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Opinion Saudi arms sale: Still time to reverse a terrible mistake

Justin Trudeau has once again insisted that Canada will honour its $15-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia – notwithstanding that the sale now violates Canadian as well as international law.

The Prime Minister has made a terrible mistake. Resolve in the face of adversity can sometimes amount to leadership, but in this case it damages rather than enhances Canada's reputation. Mr. Trudeau's stubbornness could even cost Canada a seat on the UN Security Council.

International human rights exist because more countries care about these rights than do not. The UN Charter was accepted by 193 countries because of their resolve to "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."

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The Universal Declaration on Human Rights spells out these rights – and the concurrent obligations of government – in much greater detail. Its provisions have been accepted as customary international law because most countries respect them.

The Geneva Conventions were negotiated by leaders who were intent on preventing unnecessary suffering in armed conflicts. The Convention Against Torture was adopted in collective revulsion at the behaviour of autocratic regimes, such as Augusto Pinochet's Chilean junta, toward their citizens.

Canada used to stand tall for human rights. Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize because he devised a new mechanism – UN Peacekeeping – for preventing death and suffering. Lloyd Axworthy built on that reputation by leading the push for an international landmine treaty as well as creation of the International Criminal Court.

Now, Mr. Trudeau must decide to whom he wishes to "keep Canada's word." For keeping this country's word to Saudi Arabia entails breaking our word to humanity.

Fortunately, there is still time for a rethink. Mr. Trudeau must re-evaluate his position in light of several game-changing developments that have occurred since he became Prime Minister.

First, there was a UN report, delivered to the Security Council in February, that found that Saudi forces in Yemen were targeting civilians. Taking risks with civilian lives is a crime against humanity. Supplying arms to a country that commits such crimes is a breach of international law. Mr. Trudeau could, and should, have walked away from the Saudi arms deal then – and could have done so without penalty.

Instead, he stubbornly pressed ahead. He allowed his Foreign Minister to mislead Parliament about the status of agreement with Saudi Arabia. Appearing before a Senate committee, Stéphane Dion stated: "The government doesn't approve this contract. The government simply refuses to terminate a contract that has already been approved by the former government. … This is an important difference."

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But then, in April, Mr. Dion approved the export permits that were necessary for the arms deal to take effect. It was a cynical move, designed to avoid judicial intervention in the sale. It also put the lie to Mr. Dion's and Mr. Trudeau's assertions that the deal was irreversible because everything had been completed while the Conservatives were in power.

Canada's export-control laws clearly prohibit the government from issuing export permits for weapons sales to countries with poor human rights records, "unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

Tuesday's release of videos showing Saudi forces using armoured vehicles – and their weapons – against civilian protesters demonstrates that Mr. Dion appears to have broken the law in signing those permits. Although the vehicles were not Canadian-made, their use confirmed the willingness of the Saudi government to deploy such weapons against its citizens.

Countries around the world are watching this scandal unfold. Autocratic regimes might applaud Mr. Trudeau for choosing a commercial contract over fundamental human rights. But across Europe, Latin America, Africa and the many Pacific Ocean island states, far more governments are shaking their heads in disappointment.

There is now only one way to save Canada's reputation. The export permits must be rescinded. And Mr. Dion, having lost all credibility at home and abroad, must resign.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

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