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Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion says withdrawing the contract would hurt Canada's reputation.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau's government is facing calls to explain to Canadians how Ottawa's $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia is justified under export control rules that impose special restrictions on shipments to countries with poor human-rights records.

The Liberals are refusing to cancel the contract, announced in 2014 after heavy lobbying by the Conservative government and brokered by a federal Crown corporation, even as Mr. Trudeau's administration condemns Saudi Arabia for a mass execution on Jan. 2 that included a dissident Shia Muslim cleric.

The Liberals promised during the election campaign they would change Ottawa's approach to international relations to improve this country's reputation on the global stage.

Federal rules oblige the Global Affairs department to conduct a special audit of 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, Ottawa must obtain assurances "there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

Alex Neve, Amnesty International's secretary-general for Canada, says it is time Ottawa made public how it has determined that exporting $15-billion worth of armoured fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia would not pose a risk to Saudi civilians.

He said such transparency would be "very much in keeping" with the "new values and principles" the Liberals have said they intend to promote in Canadian foreign policy.

"We still have no confidence that there has been a thorough and meaningful human-rights assessment of this deal, and if there has been, it is time for the results of that assessment to be shared with Canadians," Mr. Neve said.

He said the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was a voice for the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia's restless eastern provinces, demonstrates the "very troubling human-rights situation" in the Mideast country and the potential for further unrest in that part of the kingdom. "How will Saudi authorities react to that? What equipment and weaponry will they resort to? Is there a potential that armoured vehicles of this sort could be used in ways that cause or contribute to human rights violations?"

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion on Tuesday defended the Liberal decision to leave the Saudi contract untouched. A Canadian Crown corporation is the prime contractor on the deal to supply light armoured vehicles to Riyadh. The LAVs are marketed by General Dynamics Land Services (Canada), the manufacturer, as equipped with heavy automatic weapons.

"What's done is done and the contract is not something that we will revisit," Mr. Dion told CBC TV's Power & Politics on Tuesday. "Almost all our allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. It's part of the world in which we are."

He suggested rescinding a contract with Saudi Arabia would hurt Canada's reputation. "We need to stick to our word."

The Liberals have nevertheless been willing to interfere elsewhere in deals struck by the former Conservative government. In November, the Liberals put on hold final approval of a sole-source contract to acquire a temporary support ship for the navy, before later proceeding with the arrangement.

Mr. Dion argued that disengaging from countries that did not meet a certain standard of conduct would isolate Canadians. "The list of countries that are unacceptable would be very long."

Backing out of the deal would likely carry a political price as well because the arms sale supports 3,000 jobs for 14 years, many of them in London, Ont., where General Dynamics Land Systems (Canada) is based.

The Liberal government's support for the Saudi deal comes even though they have pledged to sign the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which regulates the flow of conventional weapons.

Ken Epps of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group that tracks arms sales, said Canada should raise the bar for UN treaty compliance by making public its deliberations on the human-rights impact of foreign weapons sales. "There is an opportunity there for the government to set high standards."

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