The Canadian government is refusing to say whether it obtained assurances that light armoured vehicles being sold to Saudi Arabia in a massive $15-billion deal would not be used against the Saudi people – a key guarantee required by federal export controls when arms are destined for countries with a “persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.”

This controversial 2014 agreement to ship made-in-Canada light armoured vehicles to the Mideast country is coming under increased scrutiny after much-publicized incidents of torture and mistreatment by Saudi authorities, including the videotaped beheading of a woman in Mecca this month and the flogging and jailing for blasphemy of a writer who has Canadian ties. Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam, has a wife and children who’ve been granted asylum in Canada.

The Harper government calls the export contract a major success, one that will sustain 3,000 advanced manufacturing jobs for the 14-year length of the deal as well as thousands of other jobs for suppliers across the country. Ottawa went to great lengths to make the transaction happen, taking on contractual obligations for the sale through a Crown corporation. It’s by far the largest export deal ever brokered by the government’s Canadian Commercial Corp. and the manufacturer is General Dynamics Land Systems Canada in London, Ont.

Critics say Canada should be more concerned about how these light armoured vehicles, often outfitted with weapons, will be used given Saudi Arabia’s terrible record on basic rights such as freedom of belief, of assembly and of association as well as the treatment of women and the administration of criminal justice.

“If you criticize the government you’re very likely to be jailed, investigated, convicted, [and] sentenced to some ludicrously long prison term, especially in the last few years since 2011 when the Saudis developed a paranoia about the emergence of any sort of domestic challenge or opposition,” Adam Coogle, a researcher with Human Rights Watch said.

Canada is developing stronger ties with the Saudis. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s department has made a get-together between him and Turki al-Faisal, a leading member of the Saudi royal family, a “Priority A” goal for his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show.

The Canadian government boasts that its export controls are among the strongest in the world and one of these federal rules obliges Ottawa to ensure it’s not helping countries with poor human-rights records oppress its own citizens.

The government is required to demonstrate “there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” before it approves applications for export permits to countries with persistent records of violating the rights of their citizens.

Ottawa, however, won’t say whether it has determined this to be the case with the light armoured vehicles (LAVs) heading to Saudi Arabia.

“For reasons of commercial confidentiality, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development does not comment on specific applications,” François Lasalle, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, said in an e-mail.

Much of the deal is shrouded in secrecy.

The Crown corporation brokering the deal refuses to say how many LAVs Canada will supply to Saudi Arabia, citing a confidentiality clause in the deal, although Ken Epps, with Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group, estimates it’s hundreds, if not thousands. Ottawa also won’t say whether Canada is installing weapons on the LAVs before they’re shipped, again citing confidentiality.

Mr. Epps, who tracks arms shipments as part of his work, said he does not believe Ottawa could have assured itself the LAVs wouldn’t be used against Saudi civilians before approving the transaction.

“The sole remaining conclusion is that the Canadian government deliberately ignored its own guidelines to allow this unprecedented military sale to proceed,” Mr. Epps said.

Max Moncaster, spokesman for International Trade Minister Ed Fast, noted that Canada’s history of supplying LAVs to the Saudis dates back decades, to at least 1993.

He said Canada always ensures that exports of controlled goods such as arms are “consistent with Canada’s foreign and defence policies.”

Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, points to how the Saudis have used armoured vehicles in the past. “[They] are known to use armoured vehicles and other weapons in dispersing peaceful protest, such as the role that Saudi security forces played in helping crush popular protests in Bahrain during the Arab Spring,” he said.

“The government should release the details of the assessment it made in support of the decision to authorize this sale and explain why they are confident these armoured vehicles will not be used to violate human rights,” Mr. Neve said.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, who said his party has opposed the LAV deal from the start, called on the Harper government to release its deliberations regarding the sale. “What are they hiding here? When you’re dealing with countries with questionable human rights records, you need to have absolute accountability and transparency.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jan. 21 2015, 5:00 AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Jan. 21 2015, 5:25 AM EST