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Politics Majority of Canadians oppose selling military goods to countries with poor human rights records: poll

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Majority of Canadians oppose selling military goods to countries with poor human rights records: poll

A strong majority of Canadians object to this country's sale of military goods to Saudi Arabia, China and Algeria, three countries with poor human-rights records that currently rank among the top 10 buyers of defence and security gear from Canada.

A new poll by Nanos Research also shows nine in 10 Canadians want the Trudeau government to reveal how it ruled on an application to export military items to Thailand, a country ruled by a military junta since 2014. The Liberals refuse to divulge whether they approved this deal.

The survey conducted for The Globe and Mail reveals significant discomfort among Canadians regarding sending defence and security equipment to Saudi Arabia, China and Algeria, countries that all rank poorly in ratings by the U.S. watchdog Freedom House, with Saudi Arabia regularly slotted among the "worst of the worst" on human rights.

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The poll found that a total of 73 per cent of respondents had some degree of opposition to the sale of Canadian military goods to Saudi Arabia; 59 per cent said they were opposed to it and 14 per cent said they were somewhat opposed.

Riyadh is now Canada's biggest overseas arms buyer thanks to a $15-billion deal to sell weaponized armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a transaction documented in a Globe investigation over the past 18 months.

Arms shipments to Algeria and China also prompted opposition: Approximately three-quarters of Canadians oppose sending military goods to these countries, the poll found.

The opposition to these deals comes despite Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion's insistence that he does not believe the Liberals have a mandate to restrict arms sales to undemocratic countries – a statement he made to The Globe and Mail this spring.

The federal Liberal government refuses to disclose its deliberations on a significant military-goods sale with Thailand this year but has acknowledged it was a sufficiently serious matter in which Mr. Dion was asked to intervene in early 2016. It was only the second time since he took the job in November that the Foreign Minister has personally rendered a "ministerial decision" on an export permit. The other was the controversial move in April to green-light export permits for the sale of the combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Eighty-eight per cent of Canadians want the Liberals to divulge how Mr. Dion ruled on Thailand, the Nanos poll says. Sixty-six per cent said it is important and 22 per cent said it is somewhat important "that the decisions regarding exports to Thailand should be made public."

The Liberals say they cannot tell Canadians whether Ottawa approved or denied export permits for the shipment of defence and security equipment to Thailand because it would harm the commercial interests of the company, or companies, involved.

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Pollster Nik Nanos said he doesn't think Canadians think of themselves as military-goods dealers.

"The iconic self-image of Canadians is wearing the United Nations blue [peacekeeper] helmet, which is the antithesis of selling arms to countries with poor human-rights records," he said.

"Canadians would expect that whatever policy we have on human rights would extend to how we conduct ourselves in relation to the selling of military goods," he said. "Canadians aren't experts in what the rules are, but they would expect a particular policy from the federal government to make sure that's compatible with what Canadians expect."

Saudi Arabia, Algeria and China are among the top 10 destinations for Canadian military goods, according to a Department of Global Affairs report for 2015 released last month.

The Nanos survey was conducted June 28 to June 30; it was a telephone and online poll of 1,000 Canadians. The margin of error for a random survey of 1,000 people is 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The Liberals have stood by the $15-billion armoured-vehicle deal with Riyadh even though just two months before the 2015 election, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was quoted in the media as saying Canada should "stop arm sales to regimes that flout democracy such as Saudi Arabia." One week before the election, leading in the polls, Mr. Trudeau appeared to have changed his mind when he announced the Liberals back the contract.

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There's a noticeable gender gap in Canadian public opinion on arms sales, Mr. Nanos said. "Even though it's still a minority opinion, men are much more likely to support possible sales of military goods to these countries that do not have good human-rights records, but women are significantly turned off [by] … selling arms to countries with weak human-rights records."

In the case of Saudi Arabia, for instance, where woman are treated poorly, nearly 79 per cent of women respondents opposed arms sales – a 12-percentage-point lead over male respondents.

Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, who once served as Canada's UN ambassador for disarmament, said she thinks Canadians want to see an end to military sales to countries with poor human-rights records, saying people voted in the 2015 election for a "less militaristic" approach in Ottawa when they put the Trudeau Liberals in office.

"Canadians will be very concerned and wondering if providing weapons to despots doesn't fly in the face of Canada working constructively for international peace and security," she said.

Mr. Dion, however, said in April that the Liberals don't believe they have a mandate to restrict arms exports to a limited number of countries, such as only democracies. "If the view of Canadians would be that we should not sell weapons to countries that are not democracies … it is an issue for an election.… Because there are a lot of consequences to that," he told The Globe, noting that 70,000 Canadians work in defence- and security-related jobs and the industry is a boon for research and development here.


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