Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, a leading international champion of human rights, says he believes the Canadian government should reconsider its controversial $15-billion deal to sell combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

A law professor and human-rights lawyer, Mr. Cotler has drawn acclaim for his work as counsel to prisoners of conscience worldwide, from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Soviet-era dissident Natan Sharansky.

“My position as a matter of general principle – that would apply to Saudi Arabia – is that we should not sell arms to a country that engages in a persistent pattern of human-rights violations,” Mr. Cotler said in an interview.

He said Canada should re-examine the Saudi deal because the Liberals have committed to joining the global Arms Trade Treaty, which places additional obligations on signatories in terms of transparency and scrutinizing weapons exports. “If we are going to do that, then I think we have to revisit this particular sale to Saudi Arabia.”

Mr. Cotler said Ottawa must also consider developments, including, as The Globe and Mail reported last week, that Canadian-made fighting vehicles appear to have become embroiled in the Saudi-led fight with Houthi forces in neighbouring Yemen.

“There is evolving evidence that we’re seeing in terms of Yemen that [The Globe and Mail has] reported on,” he said. “I think that was not part of the original understandings about what was happening.”

He said Canada must also consider that combat vehicles could be used to quash domestic dissent in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where its oppressed Shia minority lives.

Amnesty International on Sunday called for countries to halt all weapons exports to combatants in the bloody conflict in Yemen, where the Saudis lead a coalition of Arab states to fight Houthi rebels aligned with Iran.

The Canadian government, through a Crown corporation set up to promote defence exports, is the prime contractor in the $15-billion deal to sell armoured combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia that was struck by the Harper government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have stood by the transaction, which supports 3,000 jobs across the country, saying cancelling it could hurt Canada’s reputation and incur financial penalties.

It will be difficult for the Liberals to ignore Mr. Cotler’s opinion.

Mr. Cotler was a Montreal MP for nearly 16 years before stepping down in 2015. He is the second elder statesman of the Liberal Party, after former Chrétien-era cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, to call on Ottawa to reconsider the arms deal.

When Mr. Cotler announced in 2014 that he would not run again, Mr. Trudeau said of him: “If I ever I needed verification or confirmation, particularly in the areas of [human] rights and international issues, I would turn to Irwin to see where his thinking is.”

This past weekend, Associated Press reported that a court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a man to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for Twitter posts in support of atheism. The man, who was not identified, is another case like that of writer Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.”

Polls suggest only a minority of Canadians support the $15-billion deal, which involves made-in Canada combat vehicles with machine guns or anti-tank cannons.

A new survey by the Angus Reid Institute found almost half, or 48 per cent of Canadians, think the decision to proceed with the Saudi arms deal is wrong. Only 19 per cent, or about one-fifth, say they consider it a good decision. One third of respondents were unsure. The online survey of 1,507 Canadians was conducted Feb. 2 to Feb. 5.

European Union lawmakers voted Feb. 25 in favour of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia by member countries, the most high-profile condemnation to date of Riyadh’s human-rights violations.

While not legally binding, the vote was nevertheless a moral censure of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and increases the stigma associated with arming a country that faces fresh accusations of indiscriminately bombing civilians in Yemen.

The Saudi coalition has been accused by a United Nations panel of crimes against humanity for what it called “widespread and systematic” air attacks on civilian targets in Yemen. In a report to the UN Security Council, the panel counted 119 coalition air sorties “relating to violations of international humanitarian law” and said “many attacks involved multiple air strikes on multiple civilian objects.”

Mr. Cotler, who is international legal counsel to Mr. Badawi, said he recently met with Mr. Trudeau to ask him to petition Saudi King Salman for the writer’s release.

Mr. Badawi’s wife and children were granted political asylum in Canada and live in Quebec.

Mr. Cotler said he told Mr. Trudeau the Saudis may be more inclined to release Mr. Badawi soon “with all the criticism the Saudis are getting now in terms of what they are doing in Yemen” as well as condemnation of mass executions in January, so they may “see this as being in their interest to release him.”

Mr. Cotler earlier this month helped found a Parliamentary caucus on human rights that includes MPs from the Liberal, Conservative, NDP and Green parties. One of the main objectives will be the defence of political prisoners.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016 10:15PM EST
Last updated Monday, Feb. 29, 2016 8:48AM EST