Some of Canada's allies are growing increasingly skittish about selling arms to Saudi Arabia – and have been blocking weapons sales to Riyadh or publicly investigating whether these deals are appropriate with a country notorious for human-rights abuses.
This contrasts with Canada, where the Liberals refuse to cancel a $15-billion deal to sell weaponized fighting vehicles to the Saudis – the contract is still in the material procurement stage – and decline to release internal assessments on whether this massive transaction would violate Canadian arms export rules.
Saudi Arabia, which triggered international condemnation for a Jan. 2 mass execution that included a popular dissident Muslim cleric, drew fresh criticism Monday after news emerged that Riyadh has arrested Samar Badawi, the sister of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Mr. Badawi's wife and children live in Sherbrooke.
Germany's Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy recently signalled Berlin's increasing unease over arms deals with Riyadh.
"We must now review whether in future we should take a more critical stance on defensive armaments, which we have so far sold to Saudi Arabia for its national defence," Sigmar Gabriel, who is also German Vice-Chancellor, told media last week, citing the mass execution.
In the past 24 months, Berlin has shown signs of growing discomfort with Riyadh. The German government has already denied key applications for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, including several hundred battle tanks and G36 rifles, Adrian Toschev, a spokesman for Mr. Gabriel's ministry, said in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail.
In Britain, in the wake of the Saudi executions, Members of Parliament say they are reviving a Commons committee that scrutinizes arms exports and requires public officials to provide answers on controversial weapons sales.
Human-rights groups are threatening the British government with a lawsuit, brandishing a legal opinion that says it is unlawful for London to continue allowing fighter jet and bomb exports to the Saudis. Riyadh is using these in an ongoing war in Yemen, where the United Nations says Saudis are breaching international law.
In Belgium, the head of the Flemish government, Minister-President Geert Bourgeois, announced last week that he has refused an application for an export licence to ship weapons to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Bourgeois declined to offer details, but cited the 47 executions carried out Jan. 2. He said he would review future applications on a case-by-case basis – however, he described the chances of an application being approved as "very unlikely."
In Canada, General Dynamics Land Systems, based in London, Ont., is still gathering materials for the production of armoured combat vehicles that will be equipped with machine guns, medium-calibre weapons or even powerful barrels capable of firing 105mm shells or anti-tank missiles. The contract, which spans nearly 15 years, will keep 3,000 people employed in this country.
The Liberals are refusing to discuss the deal, citing commercial confidentiality, but it's not clear whether the first export permit to ship the vehicles has even been issued yet – meaning Ottawa must still officially approve or deny the shipment. The former Harper government lobbied hard for this contract, beating out French and German rivals, and a federal Crown corporation brokered the deal and remains the prime contractor.
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group based in Waterloo, Ont., that tracks weapon sales, said governments such as Justin Trudeau's face an impossible task. It's hard for "any government that claims to support human rights and are selling arms to the Saudis" to defend dealings with a country long criticized for abysmal treatment of women, minorities and dissidents and long accused of exporting Islamic fundamentalism.
"It's not a debate that any government is in a position to win on the merits of the case. There are simply too many red flags," Mr. Jaramillo said. "I think the fact that [other] governments are reconsidering now is evidence the facts are so damning against Saudi Arabia and the red flags are so apparent."
Canadian export-control rules place restrictions on shipments to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens."
Asked last week to release deliberations on how the Saudi arms deal passes the export control test, the Global Affairs department cited commercial confidentiality to explain why it could not say anything.
Asked again Jan. 11 to detail how it justifies the transaction, the department offered no response to The Globe and Mail. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said last week that the Liberals would revisit the process by which future contracts are assessed but would not block this sale, saying it would injure Canada's reputation.
The Liberals promised during the election campaign that they would change Ottawa's approach to international relations to improve this country's reputation on the global stage, and have marketed this as "Canada's back."