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Ottawa’s high standards for foreign-arms deals is false advertising

Liberals approved export permits last week to sell Canadian-made LAVs to Saudi Arabia.

Kyodo/Newscom

Canada's high standards for selling arms to foreign regimes are not as advertised.

The huff and puff the Canadian government uses to tell its citizens that it has "some of the strongest export controls in the world" is undermined by the failure to apply its own explicitly stated rules. The test for selling weapons to a country that might use them to violate their citizens' human rights isn't as exacting as Ottawa claimed.

We know this is true because of a document that came to light in a lawsuit designed to force the government to cancel the sale of Canadian-made light-armoured vehicles, or LAVs, to Saudi Arabia. It's the official government record that Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was given before he approved the export permits last week. And while it cleverly concocts a case to sound like it meets the proclaimed standard, it clearly falls short.

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Why does that matter? Because the Canadian government sets high standards for weapons exports in public, and bends them in private. Combine that with the secrecy around this weapons contract, and Canadians are effectively being told they can't examine the standard for selling weapons to dictatorships with abominable human-rights records. And, in a democracy, that standard is ultimately up to them, not the government.

The document, it must be said, provides a lot of justifications for selling armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. It argues that Saudi Arabia's stability, and its efforts to combat jihadists and the so-called Islamic State, align with Canada's defence and security interests. And it notes repeatedly that there's a lot of money and jobs at stake for General Dynamics Land Systems, which employs 2,100 in Canada, mostly in London, Ont.

There are many Canadians who will find those arguments compelling.

But if that's the standard, the government should stop telling us it has another one – one that assures Canadians there is no risk exported arms will be used to violate the human rights of civilian populations overseas.

That standard is set out clearly in a long-standing cabinet policy: The government restricts the sale of arms to countries "whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

There's no doubt the Saudi regime violates human rights regularly. The document that was in Mr. Dion's hands lists suppressing opposition, arbitrary arrest, mistreatment of detainees, discriminating against women and so on.

But the government officials who drafted the document come up with an interesting way of dodging the test: Canadian LAVs have been sold to Saudi Arabia since 1993, and, "to the best of the [Global Affairs] Department's knowledge," they haven't been used to violate human rights, so the diplomats don't believe they will in the future.

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Similarly, the document notes that Saudi Arabia has led a military campaign in Yemen criticized by a United Nations panel in February for intentionally targeting civilians. But the Saudis didn't use Canadian LAVs to do it.

One thing Mr. Dion's department didn't note: The Saudi regime has deployed armoured vehicles to Shia protests in the county's east. There have been sizable protests, notably in 2012 and earlier this year, and the Saudi government, increasingly worried, has suppressed them. And the LAVs are to be used by the Saudi Arabian National Guard, an internal security force.

Let's pause to recall that the publicly touted test is demonstrating there is no reasonable risk Canadian weapons might be used in human-rights violations. Artful though it is, the government's argument that because nothing bad happened before it probably won't in the future, fingers crossed, doesn't come close.

Maybe that shouldn't be the standard. The real standard implicit in this document is a weighing of human-rights concerns against regional stability and Canada's economic interests.

But if that's the reality, then change the policy. Tell Canadians straight up. Make your case. Instead, the Conservatives signed a secretive arms deal and both they and the Liberals defended it by pointing to standards they were not going to meet. A government has the right to set a policy on selling arms to repressive regimes, but only if it lets the public judge it.

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