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Michael Den Tandt: Trudeau Liberals should pull the Saudi arms deal and find another buyer
Michael Den Tandt: Trudeau Liberals should pull the Saudi arms deal and find another buyer

There is not a shred of doubt about why the government of Canada is pressing ahead with a $15-billion, 14-year contract to sell Ontario-made armoured troop carriers to Saudi Arabia. At issue is whether doing so is in keeping with Liberal rhetoric about human rights, and Ottawa’s explicit rules governing arms sales to foreign countries. The answer in both cases is no. There’s no doubt about that, either.

Cutting to the chase, we can identify two core rationales in favour. The first is local and specific to Southwestern Ontario. The second is international and applies to the whole industrialized, democratic world, led by the United States.

London, Ont., where the LAV III is built by General Dynamics Land Systems, is an economically hard-pressed regional hub, looking for a lifeline. This is not new. Traditional manufacturing and food processing has been departing Southwestern Ontario for a decade. Soaring electricity costs, courtesy of the McGuinty-Wynne Liberal government, have neutralized any benefit that might have accrued from a weaker Canadian dollar. So much for “Dutch disease.”

Until late 2014 there seemed to be a prospect of looping the eastern Canadian manufacturing economy more fully into the Western oil-sands bonanza. Then said bonanza collapsed — courtesy of a precipitous decline in the price of crude oil brought to us by, coincidentally, Saudi Arabia, which continues to flood global markets with crude in an attempt to squeeze out higher-cost North American production.

So the Saudi arms deal, brokered by the federal Canadian Commercial Corporation under the previous Conservative government, was a big economic win, providing 3,000 well-paying jobs over the next 14 years. In politician time that may as well be forever — particularly with Ontario’s population, and Southern Ontario’s seat count in the House of Commons, continuing to grow.

This is likely why, during the fall campaign, only New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair raised objections to this contract, and then only in muted fashion. The Liberals were four-square in favour, alongside the Tories. Speaking on Quebec current affairs TV show Tout Le Monde En Parle, Liberal leader (now Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau downplayed it as a matter of some jeeps — move along, nothing to see here.

Last week, Foreign Minister Stephane Dion responded in much the same way following the latest rash of Saudi human rights outrages, including the execution of a prominent cleric, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was guilty of nothing other than peacefully defending his country’s Shia minority. Canada deplores these regrettable beheadings but a deal is a deal, was essentially Dion’s position.

This has long been official Canadian policy: To look the other way. “Canada and Saudi Arabia share common interests on many peace and security issues, including energy security, humanitarian affairs (including refugees) and counter-terrorism,” chirps the foreign affairs department website.

The U.S. State Department puts it more bluntly: “Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its possession of the world’s largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location make its friendship important to the United States.”This is why, to restate the obvious, President George Bush Sr. pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.

Inconveniently, independent observers report that Saudi Arabia, a medieval monarchy possessed by a single extended family, is a human-rights horror show. Here’s Amnesty International’s current overview: “The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that railed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court than handed down death sentences.”

According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015: “Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.”

These “jeeps” are, of course, nothing of the sort. They are heavily armoured and can also be heavily armed, with roof-mounted machine guns and small cannons. They are not bound for the regular Saudi army, but to the National Guard, which serves as the House of Saud’s praetorian guard. In the event of a popular revolt, they logically would be deployed against Saudis themselves. There has been no declaration from any quarter, that I am aware of, that “there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population,” as required under under Ottawa’s export control rules, in countries where there is a record of human rights violations.

The courageous thing, given the above, would be for the Trudeau government to freeze this arms deal pending public commitments of redress from the Saudi government, then use the delay to quietly scour the globe for a more suitable buyer. It should be possible, given ambition and effort, to backstop London, Ont. workers while also not turning a blind eye to blatant injustice. Should it not? This isn’t the dark ages, after all. It’s 2015.

Tag(s) : #International

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