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Opinion Arms sale to Saudi Arabia lowers the bar on export controls

Cesar Jaramillo is program officer and incoming executive director (as of July 1) at Waterloo, Ont.-based Project Ploughshares.

By any modern standard, Saudi Arabia is a human-rights pariah. Yet the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation, has brokered a deal to supply $15-billion worth of Canadian-made armoured vehicles to the autocratic kingdom over the next decade, in what is by far the largest military export contract in Canada's history.

While key details surrounding the deal remain shrouded in secrecy, what is known so far raises troubling questions about the effective application, and ultimate worth, of Canada's export controls – which the government lauds as "some of the strongest in the world." If a country with Saudi Arabia's abysmal human-rights record is eligible to receive Canadian military goods, it is hard to fathom what sort of record a country would need to have in order to be deemed ineligible.

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Canada's export-control policy calls for a thorough human-rights assessment to be conducted before a permit can be issued for a military export deal. However, as The Globe and Mail has revealed, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development was unable to produce any human-rights reports for the year when the deal was announced (2014) or the year before. Further, even if the necessary assessments had been conducted for the Saudi deal, DFATD has said it would keep their contents from the Canadian public, citing "commercial confidentiality."

The lack of recent human-rights reports for Saudi Arabia is in line with findings by Project Ploughshares, which reported in February that the necessary export permits had not been issued at the time the deal was announced. Evidently, the announcement of the sale was made on the assumption that the export permits would eventually come through – a highly risky assumption for any reasonable observer, given what is known about the recipient nation.

The confidence evident in the announcement makes it hard to conceive that the export permits could actually be denied. This raises questions not only about the thoroughness of the vetting process, but also about the extent to which it is properly shielded from commercial and political interests. Critically, if the deal were found to contravene Canada's export-control safeguards after the official announcement, is there any realistic scenario under which it could actually be reversed?

To be sure, the bleakness of the human-rights situation in Saudi Arabia is hard to overstate. According to Freedom House – a Washington-based organization – the country is among the "worst of the worst" human-rights offenders in the world. Year after year, authoritative organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemn the consistent, systematic repression of the Saudi civilian population by the governing regime.

Beheadings are a routine occurrence, and there have been more than four per week on average so far this year (an October 2014 feature story in Newsweek was entitled "When It Comes To Beheadings, ISIS Has Nothing Over Saudi Arabia"). Posting online comments critical of the regime can result in the author being publicly flogged. Women cannot drive.

At the same time, Canada's export policy guidelines state that Canada "closely controls" military exports to governments with "a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Before export permits can be issued, the Canadian government must determine that "there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population".

Given Saudi Arabia's well-documented poor human-rights record, it is hard to see how there can be "no reasonable risk" that the Canadian-made military goods will be used against the civilian population. In fact, documentary evidence shows the Saudi government's proclivity to use force against civilians.

In March 2011, Saudi Arabia sent armoured vehicles to help quell civilian protests in neighbouring Bahrein. Several media outlets referred to reports of human-rights abuses in the crackdown on peaceful protesters, including Britain's Telegraph, which reported that the Saudi troops were in Bahrain to "crush" the protests. According to the Canadian government, however, they were there simply to guard buildings and "did not engage in suppression of peaceful protests."

Should an Arab Spring-type uprising occur in Saudi Arabia, there is little doubt that the Canadian armoured vehicles would be used to suppress the civilian population.

Canadian considerations of human rights seem to have been lost in the pursuit of the lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia. But it is precisely when there is a prospective deal with an oppressive regime that they become most relevant.

Oddly enough, one of the reasons that the Canadian government has given for not signing the historic international Arms Trade Treaty which came into force last December – unlike 130 signatories thus far, including all NATO members – is precisely that domestic export-control regulations are among the strongest in the world. Perhaps on paper they are. But the known facts, and pending questions, about the deal with Saudi Arabia paint an entirely different picture.

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