OTTAWA — Saudi Arabia still has a troubling human rights record but Canada’s foreign affairs minister says an amended contract to sell it light-armoured vehicles is better than the version the previous Conservative government negotiated.

Francois-Philippe Champagne offered that explanation Thursday as he defended the government’s decision to announce — just hours before the start of a holiday long weekend — that it had improved the much-maligned $14-billion contract to sell light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Champagne said the government was able to make significant improvements to the contract, including making its terms more transparent and eliminating Canada’s exposure to risk when it runs into issues with future export permits.

Champagne said two new amendments to the deal, negotiated by Finance Minister Bill Morneau in recent months, were signed on March 31 and the government just wanted to tell Canadians about it as soon as it could. He said 50 per cent of the vehicles had been delivered and that Morneau managed to make improvements to the Saudi “payment schedule.”

But he said he couldn’t go into any further detail on that because of commercial confidentiality. 

Champagne also said the new deal shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Canada’s frosty relations with Saudi Arabia have warmed since that country broke off relations over an August 2018 tweet by then foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland criticizing its human rights record.

Canada then froze all new export permits and began a review of the existing light-armoured vehicle deal after the Saudi Arabian government beheaded Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. That review ended in December 2019, said Champagne.

“The human rights record of Saudi Arabia remains troubling, particularly when it comes to civil and political rights and women’s rights. So we will continue to advocate for human rights. We will continue to advocate for Raif Badawi as always when we have discussions with our Saudi counterparts,” Champagne said, referring to the imprisoned Saudi blogger whose wife lives in Quebec.

Nor is the newly-amended deal in any way connected to the current COVID-19 pandemic or anything Saudi Arabia may or may not be doing to depress the price of oil, he said.

“I can assure you that this has nothing to do with either COVID or whatever may happen on the oil market,” Champagne said.

“This is not something that is related to, or any way connected with any other discussions.”

The Liberal government has been under pressure since winning power in 2015 to cancel the contract between Saudi Arabia and Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada because of concerns over Saudi Arabia’s poor human-rights record.

Champagne reiterated past Liberal complaints that they were hamstrung by the confidentiality provisions of the contract, which was negotiated by the previous Conservative government in 2014, and that cancelling it could cost jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Champagne and Morneau said in a joint statement that the cancellation of the contract “or even the mere disclosure of any of its terms” could have cost the government billions of dollars, including up to its full value. 

“This would have put the jobs of thousands of Canadians at risk, not only in southwestern Ontario but also across the entire defence industry supply chain, which includes hundreds of small and medium enterprises,” they said.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said the circumstances that led the Liberals to place a moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia remains the same — the country still has a poor human rights record. He said Canada needs to find countries with better records on human rights to sell to.

“However, doing the right thing should not impact workers. We can stand up for Canadian jobs and stand up for human rights. We must do both,” said Harris. 

Human rights groups have said Canada’s sale of the vehicles was improper because Saudi Arabia could use them to violate the rights of its own people. But the government has previously maintained that it has found no evidence the vehicles were used for that purpose, and Champagne said a new report reaches the same conclusion.

He said he would make that report public within days.

“Under our law, Canadian goods cannot be exported where there is a substantial risk that they would be used to commit or to facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, international human-rights law or serious acts of gender-based violence,” said Thursday’s statement from the two ministers.

“We need to ensure that we are always ready to strengthen available tools to conduct proper due diligence on all exports, as Canadians expect.”

The government is also creating an arm’s-length advisory panel to review best practices on arms exports to better comply with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

The government also says it will “spearhead multilateral discussions” to strengthen compliance with the treaty and establish “an international inspection regime.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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