In The Media

Five reasons to kill the Saudi arms deal

by Tony Burman (feat. Jocelyn Coulon)

The Star
April 2, 2016

So “Canada is back,” is it? Who says so? And who is advising this new Trudeau government on foreign policy? Then again, isn’t that Stephen Harper I see slipping furtively in through Parliament’s side door?

In spite of increasing criticism both at home and abroad, Canada seems determined to go ahead with the largest arms export contract in the country’s history, to Saudi Arabia, one of the worst human rights violators in the world.

Once again, we see the triumph of profit over human rights, and pragmatism over principle. I thought those days were over. Didn’t Canadians vote last October to get rid of Harper in an effort to open a new chapter for Canada’s role in the world?

At issue is a controversial 14-year, $15-billion arms contract with Saudi Arabia, a deal brokered by the former Conservative government and supported by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion says it is in the country’s interests to go ahead with the deal.

Here are five reasons why Dion and Trudeau are wrong:

1. Canadians oppose it

The view of Canadians on this issue is rarely mentioned but it should be. In a poll taken in February by the Angus Reid Institute, 48 per cent of Canadians said the government’s determination to go ahead with the deal was a “bad decision.” Fewer than one-in-five (19 per cent) supported it. The view extended across party lines. Even among those who voted for Conservatives in the 2015 election, the majority opposed the deal. Also striking in the poll was the hostility among Canadians toward Saudi Arabia. More than half of Canadians say that the Saudi government should be condemned rather than respected.

2. Canada is being bought off

Perhaps the sharpest criticism of the deal has come from a man who now works in Dion’s office. Jocelyn Coulon wrote a column for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper a few weeks before joining Dion’s staff. He wrote that Western countries stifled their criticism of Saudi Arabia because of money: “For a long time now, Saudi Arabia has bought the silence of Westerners with its juicy civilian and military contracts.” He wrote that the Saudis purchase billions of dollars of “unnecessary armaments” from Western manufacturers, but “its armies barely know how to use them.”

3. Saudi Arabia is an awful regime

The Washington-based Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia as among the “worst of the worst” human rights violators in the world. The Saudi regime receives similar condemnations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Freedom of speech, freedom of association and academic freedom are restricted. And its treatment of women is regarded as the worst in the world.

4. Canadian arms are undoubtedly killing innocent people

Canada claims not to know whether any of the armoured vehicles already sent to Saudi Arabia have been used against civilians. There is also no indication that Canada has made much effort to find out. In 2011, Saudi troops — with armoured vehicles — were sent to neighbouring Bahrain to crush the popular protests. More recently, Saudi Arabia’s violent efforts in the war in Yemen have been devastating, with more than 6,000 people already dead. Reports from the war suggest that Canadian-made vehicles are being used by the Saudi army.

5. Canada’s arguments have no moral core

Dion said in a speech this week that cancelling the Saudi deal would have no effect on human rights. The Saudis would simply go elsewhere for their arms. Louise Arbour, former UN high commissioner for human rights, was in the audience for the speech. She correctly told reporters that Dion’s point was “the weakest argument” he could make: “It is not infused with moral, ethical values.”

Another influential critic is former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler. An acclaimed law professor and human rights lawyer, Cotler has stated that Canada should not sell arms to a country with such a pattern of human rights violations.

In the face of all this criticism, how can long the Liberals cling to their position?

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