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The Globe and Mail

Despite ruling, many questions on Saudi arms deal linger

Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group that tracks arms sales

Two prime ministers and four ministers of foreign affairs later, Canada is still set to ship $15-billion of military equipment to human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia. This in spite of well-documented red flags and numerous unanswered questions about the process by which the deal cleared Canada's military export controls.

And notwithstanding yesterday's Federal Court rejection of a bid to stop the sale, major concerns remain not only about the compatibility of this deal with arms-control regulations but, just as critically, about Canada's commitment to the protection of human rights internationally.

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From Stephen Harper to Justin Trudeau, from John Baird (to Rob Nicholson to Stéphane Dion) to Chrystia Freeland, Ottawa seems determined to proceed with this dubious deal no matter what. But we have yet to hear a single compelling argument that reconciles the authorization of the deal with the human-rights safeguards of our export controls system, which should prohibit such exports when there is a "reasonable risk" that they might be used against civilians.

Organizations that track human rights internationally warn of a worsening human-rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Global Affairs Canada's own 2015 human rights report on the Kingdom, the most recent to date, paints a grim picture. Documentary evidence appears to show armoured vehicles like the ones in this contract being used against Saudi civilians. A leaked report of a United Nations-mandated panel has denounced "widespread and systematic" attacks on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition in neighbouring Yemen.

Yet Ottawa still refuses to acknowledge a reasonable risk of misuse.

Whatever the Federal Court ruling, observers in Canada and abroad will be attentively watching Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's handling of this file. And as Canada prepares to finally join the international arms trade treaty, questions about the Saudi arms deal – arguably the precise type of deal that the ATT was designed to prevent – will become more pressing.

Here are some key concerns:

1. Will Global Affairs under Minister Freeland continue, incorrectly, to view evidence of prior misuse as the key requirement from a human-rights perspective in denying or retracting an export permit?

A statement by former foreign minister Stephane Dion's office said: "If the equipment is abused, the permits are pulled." This misses the point. The threshold that should trigger the human-rights safeguards of Canada's military export controls is "reasonable risk" of misuse, not evidence that abuse has already occurred.

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2. How long has Canada been "on the hook"?

The Liberal government claims that it is simply honouring a deal signed by the Harper Conservatives and that it is too late to turn back. But we know that the requisite export permits were issued by the current government. At least in theory, the outcome of a rigorous and objective assessment for this export permit application could not have been known when the contract was signed.

So why does the current government insist that it must fulfill an inherited arrangement in which key processes had not yet taken place? Exactly when did the deal become irreversible?

3. Will Ottawa continue to obstruct efforts to achieve greater scrutiny, transparency and accountability around the military-export controls process?

During 2016, the Liberal majority in the Standing House Committee on Foreign Affairs blocked two specific proposals for Parliamentary oversight of arms exports. The first would have created a Subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to examine current practices.

The second, more ambitious, would have set up a permanent House Committee on Arms Exports. The government claimed that the arms industry in Canada was already sufficiently well-regulated.

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Last July, Ottawa quietly watered down key wording in its latest Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada that described the screening process for military export controls. Among other changes, it removed a phrase indicating that Canadian military export controls are intended to "regulate and impose certain restrictions on exports." The new goal is to balance the national interest with "the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business."

No one disputes the legitimate need – and responsibility – of every government to pursue economic growth. Nor are strategic considerations involving Canada's global interests irrelevant. But the sale of military equipment to a known human-rights violator must bring to the fore fundamental questions about Canada's role in the world, the rigour of its export controls system and its very character as a nation.

A line in the sand must be drawn. One based on the protection of human rights is both defensible and legitimate. Canada must decide whether it wants to be even indirectly complicit in the violation of human rights, whatever the real or perceived benefits in other realms.

Ottawa can still set a precedent by re-examining the Saudi arms deal. For both Prime Minister Trudeau and Foreign Minister Freeland, their handling of this file could help cement their legacy. Or, it could just be business as usual.

Video: Footage appears to show Saudi authorities using light armoured vehicles against civilians (Globe and Mail Update)
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