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Federal government hits ‘pause button’ on approving permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia

A Saudi Arabia flag is seen flying on Parliament Hill Nov. 2 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

The Trudeau government stopped approving permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia after it began an investigation last summer into Riyadh's deployment of Canadian-made armoured vehicles against Saudi residents.

Adam Austen, press secretary for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, likened the move to "hitting the pause button on approval of new permits" to Saudi Arabia.

"Over the course of the investigation no new permits were issued for arms shipments to Saudi Arabia," Mr. Austen said. "No new shipments were added."

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At least two Canadian companies have been providing armoured vehicles to the Saudis. These include General Dynamics Land Systems Canada of London, Ont., which is the supplier in a $15-billion deal brokered by the Canadian government to supply weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Another is Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc. of Newmarket, Ont.

Mr. Austen declined, however, to say whether Canada went a step further and suspended existing arms export permits to Saudi Arabia – meaning whether it interrupted an already-approved shipment by particular manufacturers.

"I can't talk about whether or not there were any suspensions granted for specific individual permits because of commercial confidentiality with regard to the contract," Mr. Austen said.

"Only to say that the minister does have the power to suspend temporarily permits if deemed necessary to conduct an investigation," Mr. Austen continued.

General Dynamics declined to comment on whether its export permits have been suspended by the Trudeau government. Terradyne president Durward Smith could not be immediately reached for comment.

Last July, for the first time, videos and photos surfaced of the Saudis using Canadian-made armoured vehicles against the population in Awamiyah, a minority Shia Muslim area.

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Ms. Freeland issued a statement at the time saying she was "deeply concerned" and announced a probe into the matter.

Six months have since elapsed and the Trudeau government has still not revealed the results of its investigation.

Mr. Austen said on Wednesday this probe is now "largely completed" and the results will be released "in due course."

He did not say whether the government will begin issuing new export permits once the probe is made public. This moratorium on approval of new permits covered arms including armoured vehicles, firearms or other weapons.

Armoured vehicles made by Terradyne were featured in the footage of conflict last summer, but one clip also showed combat machines made by General Dynamics Land Systems being deployed.

The House of Saud's use of Canadian fighting vehicles against its Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia goes to the heart of a long-running controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export-control rules.

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The rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Shipments are supposed to be blocked if there is a real risk the buyer could turn the arms against its own population.

Ken Epps, a long-time researcher for Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches and tracks arms shipments, said it's possible the moratorium on new arms export permits could be an empty gesture on the government's part.

While the Harper government brokered the $15-billion combat vehicle deal, it was the Trudeau government that green-lighted export permits for the bulk of the deal with Saudi Arabia. The government said it felt that there was no reasonable risk the combat vehicles would be used against civilians in Saudi Arabia, which has an abysmal human-rights record.

Mr. Epps said the fact that the Liberals already approved $11-billion of exports under the Saudi arms deal means that the moratorium would likely not have affected shipments from General Dynamics's London plant.

"If they are not prepared to actually suspend deliveries then [the moratorium] is basically meaningless."

In recent months, the Trudeau government has tried – and failed – to stop a new legal challenge seeking to block exports of Ottawa's combat-vehicle sale.

A Federal Court judge ruled this month that the lawsuit can proceed, saying 2017 evidence showing Canadian-made machines being used in a crackdown in a Saudi neighbourhood has breathed life into the matter.

"This … raises a new cause of action in the light of the new facts alleged in the notice of application," Justice Luc Martineau wrote.

"Between April and August 2017, Saudi armed forces occupied the majority Shia neighbourhood of Awamiyah in the Qatif region," the judge observed.

"During that period, acts of repression were perpetrated against the population. We can even see images of Canadian armoured vehicles."

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