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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers a luncheon speech in Montreal, on June 20, 2018.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Human-rights and arms-control advocates are urging Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to order an arm’s length, independent review of the deployment of Canadian-made armoured vehicles in a Saudi Arabia residential area last year.

Amnesty International, Project Ploughshares and five other advocacy groups have written Ms. Freeland to convey their concerns that the internal probe her department conducted into the 2017 Saudi incidents was plagued by major shortcomings.

The report, a portion of which was made public this spring, said it could find no definitive evidence Canadian-made combat vehicles were used to commit human-rights violations and concluded that Saudi authorities used “proportionate and appropriate force” when they engaged in combat with local residents.

In a July 3 letter, the human-rights groups say flaws in the department report “undermine public confidence” in its analysis. They say the probe relies on sources that are far from independent, that it wrongly redefines the traditional test that should be applied to weapons exports and that it suffers from a bias that places exports ahead of human rights.

Ms. Freeland ordered the department investigation last summer after The Globe and Mail reported on videos and photos which had surfaced of Saudi forces using Canadian-made armoured vehicles against the population in Awamiyah, a minority Shia Muslim area in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

“An independent and external review of the use of Canadian-made Ghurka vehicles by Saudi security forces in the Eastern Province is necessary to thoroughly determine the facts of the case and reach a sound conclusion as to the level of risk involved in authorizing these export[s],” said the letter, whose signatories include Alex Neve, executive director of Amnesty International Canada, and Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an arms-control group.

The authors reminded Ms. Freeland of her comments to a disarmament conference in February, where she said Canadians are concerned about how arms can be used to perpetuate regional and international conflicts where civilians are killed or injured and that “we must be confident that our institutions are equipped to ensure we are not perpetuating these conflicts” and must “hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

A spokesman for Ms. Freeland defended the departmental report as “full and thorough” and said it was the “independent, objective opinion of our public service” that export permits for armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia could be reinstated after the probe.

Adam Austen noted the government is legislating changes to export controls that would require the Canadian government to refuse export permits for military goods that would violate international human rights, peace and security or assist in the commission of gender-based violence.

“We condemn all violations of human rights, and call for their strong protection both at home and abroad,” he said

For the first time, in July, 2017, video footage and photos surfaced on social media allegedly showing the Islamic kingdom using Canadian-made weaponized equipment against Saudi residents in the Al-Qatif region, which has long been described by experts as an area under lockdown. It’s a hotbed of opposition to the reigning House of Saud and the Saudis frequently cite terror threats when they go after the area’s militants.

The most recent conflict in the Eastern Province began to flare up in early 2017, when Saudi Arabia began to raze a minority Shia Muslim neighbourhood in al-Qatif. Riyadh said it wanted to redevelop the ancient neighbourhood of Al-Masora for health and safety reasons. Shia activists, however, said the Saudis wanted to eliminate a hideout for militants.

The departmental review of this matter relied on sources, Amnesty and the groups say, that are unnamed, redacted or far from independent. They point to a meeting cited in the report between the Canadian embassy in Riyadh and the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, where this group “did not express concerns about the conduction of the [Eastern Province] operation.” This group is reliant on Saudi royal family money and “hardly a credible source” on security matters and “should have been given very little weight,” the rights advocates say.

The human-rights advocates say the government’s emphasis on the fact that the probe had not found conclusive evidence redefines the traditional test that is supposed to be applied to weapons exports in a way that makes it easier for Ottawa to allow them.

Existing arms-export-control rules do not require conclusive evidence that Canadian weapons are being used to commit human-rights violations abroad. They put the onus on the Canadian government to restrict exports unless it can be demonstrated there is no reasonable risk the goods might be used against civilians.

The rights groups say Canada is supposed to demonstrate “there is no reasonable risk that goods might be used against the civilian population” rather than conduct after-the-fact reviews which raise the threshold of proof to finding evidence of wrongdoing before acting.

Amnesty International and the other groups say phrases in the report such as “despite its human rights record, Saudi Arabia remains an important partner for Canada” or “Canada … has an important and growing commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia” raise concerns about the objectivity and independence of the analysis. “When human lives are at risk, these should be secondary considerations,” they say.

Other signatories include Genevieve Paul, executive director of Amnesty Internationale Canada francophone; Julie Delahanty, executive director of Oxfam Canada; Denise Byrnes, executive director of Oxfam-Quebec; John Packer, director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa; Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute; Roy Culpeper, chair of the Group of 78; and Thomas Woodley, president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.