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Saudis defend human rights record over $15-billion arms deal with Canada

In this Thursday March 10, 2016 photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi King Salman, middle, watches military exercises code named North Thunder with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, right, and the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, left, in Hafr Al-Baten, Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

The government of Saudi Arabia is speaking out for the first time about the controversy surrounding a $15-billion arms deal with Canada, saying it will not accept outside criticism of its human rights record and pointing out that Riyadh could have easily purchased the armoured combat vehicles elsewhere.

In a statement, the Saudi embassy in Ottawa decried what it called "sensationalized and politicized" coverage of the deal brokered by the Canadian government. Ottawa is the prime contractor on a deal to supply the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is responsible for combatting internal threats, with London, Ont.-produced fighting machines that will be equipped with machine guns or anti-tank cannons.

The previous Conservative government, which inked the deal, and the current Liberal government, which refuses to suspend the shipments, have faced criticism for allowing Ottawa to act as an arms supplier to a country that is regularly rated among the "worst of the worst" by Freedom House when it comes to human rights.

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Two former Liberal cabinet ministers, Irwin Cotler and Lloyd Axworthy, have called on the government to reconsider the deal, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would hurt Canada's reputation if it annulled the contract. Ottawa retains the right to suspend exports of the machines but has not acted, even in the face of mass executions in January and accusations by a United Nations panel that the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen has been indiscriminately killing non-combatants through "widespread and systematic" bombing runs.

The Saudi embassy said it will not allow outsiders to dictate what happens inside Saudi Arabia. "The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not accept any interference in its jurisdiction or internal affairs by any party," it said in its statement.

The embassy said the idea that human rights should be universal – or adopted by all states worldwide – must not interfere with Islamic rules.

"The kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that call[s] for universality of human rights does not mean imposition of principles and values that go against our Islamic values and religion," it said.

It also made a point of noting that the Saudis could have bought their military goods elsewhere, saying it gave Canada the contract in an effort to strengthen ties. "Although Saudi Arabia had multiple options from different manufacturers, the contract was awarded to General Dynamics Land Systems to support the bilateral desire to increase trade between the two countries and promote the numerous advantages of deepening Saudi-Canada investment relationships," the embassy said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's chief spokesman said the Trudeau government had no comment on the Saudi statements.

The Riyadh statement comes after The Globe and Mail has repeatedly contacted the Saudi embassy as part of its extensive coverage of the $15-billion arms deal over the past 14 months.

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The arms supply contract will support 3,000 jobs in Canada for nearly 15 years – many of them in the London, Ont., area.

The embassy argued that sharia law – the Islamic legal system – in Saudi Arabia protects human rights and equality. "The kingdom … adheres to Islamic sharia (law), which calls for preserving and protecting human rights."

Saudi Arabia is among the biggest executioners in the world, often carrying out sentences carried out by beheading.

Women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities took harsh measures against women who defied this ban in 2015. The male guardianship system there means that women cannot obtain a passport, marry, travel or obtain higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or son.

Public practice of religion other than Islam is forbidden, as are challenges to Islam. Saudi writer Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after being convicted of blasphemy.

The Saudi embassy said Canadians are being fed misleading information. "The judiciary system in Saudi Arabia is independent, fair and transparent. It ensures equality and the right of litigation for all citizens and expatriates on its territory," the Saudis said.

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"We have tremendous respect for the judicial systems of other countries and we expect that other countries would respect ours."

A spokeswoman at the Saudi embassy said the ambassador was not available to comment on Friday.

The federal government refuses to explain to Canadians how the deal with Saudi Arabia is justified under Canada's arms export control regime, and in particular how rules that restrict shipments to countries with poor human rights records would allow this agreement to proceed.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of the anti-war group Project Ploughshares, which monitors the arms trade, said he found it odd that the Saudis made it seem "as if they were doing Canada a favour" with the contract and consider coverage of their human rights record as "sensational" media.

"It's hard to see how information on the January, 2016, mass execution by the Saudi regime – the worst in decades – or on the UN report highlighting widespread and systematic targeting of civilians by the Saudi coalition in Yemen could reasonably be considered misleading," Mr. Jaramillo said.

He said Canadians who hoped closer business ties with Riyadh might give Ottawa some leverage on human rights conduct with Saudi Arabia should be disappointed by the embassy's comments.

"The Saudi embassy has made it abundantly clear that any efforts in this regard will be deemed intolerable interference," Mr. Jaramillo said.

In opposition, the Liberals were frequent critics of the secrecy surrounding the deal and Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

In particular, Mr. Trudeau's top adviser, Gerald Butts, 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?" he wrote during the 2015 election campaign.

Mr. Butts, currently the Prime Minister's principal 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" while counting the Saudis among Canada's top allies.

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 that it would not renew a military co-operation deal with the Saudis worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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