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editorial

The new upgraded Light Armoured Vehicle is unveiled at a news conference at a General Dynamics facility in London, Ont., on January 24, 2012.Mark Spowart/The Canadian Press

The Saudi arms deal, and the Liberal government's handling of it, keeps looking worse.

After inheriting from the Harper Conservatives the $15-billion sale of light-armoured vehicles, the Trudeau government did the necessary thing, and vowed to carry through with the contract.

A deal is a deal, after all, argued the government. Canada can't be a reliable global partner if a new government tears up the sales agreements of the previous one. And there were hundreds of jobs at stake in the Ontario factory where the LAVs will be built.

But it was a controversial deal, one that drew more criticism in January when the Saudis executed 47 "terrorists" – another word for dissidents. The mass killing refocused Canadians' attention on the country's toxic human rights ecology.

Ottawa pressed on, though. A confidential Liberal government review of the deal, released in response to a lawsuit, argued that Saudi Arabia was a key Canadian ally in the region, a partner in the fight against terrorism and a bulwark against an expansionist Iran. Those realpolitik arguments, along with the threat to Canadian jobs, Canada's reputation and the benefits of Canada currently hosting thousands of Saudi university students, were used by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion to justify the export permits.

Now The Globe has published solid evidence that the Saudis have on at least two occasions used LAVs to control and kill dissidents inside its borders. Not Canadian-built LAVs, mind you, but similar vehicles made in other countries.

Ottawa is now in a bigger bind than ever. Its assurances that the Canadian weaponry will not be used against Saudi citizens are in doubt. Also in doubt is Ottawa's ability to monitor what is happening inside Saudi Arabia, as it appears officials were unaware of the incidents uncovered by The Globe.

Can Ottawa reverse itself now? Not easily. Cancelling the deal could be costly and hurt relations with a Mideast ally. Plus, while there are concerns about how the LAVs will be used, there is no smoking gun, so to speak. But that isn't the criterion Ottawa has to clear: It has to believe there is no reasonable prospect Canadian weapons will be used to harm Saudi citizens. In light of the Saudi record and the new videos, how reasonable is that belief?

The Trudeau government has lost credibility on this issue. It promised a foreign policy with human rights at its centre, but it can only continue to back the Saudi deal by ignoring human rights. It inherited a tricky file, and has made a mess of it.