with Project Ploughshares, a peace group in Waterloo, Ont., that monitors the arms trade.

He cannot imagine how Ottawa could justify the sale of fighting vehicles to Riyadh given export control rules. “Any reasonable observer would be hard-pressed to imagine how [Saudi Arabia] could get a clean bill from a human-rights perspective,” he said. “They are a case study of the type of recipient that should not be eligible to receive military goods.”

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