Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fears that if Canada cuts off a sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, it could lead to a penalty of a billion dollars. Or billions of dollars. Lots of money, anyway. There’s no way for Canadians to know how much. Apparently the Prime Minister is not at liberty to say.
Conservative MP Ed Fast, meanwhile, insists his party is not to blame because Saudi Arabia was a very different country in 2014, when a Conservative government signed the contract, the details of which cannot be revealed.
But there is plenty of blame to go around. And the blame should start with the secrecy.
No government has any business signing secret arms deals – the kind that make it impossible for Canadians to know the details and judge the ethics of such deals.
That was true in 2014 – and it is true now. The government should pass legislation to make sure it can’t happen again.
The light armoured vehicle sale has been controversial from the beginning, but Saudi actions have made it more so: crackdowns on the kingdom’s Shia minority, the horrific war in Yemen and, most recently, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The LAVs going to Saudi Arabia are being built in London, Ont., by General Dynamics Land Systems – Canada, but they’re sold through a little-known Crown corporation called the Canadian Commercial Corporation. It’s Canada’s public-sector sales agency and, in practice, the government arms dealer. A lot of its business involves bidding for U.S. military contracts on behalf of Canadian firms.
In the Saudi deal, the CCC was able to sign a contract that apparently bound the government even before the exports had been reviewed under Canada’s arms-control regime. It appears that also made the next government subject to penalties if it cancelled the exports.
Mr. Fast, who was international trade minister when the contract was signed in 2014, argues the Tories aren’t to blame. The contract was signed before the war in Yemen began and long before Mr. Khashoggi was killed. The Liberals, he noted, issued the export permits for the LAV sale in 2016.
There’s truth in his claim that Saudi Arabia has changed. The kingdom has long had a poor human-rights record, but became a lot more reckless after King Salman ascended to the throne, in 2015, and his favourite son, Mohammed bin Salman, started his rise to become the country’s de facto ruler.
But the Conservative government should never have allowed the CCC to sign a secret contract that wasn’t conditional on approval of export permits.
The arms-control regime is supposed to analyze the risk that weapons sold by Canada will be misused, turned against civilians or employed in human-rights violations.
The Liberal government was willfully blind to the risks in Saudi Arabia when it reviewed the case. But the Conservatives committed to fulfill the deal even before it was reviewed for export permits. As The Globe and Mail reported in 2016, government records indicate that prime minister Stephen Harper personally provided Canada’s guarantee that the contract would be fulfilled in letters to King Abdullah, King Salman’s predecessor.
The contract apparently contains provisions for massive penalties if Canada doesn’t deliver and, it would seem, no escape clause.
Of course, we don’t know that for sure. The contract is secret. It’s so secret the government never revealed descriptions of the weapons telling us what purpose they serve. Are they troop carriers or assault vehicles? Are they fitted with big guns? Which branch of the Saudi security services uses them? Most of the details that have come to light were unearthed by reporters, not public disclosure.
The Saudis wanted that kind of contract and they might not have bought Canadian equipment if they couldn’t do it in a shroud of secrecy. But transparency has to be the bare minimum for arms deals: reporting that allows Canadians to see what is sold, to whom and with what conditions. No government should claim the right to keep those things secret.