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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a news conference at Rideau Cottage, in Ottawa, on May 13, 2020.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A coalition of human-rights groups has sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemning the government’s decision to resume the approval of permits for military exports to Saudi Arabia.

Amnesty International, Project Ploughshares, Oxfam and others accuse the Canadian government of breaching its own obligations under both domestic law and the global Arms Trade Treaty.

They say the rationale the government used to justify its policy reversal on Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the worst human-rights records, is deeply flawed.

Last month, in the midst of the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ottawa announced it was lifting a moratorium on the approval of new arms exports to Riyadh, a measure the government had imposed in the fall of 2018 after the Saudi-orchestrated murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and amid an escalating war the desert kingdom has been waging in neighbouring Yemen.

Canada’s single biggest military export to Saudi Arabia is light armoured vehicles (LAVs), many of which are equipped with machine guns or cannons – part of a $14-billion deal brokered by the Canadian government. The vehicles are assembled in London, Ont., by General Dynamics Land Systems, a subsidiary of a U.S. defence contractor.

When Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne made the April 9 announcement to resume the approval of export permits, he acknowledged this would help General Dynamics because the company would require extensions of export permits to complete the deal, a transaction he said was about 50 per cent complete.

To explain the lifting of the moratorium, Mr. Champagne said an internal review of arms exports to Saudi Arabia had concluded there was “no substantial risk” that current exports of military goods would be used by the Saudis to commit serious violations of human rights. The investigation by Global Affairs, the same department that is mandated to spur exports, concluded that arms shipments from Canada are actually benefiting the Gulf region.

“The Department assesses that, overall, Canadian exports of military goods and technology to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia contribute to regional peace and security,” the review said.

Amnesty and the other groups are calling this analysis weak. They said this “astonishing conclusion” of benefit "stands in direct contradiction“ to a United Nations report on Yemen last year that found “the continued supply of weapons to parties involved in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population” there.

Canadian-made LAVs have been filmed taking part in both cross-border battles between Saudi and Yemeni forces and domestic conflicts between Riyadh and militants in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading military operations against Houthi forces backed by Iran, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or injured.

The human-rights groups criticized what they characterized as the hypocrisy of the Canadian government for first announcing a resumption of approvals for military exports to Saudi Arabia and then, days later, backing a UN call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic.

“Canada cannot have it both ways,” they wrote. "There is a clear incoherence in supporting the U.N. Secretary-General’s call … while at the same time actively impeding that goal by continuing to arm a party to the deadly conflict in Yemen.”

Other signatories to the open letter include the Rideau Institute and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Under Canadian law, Ottawa must deny export permits “if there is a substantial risk that the export would result in a serious violation of human rights.”

In April, Mr. Champagne also announced that negotiations with Riyadh had secured a change in the $14-billion LAV deal ensuring that Ottawa’s “exposure to financial risk will be eliminated where future export permits are delayed or denied" if the Canadian government is ever forced to suspend, cancel or deny export permits because the LAVs are found to be used for reasons other than their defensive purpose.

Mr. Champagne denied that the timing of Ottawa’s pivot on the export permits was linked to the pandemic crisis or the volatility of oil prices, which was partly due to a feud between Moscow and Riyadh. He said he was merely informing Canadians about the developments because the Saudis had signed amendments to the LAV contract on March 31.

Ottawa also announced in April that it would create an advisory panel of experts to help strengthen Canada’s arms export approval process and would push for an international inspection regime for arms sales. Last September, Global Affairs warned the government that a moratorium on approving exports of this sort was further damaging depressed trade relations with the desert kingdom. In a Sept. 17 memo published on the department’s website, public servants told the government that while Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record “remains problematic,” with unlawful killings, forced disappearances and torture, Ottawa has no information or evidence linking Canadian military exports to unlawful conduct.

The same report also advised the government that 48 export permits were ready to be signed should the government lift its moratorium.

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