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Transparency a casualty in arms deals with Saudis Add to ...

The federal government is fond of boasting about how its controls on weapons exports are among the strongest in the world, but Canadians are left largely in the dark over precisely what military and security equipment is being shipped to foreign customers – including those with poor human-rights records.

For instance, Canada’s flourishing security and defence business with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the controversial $15-billion sale of General Dynamics fighting vehicles to Riyadh, but Canadians must turn to the Internet, rather than their government, for details.

Saudi Arabian media coverage reveals how Terradyne Armored Vehicles, of Newmarket, Ont., has found a market in Saudi Arabia for its brand of tactical vehicles – which are advertised with options such as gun turrets and remote weapons systems. Photos of what military equipment experts identify as Terradyne Gurkhas have turned up in coverage of a demonstration exercise by Saudi special forces, in stories on Saudi border posts embroiled in Riyadh’s war with Yemen and elsewhere.

Unless a Canadian company wants to talk about such deals – and they rarely do – transactions like these draw little attention at home.

The best way for Canadians to learn about them is to comb through social media and Internet postings of military aficionados who specialize in dissecting the latest kit on the battlefield.

The federal government periodically tables a report that provides the aggregate dollar value of arms exports to countries – by category – but no details on transactions.

It won’t, for instance, tell Canadians whether Winnipeg sniper-rifle manufacturer PGW Defence Technologies, which counts the Saudis among its clients, has shipped more firearms there – or whether drone-maker Aeryon Labs, which found an early customer in the Saudi defence ministry, has sent additional unmanned aerial vehicles to Riyadh.

The last report that was released on military exports covered until 2013.

Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, an advocate for human rights, says it’s time for Parliament to change this. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he called for a Commons inquiry into the exports of military equipment to countries with bad human-rights records.

Mr. Cotler said MPs should begin probing foreign sales of military and security goods in much the same way Parliament previously scrutinized the conduct of Canadian mining companies abroad.

“We should not be engaged in arms sales to countries that have a persistent pattern of human-rights violations – as a kind of code of conduct for us,” he said.

“It would seem [Canada] would want to know this is happening and would want to have a policy with regard to this happening.”

Terradyne declined to discuss its clients or transactions when contacted by The Globe and Mail.

“I’m sure you can appreciate that any information regarding our business or customers is confidential in nature and we will not be in a position to elaborate further,” company president Durward Smith said in an e-mail.

However, a May, 2015 story by Saudi newspaper Al Yaum on a demonstration exercise by special security forces includes a photo of what appear to be Terradyne Gurkha armoured vehicles. June, 2016 photos posted on Twitter by a journalist with Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya, apparently embedded with Saudi border guards, shows more Gurkhas.

A November, 2015 story by Jeddah-based Okaz newspaper features a photo of a Gurkha vehicle at a border post.

And footage posted on YouTube in January, 2016 by Al Arabiya includes a clip of a Gurkha vehicle in a story on clashes between Saudi forces and Houthi rebels at the border with Yemen where Riyadh is waging war against forces aligned with Iran.

“Looks like a Terradyne Gurkha in Saudi service,” Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, wrote on Twitter after viewing this video.

Stephen Priestley, a researcher with the Canadian American Strategic Review, a think tank that tracks defence spending, also identified the vehicles in all these instances as Gurkhas.

Canadian Transportation Agency records also show that Terradyne used Russian shipper AirbridgeCargo Airlines three times between July, 2015 and September, 2015 to ship cargo to Riyadh.

The Canadian government won’t answer any questions about Terradyne’s exports or how it approved sales to a country that has a history of using armoured vehicles against civilians and is engaged in a bloody war in Yemen that has drawn accusations of major human-rights violations – or why Canadians have to rely on social media to learn about arms sales.

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion’s office referred questions to his department, Global Affairs Canada, which responded with a variation of the stock phrases it repeatedly uses when asked about arms exports.

“The government is firmly committed to greater transparency and accountability in international deals,” Global Affairs spokeswoman Diana Khaddaj said.

“Canada has some of the strongest export controls in the world through the Export and Import Permits Act. The Government of Canada ensures that all proposed exports of goods and technology are carefully reviewed and that human-rights considerations are taken into account.”

Federal Liberal MP Kyle Peterson recently gave Terradyne a vote of confidence, however. On Jan. 14, the Ontario politician, whose riding includes the company, posted a photo of himself in front of a Gurkha vehicle celebrating what he called a “growing Newmarket company.”

Mr. Peterson did not respond to an e-mailed request to explain his support for Terradyne.

Last week, the Saudi embassy in Canada broke a long silence in the $15-billion General Dynamics deal, saying it will not accept criticism of its human-rights record and pointing out that Riyadh could have easily purchased the armoured combat vehicles elsewhere.

York University doctoral student Anthony Fenton, who is researching Canada’s relations with Persian Gulf Arab states, and who has amassed evidence of Terradyne’s foreign sales, said defence companies, with the “enthusiastic support of the Canadian government,” have boosted their sales to Mideast buyers in recent years.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of the anti-war group Project Ploughshares, which tracks arms shipments, said Canadians demand greater transparency from their government in 2016. “Canadians have a right to know whether their country’s economic well-being is linked to the suppression of human rights,” Mr. Jaramillo said. “Vital information is being withheld that allow Canadians to make a reasoned assessment of that situation.”

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