A prominent former Liberal foreign minister is calling on Justin Trudeau's government to review a controversial $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, saying he doesn't think Canada should be deepening relations with a Mideast country notorious for human rights abuses.
Lloyd Axworthy, who served as foreign minister between 1996 and 2000 under prime minister Jean Chrétien, remains influential in Liberal circles.
He said he was surprised that Mr. Trudeau is being advised in briefing books to strengthen economic ties with Saudi Arabia because it would be good for business and Riyadh is an influential regional power.
Mr. Axworthy said a recommendation to "cozy up" to Saudi Arabia is "about the last piece of advice I would give," particularly due to what he sees as Saudi Arabia's worsening record. The country is notorious for its treatment of women, dissidents and prisoners. This month, Riyadh conducted a mass execution that included a prominent Muslim cleric.
"I think the Saudis have really in the last couple of years, really become a problem country," he said. "The degree of oppression against women and dissidents in Saudi Arabia is becoming almost epidemic."
The Trudeau Liberals are refusing to cancel a contract to provide hundreds, if not thousands, of weaponized amoured combat vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard on the grounds that it would injure Canada's reputation to renege on what they characterize as a done deal.
They also decline to release internal assessments on whether this massive transaction would violate Canadian arms export rules.
The sale is in its early stages – the London, Ont., manufacturer is still gathering material for production – and it's not clear Ottawa has been asked to issue an export permit yet.
Mr. Axworthy called the contract "problematic."
He said he did not expect the Liberals, who promised a new foreign policy, would be so quick to disavow any responsibility for the Saudi arms sale – the largest military export deal Ottawa has brokered. The contract will support 3,000 jobs in Canada.
"I am a Liberal and I am supporter of Mr. Trudeau … and I am just surprised to see this unilateral declaration of, 'We have no interest in examining or checking this thing out – or looking at it again,'" he said.
He said Canada has to consider the cost of lending support to the oppressive Saudi leadership.
"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."
Mr. Axworthy, who has spoken out in defence of Trudeau policies, such as the mass intake of Syrian refugees, said the Liberal government's unwillingness to carefully examine the armoured vehicle transaction is unexpected.
"Trudeau has stated so many times that the key to Canadian foreign policy is respect for others and to adhere to basic standards and rights," he said.
"To me this whole thing is an anomaly. Frankly, I don't get it – the way in which the Saudi thing has been handled."
He said there is a persistent belief in Canada's foreign affairs department – now called Global Affairs Canada – that the Saudis must be treated as important allies because that country is the "source of stability" in the region.
"I never quite bought that. How many stable despots get overturned and they leave a lot of mess in their wake," he said. "I would ask whether stability is based on the number of people you're putting in prison or executing."
Mr. Axworthy said Saudi Arabia's and Canada's interests don't align on major issues. Canada is suffering the impact of low oil prices after Saudi Arabia abandoned a long-standing policy of cutting supplies to stabilize petroleum prices and the country is long accused of exporting Islamic fundamentalism. "We're saying we've got to do something about terrorism and extremism and you've got a very wealthy country using a good part of its wealth to proselytize."
Canadian export-control rules place restrictions on shipments to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Shipments are forbidden if there is a chance the customer could turn the arms against their own population. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the biggest risk would be that the National Guard uses the combat vehicles against the restless Shia minority in the country's Eastern Provinces.
Mr. Axworthy said the Liberals should commit to checking whether a human rights assessment has been conducted and, if not, to pledge to undertake it.
"One of the things the government has to maintain is its commitment to what I would call probity – doing things right."
He said if possible Liberals should ask the Saudis to sign "end-use certificates" guaranteeing how the armoured vehicles will be used.
He also advised the Trudeau government to rethink the state of Canada's ties with Saudi Arabia. "It's time we really had an examination of this relationship. Because until countries start doing that ... until that starts happening, they [the Saudis] are going to behave with impunity."
Asked Wednesday whether the Liberals would place any new restrictions on trade with Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trudeau avoided a direct answer. He told reporters after a meeting with Toronto Mayor John Tory that the Liberals "are still very much committed to … a greater degree of transparency and accountability in international deals."
The Prime Minister said the Liberals would "hold Canada to the highest standards that Canadians expect."