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Canadians: Keep asking questions about our Saudi arms deal

Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group that tracks arms sales.

The growing outcry over the secrecy surrounding Canada's $15-billion military exports contract with human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia is a clear testament to the public's heightened expectation that transparency and accountability must inform arms deals. The point is not that arms manufacturers in Canada and elsewhere should halt their shipments of weapons altogether. It is that it matters – greatly – where the weapons go.

Canada's military-export controls, which the government calls "some of the strongest in the world," already require a determination that "no reasonable risk" exists that Canadian-made goods will be used against civilians. And it is entirely within reason to expect our government to tell us why and how this determination was reached.

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While the latest mass executions in Saudi Arabia have prompted urgent concerns about this deal, they are only one more example of an ongoing and worsening pattern of utter disregard for the most basic tenets of human rights.

In Saudi Arabia, political rights are restricted. Civil liberties fare no better. Public speech is rigorously censored. Freedom of association, freedom of the press and academic freedom are limited. Women are subjected to systemic discrimination; for example, they are not allowed to drive. The state imposes harsh penalties on anyone who deviates from its version of religious truth. Even non-violent crimes can warrant beheading.

What assurances did the Canadian government seek and receive that the light armoured vehicles produced in London, Ont., would not be used to further punish and imperil Saudi civilians? Were such assurances even sought? So far, we don't know.

Canada's contract with Saudi Arabia is perhaps the archetypal deal that the international Arms Trade Treaty was designed to prevent. The ATT, which came into force in December, 2014, is widely regarded as a major advance in arms control. Despite some common misconceptions, its primary focus is on regulation, not prohibition.

No one expects the international commerce in conventional weapons to end in the foreseeable future. But the ATT aims to mitigate the high toll of an unregulated international arms trade through strict and transparent controls on end-users. A vigilant media and civil society have proved to be valuable partners in ensuring adherence to the spirit, objective and specific provisions of the treaty.

Canada remains – along with Saudi Arabia – one of the few countries in the world that has not joined the treaty. But acceding to the ATT was an election campaign pledge of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and is a specific priority of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's mandate. Prompt accession is expected and will be applauded in Canada and beyond.

What are the practical implications of joining the Arms Trade Treaty? In particular, the ATT puts restrictions on which recipients are eligible to receive military exports from parties to the treaty. This may well affect the bottom line of arms manufacturers. Such is the nature of norms: They help to define acceptable behaviour, and compliance may carry a cost.

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But the international community has finally recognized that the costs in human suffering from an unregulated global arms trade are much higher. In the end, the choice was principle over profit.

Perhaps more dialogue and education are needed to convince citizens of arms-exporting countries that the protection of human rights is a paramount objective. Yet what might seem simple and obvious on the surface is really quite complex.

How does a state balance jobs at home with human rights abroad? Are there situations in which job creation is a sufficient rationale for cutting a few corners? Is it sometimes more important to support military allies than to comply fully with domestic and international human-rights-related export-control safeguards? Can a country support human rights abroad and at the same time promote domestic arms manufacturers that sell weapons to oppressive regimes?

Governments must constantly evaluate not only their commitment to the protection of human rights, but also the way in which they balance this priority with national economic and strategic interests. There is a need for vigorous civil society debate in Canada to discover the bedrock beliefs on which citizens will base their support for, or rejection of, government policies.

The fact remains that the largest military exports contract in Canadian history will see Canadian-made arms shipped to a country with an unacceptable human-rights record. And it is disconcerting that there are still no answers to entirely legitimate questions about the compatibility of the Saudi arms deal with domestic export controls.

What can we infer about the purported strength of Canada's export controls if Saudi Arabia is deemed an eligible recipient? What sort of record and practices would a country need to have to trigger the pertinent human-rights safeguards?

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The time has come for the Canadian government to address the many valid questions about this arms deal and to recognize the legitimate need for transparency in such contracts. The way in which the new government proceeds on this issue will be a testament to the principles that will inform its foreign policy.

It is time to open all the doors and windows on Canada's $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

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