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weapons trade

The Trudeau Liberals are refusing to cancel a contract to provide weaponized amoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard on the ground that it’s a done deal.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The federal government cannot tell Canadians how many applications to export weapons and military technology have been rejected in the past 10 years.

Critics say this lack of transparency underlines the murkiness of Canada's arms-export control regime – a watchdog role coming under increased scrutiny as controversy grows over a $15-billion sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia that was brokered and backed by Ottawa.

They also charge that Ottawa's Department of Global Affairs is plagued by a fundamental conflict of interest on weapons sales because it is mandated to promote international trade but is also entrusted with policing the export of weapons.

"There is an inherent contradiction within Global Affairs," Ken Epps with Project Ploughshares said. "It suggests it's time to take export controls from this department and move it elsewhere." Project Ploughshares is an anti-war group based in Waterloo, Ont., that tracks arms sales.

Justin Trudeau's government is coming under growing pressure to explain how it justifies the shipment of weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its abysmal treatment of women, dissidents and prisoners. The London, Ont., manufacturer of the combat vehicles is only in the material-procurement stage of the contract and it appears Ottawa hasn't even issued an export permit yet for the machines.

The Liberal government's defence of this contract, which will support 3,000 jobs in Canada over 14 years, raises the question of how often the Canadian government actually turns down applications to ship arms abroad – or whether it does at all.

The Department of Global Affairs said it cannot answer the question. "Export permit data is not compiled in this fashion. This information is not readily available," Diana Khaddaj, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's department says.

While the government won't tell Canadians how many requests to export weapons are rejected, it is more forthcoming on less-deadly commodities. A 2013 report that covers other goods said that year Ottawa turned down 87 applications to send abroad peanut butter, sugar-containing products and refined sugar.

Ottawa's reporting on the export of military goods has become more sporadic. Prior to 2003, Canada's reports were annual and published in a more timely manner, typically within 15 months of the end of the year. More recently Ottawa has published reports only every two or three years. The most recent one available is three years old.

"They clearly don't feel there's a need to be accountable and it exposes the problem with the way the export regime is set up," Mr. Epps said.

The Trudeau Liberals have refused to cancel a controversial contract to provide hundreds, if not thousands, of weaponized amoured combat vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard on the grounds that it would injure Canada's reputation to renege on what they characterize as a done deal.

The Liberals also decline to release internal assessments that are supposed to be conducted by Global Affairs on whether this transaction would violate Canadian arms export rules.

Canadian export-control rules are supposed to restrict shipments to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens."

Chrétien-era foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, an elder statesmen of the Liberal Party, has called on Mr. Trudeau's government to reconsider and review the Saudi deal.

The Liberals have vowed to commit Canada to the global Arms Trade Treaty, which would place new obligations on this country with respect to weapons exports.

But the Department of Global Affairs says the treaty will place no obligations on the government with respect to this $15-billion transaction, even though it is still in its early stages, because Ottawa is not ready to sign on the United Nations accord yet.

"The Arms Trade Treaty does not apply to the specific contract as Canada is not yet a state party to the Arms Trade Treaty," Global Affairs spokesman François Lasalle says.

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