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saudi arms deal

Irwin Cotler is pictured in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in this 2011 file photo. Canada shouldn’t be selling weaponry to ‘a country that is engaged in major human-rights violations,’ says Mr. CotlerSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A former federal Liberal cabinet minister and human-rights lawyer says Saudi Arabia's apparent deployment of Canadian-made combat vehicles against Saudi citizens demonstrates why Canada should end all arms sales to the Islamic kingdom.

"I am not saying we shouldn't be trading with Saudi Arabia. I'm not saying we shouldn't be engaging with Saudi Arabia. I'm just saying we shouldn't be selling any more arms to Saudi Arabia," Irwin Cotler, who served as justice minister under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, told The Globe and Mail.

"I don't think we should be [undertaking] arms sales with a country that is engaged in major human-rights violations."

Globe editorial: On Saudi arms sale, Ottawa must be prepared to say no

Opinion: Now is not the time to pull back from trade with Saudi Arabia

A law professor, Mr. Cotler is an elder statesmen and voice of conscience in the Liberal Party who has drawn acclaim for his work as counsel to prisoners of conscience worldwide, from South Africa's Nelson Mandela to Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky.

Meanwhile, at least one Western country – Sweden – appears poised to restrict or even end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a country regularly ranked among "the worst of the worst" on human rights by independent watchdog Freedom House. This comes on the heels of a non-binding resolution by the Dutch parliament last year to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia and censure by the European Parliament over the Saudis' bloody military intervention in Yemen.

As The Globe and Mail reported last week, the Saudis appear to have deployed combat machines made by Terradyne Armored Vehicles, based in Newmarket, Ont., in an escalating and deadly conflict with Shia militants in the Mideast country's Eastern Province. Military-equipment experts identify the vehicles, which feature armour cladding and weapons turrets, as Terradyne Gurkha RPVs.

After The Globe's report on Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "deeply concerned" and ordered an investigation into Saudi Arabia's conduct. "If it is found that Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights, the minister will take action," her department announced.

Last week marked the first time videos and photos have surfaced allegedly showing the Saudis wielding Canadian-made defence equipment against their own people. The House of Saud's apparent use of Canadian combat machines against its Shia population in eastern Saudi Arabia goes to the very heart of a long-running controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export-control rules. These 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 arms against its own population.

In Sweden, the government is preparing legislation for passage in 2018 that would curb arms sales to autocratic or non-democratic regimes – over the objections of major defence contractors such as Saab Group. The countries most likely to be affected by this include Saudi Arabia. The measure enjoys sizeable support among other Swedish political parties even though Sweden has ranked 12th in the world among arms exporters in recent years – just one spot ahead of Canada.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent conflict and armament think tank, said public sentiment has been building against arms sales to Saudi Arabia for years, in part owing to its poor treatment of women – a matter championed by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.

"It was already clear it would be difficult to allow further arms exports to Saudi Arabia and this criteria will arguably make it more difficult to allow such sales," Mr. Wezeman said. It remains to be seen how such rules are implemented, he added.

In Canada, opposition parties and human-rights groups are urging the Trudeau government to freeze arms exports to Saudi Arabia while it investigates what happened in Eastern Province – including shipments that are part of Canada's $15-billion sale of General Dynamics weaponized armoured vehicles to Riyadh. The former Harper government first struck the deal in 2014; after the Liberals came into power in 2015, then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion signed off on export permits to approve the shipment of the General Dynamics LAVs. Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent has called on the Liberals to terminate export permits if there is "hard evidence" these vehicles are being used against the Shia population.

Mr. Cotler say he will reserve comment on whether to freeze already-signed arms sales to the Saudis until Ms. Freeland finishes her investigation.