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Three lessons to draw from the Saudi arms deal controversy

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and senior adviser, Dentons LLP.

All arms sales are controversial, but when the buyer is a country with a human-rights record like Saudi Arabia's and the deal is worth billions, the public scrutiny rightfully reaches a new level.

Such is the case for the Trudeau government, where critics have openly questioned the morality of Canada's $15-billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles, known as LAVs, to Saudi Arabia.

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The respective handling of the deal by the Harper and Trudeau governments illustrates their differences in governing style – and sheds considerable light on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reintroduction of ministerial accountability in government.

While Mr. Trudeau has fielded questions publicly, the file clearly belongs to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. In contrast, during the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper characterized the deal as a sale of "transport vehicles" and the file was handled largely through his office.

When it comes to global arms sales, Canada is not a big player. That status goes to the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France. These countries accounted for most of the estimated $400-billion (U.S) in global arms sales in 2014. In terms of company sales, the leaders are U.S.-based Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Both companies supply and source from Canada, underlining the deeply integrated supply chain nature of Canada's defence industries.

Canada sold just more than $12.5-billion (U.S.) in arms worldwide since 1950. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, after the United States, our next biggest customers are, in U.S. dollars: Saudi Arabia ($740-million); Botswana ($555-million); Turkey ($482-million); Belgium ($386-million) and Australia ($332-million).

But the $15-billion deal with Saudi Arabia represents Canada's biggest arms sale ever – and it is the Trudeau government's first real brush with a foreign-policy controversy.

The bumpy ride has left a few bruises, but there are also some cogent lessons to draw from the controversy.

First, include an examination of arms-sales policies in the current defence review. These policies need to be scrutinized to restore public confidence.

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Second, move on the promised signature of the UN Arms Trade Treaty. This will oblige regular arms-sale reporting. The last of the three Harper government reviews covered the years 2012-13.

Third, publish the human-rights reviews of all countries Canada is currently selling arms to. The U.S. State Department uses their reports to encourage better global governance. We should do the same.

Democracies around the world have developed elaborate procedures for arms sales including restrictions on the transfer of technology and re-sales, as well as considerations around the human-rights record of the buying nation. Saudi Arabia is regularly ranked among the worst of the worst in terms of human rights by Freedom House.

Canada first instituted arms-sales permit policies during the Spanish Civil War. The last major review of this policy took place in 1986 during the Mulroney government. It instituted a country control list and regular reporting on arms sales. In 1997, The Chrétien government reinforced the permit process by requiring a "rigorous analysis" of security and human-rights criteria.

In a statement justifying the Saudi deal, Mr. Dion describes Riyadh as a "strategic partner" and says Canadian credibility is at stake. So are the jobs of 70,000 Canadians, including veterans, employed in our arms industry. The better levers to mitigate human rights in Saudi Arabia, argues Mr. Dion, include the experience of the 16,000 Saudi students in Canadian universities.

The Saudi deal is an early illustration of what Mr. Dion calls "responsible conviction," the principle that will guide his foreign-affairs stewardship. The awkwardly wonky phrase, drawing from German sociologist Max Weber, is authentically Dion. In terms of applied foreign-policy direction, Mr. Dion says this includes action on climate change; clemency on capital punishment; and advocacy for human rights, including sexual and reproductive health rights.

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The Saudi deal reflects the pragmatism of responsible conviction. We would like to live in a world without weapons, argues Mr. Dion, but we do not. The sale of these armoured vehicles means jobs for Canadians and, for Mr. Dion, that's responsible decision-making.

It's also a useful reminder that, in foreign policy, the choices are not black and white, but shades of grey.

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