Skip to main content

Saudi forces in a graduation ceremony in Riyadh on Tuesday. Saudi Arabia is widely criticized for its human-rights practices.FAISAL AL NASSER/Reuters

Critics say a $15-billion arms deal the Canadian government has brokered to sell fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for human-rights abuses, undermines Ottawa's rationale for refusing to sign a landmark global treaty to regulate the weapons trade.

Canada is alone among peers in refusing to sign the Arms Trade Treaty, which came into force a few months ago. It's the only member state of the NATO military alliance and the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations that hasn't signed the agreement. At last count, 130 countries had inked the deal.

Ottawa's justification for opting out of this multilateral treaty – negotiated through the United Nations – is that it already possesses an excellent export-control system for weapons. "Canada already has some of the strongest export controls in the world," Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Josephine Laframboise said Wednesday. "This treaty actually brings countries up to our already strong export-control standards."

Human-rights advocates and anti-war groups tell a different story.

They say the fact that the government is proceeding with this massive sale of light-armoured vehicles, which typically come with automatic weapons affixed, to a human-rights pariah such as Saudi Arabia is proof that Canada's export-control system is weak in practice.

"It suggests they're not necessarily following it," Hilary Homes of Amnesty International Canada said of this country's export-control regime.

The 2014 agreement to ship made-in-Canada light-armoured vehicles to the Mideast country is coming under increased scrutiny after much-publicized incidents of torture and mistreatment by Saudi authorities.

"When you assert they are bad human-rights violators – that the human-rights situation is dire – it is not an exercise in speculation or hearsay," said Cesar Jaramillo with Project Ploughshares, a peace group in Waterloo, Ont., that monitors the arms trade.

"There is near-universal consensus on that point … [Saudi Arabia] is among the worst human-rights violators in the world."

The Canadian government is effectively the prime contractor in this sale through a Crown corporation called the Canadian Commercial Corp.

As The Globe and Mail reported Wednesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs has not conducted a human-rights assessment of Saudi Arabia for the past two years and it's begun issuing export permits related to the vehicles.

Canadian export controls require that in the case of arms sales to countries "with a persistent record of serious violations of the human-rights of their citizens," Canada must first obtain assurances that the goods – in this case, fighting vehicles – would not be used against the buyer's civilian population. Ottawa has to date refused to say whether it satisfied itself that this is the case.

The Arms Trade Treaty would impose strict conditions on Canada, requiring Ottawa to assess the potential for the weapon to be used to commit a "serious violation of international humanitarian law" or "international human-rights law."

Mr. Jaramillo said Canada would likely come under increasing pressure to abrogate the Saudi arms deal if Ottawa joined the global treaty.

"A signature would draw further scrutiny, not only domestically but also internationally, and there would be quite a bit of finger-pointing and talk of how the deal with Saudi Arabia would be squarely incompatible with the provisions of the treaty," he predicted.

Ms. Laframboise with Foreign Affairs rejects the notion the arms treaty would alter Canada's plans for the Saudi deal.

"This contract will create and sustain more than 3,000 direct jobs in the advanced manufacturing sector in Southwestern Ontario. It will also create thousands of indirect jobs throughout Southern Ontario and across Canada by way of a 500-firm supply chain, stretching from coast to coast to coast," she said.