The Liberal government is refusing to make public a recently completed assessment of the state of human rights in Saudi Arabia even as it endures criticism for proceeding with a $15-billion deal to ship weaponized armoured vehicles to the Mideast country.
Saudi Arabia, notorious for its treatment of women, dissidents and offenders, became the focus of international condemnation this month over a mass execution of 47 people, including Shia Muslim cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, an exceptionally vocal critic of the ruling Al Saud family.
A country's human rights record is an important consideration in the arms export control process that determines whether Canadian-made weapons can be exported there. The Saudi deal was brokered by Ottawa, which also serves as the prime contractor in the transaction.
The buyer is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which protects the kingdom against internal threats. A major source of domestic unrest in the country is the eastern provinces and the Shia minority there that Sheik al-Nimr represented.
Federal arms export controls oblige Ottawa, in the case of export destinations with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens," to obtain assurances that the Saudis will not turn these light armoured vehicles (LAVs) against their own people. The rules say shipments cannot proceed "unless it can be demonstrated there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."
Amnesty International has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's new government to be transparent with Canadians and explain how this deal passes the arms export regime test. The manufacturer, General Dynamics Land Systems, of London, Ont., is in the "material procurement" phase of the contract rather than production.
But the government told The Globe and Mail that its latest analysis of the Saudis' recent human rights record is confidential. This study is the first assessment the department of Global Affairs has drawn up on Saudi Arabia in a number of years.
"A report on Saudi Arabia has been prepared for 2015 as part of the department's annual process of producing human rights reports on numerous countries. This document is intended for internal Government of Canada use only, and, as such, will not be made public," said François Lasalle, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada.
The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that, far from being "jeeps," as Mr. Trudeau described them during the election campaign, the armoured LAVs will be equipped with medium-calibre weapons and big-barrel guns capable of firing anti-tank missiles.
The Liberal government is also refusing to release any information on how Ottawa will justify the export of armoured vehicles under Canada's export control regime.
"For reasons of commercial confidentiality, Global Affairs Canada does not comment on specific export permit applications," Mr. Lasalle said.
Alex Neve, Amnesty International's secretary-general for Canada, said Ottawa's silence is troubling. "We're not looking for access to commercially sensitive information here. We want a human rights assessment: What is … the likelihood these weapons might directly or indirectly be used in a way that contributes to human rights violations?"
He said the U.S. State Department annually makes public its reports on all countries' human rights practices.
Amnesty, meanwhile, released a report on Thursday that says the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia "has steadily deteriorated" over the past year.
The advocacy group said Riyadh stepped up executions in 2015, killing at least 151 people that year alone – the highest annual toll in two decades.
"Despite the much-hailed participation of women in municipal elections last month, Saudi Arabia continued its sweeping crackdown on human rights activists," the organization said. "More and more human rights defenders are being sentenced to years in prison under Saudi Arabia's 2014 counter-terror law."
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion this week rejected calls to cancel or block the LAV deal, saying Canada's reputation would be hurt. The transaction will support 3,000 jobs in Canada for nearly 15 years – many of them in the London area.
In opposition, the Liberals were frequent critics of the secrecy surrounding this deal and Saudi Arabia's human rights record. In particular, Mr. Trudeau's top adviser, Gerald Butts, frequently used his Twitter account to attack Stephen Harper's Conservatives for their close ties to the Saudis, especially in the context of the $15-billion contract.
"Remind me, did Harper ever disclose the terms of his arms deal with Saudi Arabia?" Mr. Butts wrote during the 2015 election campaign.
Mr. Butts, currently the Prime Minister's principle secretary, at one point used his Twitter account to draw comparisons between the justice system in Saudi Arabia and under the Islamic State – and blaming the Saudis for the birth of the extremist group.
He criticized the Tories for trumpeting what they called their "principled foreign policy" but counting the Saudis among Canada's top allies.
"Don't make me remind you that Saudi Arabia is crucifying a boy for writing a blog," Mr. Butts wrote on Twitter last October in response to Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications to Mr. Harper.
In March, 2015, Mr. Butts applauded the Swedish government for denouncing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He posted a link to a story that included an account of how Sweden announced it would not renew a military co-operation deal with the Saudis worth hundreds of millions of dollars.