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Canada’s $15-billion Saudi arms deal violates export rules, lawsuit argues

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2016. When worry wakes Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion in the middle of the night, one topic is the main culprit: concern over the safety of Canada's diplomats abroad. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion is acting illegally by issuing permits to allow the export of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a lawsuit filed in Federal Court on Monday alleges.

Opponents of Canada's $15-billion arms deal with the Saudis are taking the Trudeau government to court in an attempt to block shipments of the fighting vehicles to Riyadh.

A group led by Daniel Turp, a professor of international and constitutional law at the University of Montreal, filed a notice of application for judicial review on Monday.

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The Liberals have repeatedly refused to cancel the contract, but Dr. Turp argues this isn't about whether a deal should be abrogated. According to Dr. Turp, the question at hand is whether the Liberals are fulfilling their legal obligations to properly implement Canadian restrictions on weapons exports – both under Canadian export rules and the Geneva Conventions Act.

He says Mr. Dion's responsibility to carefully police exports of arms to countries with poor human-rights records isn't extinguished simply because Ottawa doesn't want to cancel a business deal.

The legal action may force the Liberals to explain how they justify these exports to a human-rights pariah despite Canadian rules that place restrictions on weapons shipments to countries where civilians are abused or where conflict is taking place.

"Saudi Arabia is a country ruled by a dictatorship supported by a powerful army," the Turp application says. "Saudi Arabia is … a state which consistently, severely and systematically violates its citizens' human rights."

Dr. Turp has taken Ottawa to court before, including in 2012, when he challenged the Harper government's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

The Canadian government is the prime contractor in a deal to supply the Saudi monarchy with $15-billion of armoured vehicles that will be equipped with machine guns or anti-tank weapons. The manufacturer, supporting 3,000 jobs in Canada, is General Dynamics Land Systems Canada in London, Ont.

"The armoured vehicles to be delivered by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada to Saudi Arabia may be used against the civilian population and therefore, the issuance of export permits … would not respect the guidelines Canada imposed on itself and would be contrary to the Geneva Conventions Act," Dr. Turp's application says. "For those reasons, issuing those permits would be illegal."

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The Trudeau government did not immediately respond when asked for comment. A spokesman for Mr. Dion left it to bureaucrats at Global Affairs Canada to answer the media query.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stood by the massive contract, which was signed by the former Harper government, saying Canada's reputation as a fair dealer would be injured if Ottawa walked away from a signed deal. Mr. Dion has also warned that abrogating the deal could incur big financial penalties for Ottawa – however, he refuses to elaborate on the size of the liability Canada would face.

Dr. Turp, supported by students at the University of Montreal and Montreal law firm Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, argues Mr. Dion's responsibility to properly police arms exports is unaffected by who signed the deal or what legal consequences might follow from blocked shipments.

The former Bloc Québécois MP, who later served as a Parti Québécois MNA, said he finds it hard to believe Mr. Dion, once a professor at the University of Montreal himself, really believes the Saudi deal is appropriate.

Mr. Dion, as Foreign Minister, is responsible for signing export permits to allow the light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to leave Canada for Saudi Arabia. Dr. Turp said the guidelines followed by cabinet stipulate that "Canada will not allow the export of military equipment to countries whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of human rights of their citizens – unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

Dr. Turp's legal action argues it is impossible for the Saudis to guarantee they won't use armoured vehicles against civilians.

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The war Saudi Arabia is currently waging in neighbouring Yemen has already drawn serious accusations of human-rights violations from a United Nations panel. A UN report earlier this year blamed the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen for "widespread and systematic" air-strike attacks on civilian targets.

The Globe and Mail reported last month that Canadian-made armoured vehicles manufactured by General Dynamics appear to be embroiled in Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen– caught up in cross-border hostilities.

The Saudi Arabian National Guard, a buyer of many Canadian-made LAVs in the past decade, has published photos on its official Twitter account showing how, in late 2015, it moved columns of combat vehicles to Najran, a southwestern Saudi town near the border with Yemen that is in the thick of the conflict.

A significant number of vehicles in these photos have the triangular front corners, the eight wheels and the headlamps fixed above these triangles that are familiar features in earlier LAV models made in Canada.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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