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After Saudi video, Canada has a choice to make on human rights

The government of Justin Trudeau has played it both ways on foreign policy, speaking grandly about human rights while chasing economic opportunities with autocratic regimes. But now, with videos apparently showing Canadian-made armoured vehicles being used to crush civilian protests in Saudi Arabia, it has to make a choice.

Does the government really care about human rights? Or do economic interests have priority?

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland made a strong commitment to human rights in June, telling the House of Commons that "our values include an unshakeable commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law." This "ethical" approach to foreign policy is based on the idea that the world can only become a better place if democracies show leadership on international law and human rights.

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Read more: Ottawa calls for probe into apparent Saudi use of Canadian-made armoured vehicles against citizens

But contrast this rhetoric with the government's actions, which include the granting of export permits for $15-billion worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. This move was justified on the basis that it would protect 3,000 jobs at the General Dynamics plant in London, Ont., that builds and maintains the same type of vehicles – LAV IIIs – for the Canadian Army. Here, the government opted for a "realist" approach to foreign policy. From this perspective, the world is a tough place and other countries will happily provide Saudi Arabia with arms if Canada does not.

The Trudeau government still had to comply with Canada's export control laws, which preclude weapons sales to countries with poor human rights records "unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population." After a cursory review, Global Affairs Canada concluded the Saudis would use the vehicles to defend the country from terrorist groups such as Islamic State.

After former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion signed off on the $15-billion sale in April, 2016, he promised to cancel these or any other export permits if the purchasing country were to use Canadian-made equipment "in any human-rights abuses." Then, the very next month, The Globe and Mail obtained videos showing Saudi forces using armoured vehicles against civilian protesters. The vehicles in question were not Canadian-made, but the videos demonstrated the willingness of the Saudi regime to use such weapons against its own people. Mr. Dion neither suspended nor cancelled the permits. Fast-forward to last Friday, with new videos apparently showing Canadian-made armoured vehicles being used against civilians in the ancient city of Awamiya. The vehicles are not LAV-IIIs but "Gurkha" vehicles built by Terradyne Armored Vehicles of Newmarket, Ont.

Global Affairs Canada told The Globe and Mail that Ms. Freeland is "deeply concerned" about this situation and has asked officials to review it immediately: "If it is found that Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights, the minister will take action." But no indication was given as to whether the "action" would involve the cancellation of the export permits, or just a quiet diplomatic protest.

Saudi Arabia is not the only place where arms exports are exposing the hypocrisy of the Trudeau government on human rights. Last year, evidence emerged that Canadian-based Streit Group had violated UN arms embargoes in Libya and Sudan by selling armoured vehicles to those regimes. The RCMP should have been instructed to investigate, since UN embargoes are automatically Canadian law, but nothing seems to have been done. More hypocrisy is becoming evident as the government prepares to join the Arms Trade Treaty, which is designed to protect civilians against precisely the kinds of violations shown in the recent videos.

The draft legislation for implementing the treaty, Bill C-47, does not include criteria for export permits, leaving this to be done through regulations crafted by the government instead of by Parliament. It also grants enormous discretion to the foreign minister when permits are being granted. Had Bill C-47 been law in April, 2016, Mr. Dion would still have been able to approve the Saudi arms deal.

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But now, after the latest videos, the government has to make a clear choice. It could cancel the Saudi arms sale and uphold its public commitment to human rights. Or it could admit that – in its view – economic interests trump human rights.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

Video: This is a ‘made in Canada’ foreign policy, Freeland says (The Canadian Press)
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