The Trudeau government says it reserves the right to suspend or cancel exports in the controversial $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia if events warrant, a shift in message after weeks of framing the contract as a done deal.
Prepared remarks released by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's main spokesman on Wednesday suggest the Liberals want to demonstrate they are mindful of the scrutiny of Canada's largest military export contract as Saudi Arabia's standing in world opinion declines.
Adam Barratt said while the Liberal government has "no intention" of cancelling the deal to sell combat vehicles to Riyadh, it will not ignore developments in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International this month said the state of human rights in the country, notorious for its treatment of dissidents, women and prisoners, has "steadily deteriorated."
"Should we become aware of reports that would be relevant to Canada's export control regime, the government can consider whether existing permits should be suspended or cancelled, and factor this information into consideration of any future permits," Mr. Barratt said in a statement.
Critics on Wednesday questioned what might prompt the Liberals to suspend exports of these combat vehicles if Saudi Arabia's existing record is not enough.
The assertion of Ottawa's ongoing power to suspend exports of weaponized fighting vehicles likely means the Liberals will now face regular questions on whether the situation in Saudi Arabia, as documented by watchdog groups, is grounds to halt shipments.
Mr. Dion told The Globe and Mail earlier this week that the Saudi deal requires not just one export permit, but likely a succession over the 14-year contract.
"It's for many years so … over the years the minster of foreign affairs will have the duty to consider the export permits," he said.
In early January, Mr. Dion framed the controversial sale as a fait accompli that was out of his government's hands and merely vowed more scrutiny on future deals. "What's done is done and the contract is not something that we will revisit," Mr. Dion told CBC TV's Power & Politics on Jan. 5. "Almost all our allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia."
The former Harper government lobbied assiduously for the deal. A federal Crown corporation brokered the transaction and is the prime contractor. About 3,000 Canadians will work for nearly 15 years building the vehicles for General Dynamics Land Systems of London, Ont., a subsidiary of a major U.S. defence contractor.
Earlier this month, Riyadh executed 47 people, including Shia Muslim cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr – a vocal critic of the ruling al-Saud family.
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, which monitors the arms trade, said the comments from Mr. Dion's office obscure the fact that the Liberals are still refusing to tell how the export permits are justified even now.
Before an export permit is issued, federal rules require Ottawa to ensure there is no risk that arms shipped to a country with a poor human-rights records could be used against the local population.
The Canadian government still refuses to release its deliberations on the matter, citing commercial confidentiality.
"There is near-universal consensus about the abysmal human rights situation in Saudi Arabia – by any measure," Mr. Jaramillo said. "Those still in doubt can easily find damning, abundant and indisputable evidence about the oppressive nature of the Saudi regime – not potentially at some point during the next 15 years that the contract is expected to last, but right at this moment."
Amnesty International, which has championed the cause of Saudi writer Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for blasphemy, says Riyadh has continued a crackdown against human rights activists in the past 12 months. Saudi Arabia discriminates against its Shia Muslim minority, helped Bahrain crush pro-democracy protests in 2011 and has taken heavy criticism for a military campaign in Yemen that included indiscriminate aerial bombing.
Mr. Dion's office says Canada is not turning a blind eye to the human-rights record of one of its biggest arms buyers.
"Canada monitors the human-rights situation in Saudi Arabia and consistently raises concerns regarding human rights with senior Saudi officials – just as Minister Dion did last month during the visit of Saudi Foreign Minister [Adel] al-Jubeir,'" Mr. Barratt said.
"We will continue to engage with Saudi Arabia on a range of issues including human rights and regional security."
Justin Trudeau's government has faced growing pressure to explain how it justifies shipping weapons to a country accused of exporting Islamic fundamentalism.
Liberal Party veteran Lloyd Axworthy has urged a review of the sale, saying the economic benefits are not enough. "Everybody says it's for jobs, but I think if you start counting up the price you pay in terms of instability and repression and forceful maintenance of order, you may be paying a high price."
The contract is still in relatively early stages. General Dynamics Land Systems is in the material-procurement stage of the contract, and it appears Ottawa has not yet issued an export permit for the machines.