Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion vows to tighten rules on arms sales to countries with shaky human-rights records, promising a more rigorous export regime than the one that allowed a $15-billion sale of weaponized vehicles to Saudi Arabia under the previous government.

Mr. Dion made his comments in the wake of a growing backlash on military sales to Saudi Arabia, which is accused of widespread human-rights violations and indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen.

“What Canada must do, and we will do it with more rigour than ever before – we will have things to announce on this matter – is ensuring that the equipment that we sell is not misused,” Mr. Dion told reporters during a visit to the United Nations.

Also in New York, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his decision not to cancel the sale to Saudi Arabia, saying he needs to preserve the sanctity of government-approved contracts.

“Canada is a country of the rule of law, a country of democratically elected government, and regardless of how we may feel about a previous government, the fact is they were democratically elected. They signed on to a contract and we are bound to respect that contract,” Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference.

He said his government will handle future arms sales with a different approach from the previous Conservative government.

“The decisions taken in the past, we will not overturn. But moving forward, we are committed to the kind of openness, transparency and rigour that, quite frankly, Canadians voted for in the last election,” he said.

The offices of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Dion declined to provide further details on Mr. Dion’s promise of a future announcement on the matter.

Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, rejected the notion the Liberal government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth after having undone a number of policies and laws adopted by the previous government. In a statement on Twitter, Mr. Butts said the Liberal Party had promised before the election to amend anti-terror laws and change the Canadian Forces mission in Iraq and Syria, but that it had “also campaigned on respecting the Saudi contract.”

Some experts feel current controls on arms exports are sufficient to block deals involving countries that do not respect human rights, by banning sales of weapons that could be used against civilian populations.

“Existing norms are already sufficiently clear, and there are no needs to go out of our way to be creative,” said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares. “The purpose of these rules is precisely to ensure that Canadian-made goods are not misused.”

He added that the Saudi purchase of weaponized light armoured vehicles (LAVs) could still be blocked as future export permits will need to be authorized to fulfill the contract, which is still in its early stages.

“A good chunk of this deal will entail future permits. It is not all in the past,” Mr. Jaramillo said.

Last month, European Union legislators voted in favour of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. While not legally binding on member states, the European Parliament vote was a moral censure of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and increased the stigma associated with shipping arms to the country.

On Tuesday, the Dutch parliament adopted a motion calling on the country’s government to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

A United Nations panel has found that the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen has been indiscriminately killing noncombatants through “widespread and systematic” bombing runs, and Saudi Arabia is regularly rated among the “worst of the worst” by Freedom House when it comes to human rights.

The former Conservative government used its diplomatic resources to lobby the Saudis hard for this contract, and Ottawa is fronting the deal on behalf of General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, a Canadian subsidiary of a major U.S. defence contractor.

The deal will support 3,000 Canadian jobs over 14 years, in London, Ont., where the vehicles are assembled, as well as across the country.

Last week, the government of Saudi Arabia spoke out for the first time about the controversy surrounding the $15-billion arms deal, saying it will not accept outside criticism of its human-rights record.

In a statement, the Saudi embassy in Ottawa decried what it called “sensationalized and politicized” coverage of the deal brokered by the Canadian government.

The embassy said the idea that human rights should be universal – or adopted by all states worldwide – must not interfere with Islamic rules. “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia believes that call[s] for universality of human rights does not mean imposition of principles and values that go against our Islamic values and religion,” it said.

OTTAWA and NEW YORK — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2016 12:56PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2016 9:59PM EDT