Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau‘s yet-to-be-named foreign minister will inherit a file of hot-button global issues — not least of which is a secretive arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a country with a long record of human rights violations.
The contract is worth nearly $15 billion and would create a reported 3,000 jobs. But there are fears that in doing so Canada would be arming a government with a history of cracking down on dissent, among an array of other human rights abuses — effectively supplying light armoured vehicles that could be used against Saudi civilians.
“I would like morality to be reintroduced into the decision about whether arms should be sold,” former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Paul Heinbecker told Global News.
“I’m not saying arms should never be sold. But we used to have a pretty clear-cut understanding that arms would not be sold into an ongoing conflict nor would they be sold to people who could be expected to use them on their own population.”
Heinbecker is critical of the Conservative government’s secret deal facilitating the arms sale, and of outgoing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision not to sign the Arms Trade Treaty — which, he points out, was signed by the U.S. and every other NATO ally.
“I had the impression that under the Harper government that the sky was basically the limit. There wasn’t anybody they thought they shouldn’t sell arms to. A buck was a buck and there were jobs to be had,” said Heinbecker, now a distinguished fellow with the Centre of International Governance Innovation.
He feels, given Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights, Canada should have an “arm’s-length relation with the country” and he hopes Trudeau and the Liberals will change Canada’s relationship with the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia has executed at least 134 people so far this year, UN High Commission for Human Rights.
The Saudi government has been slammed for upholding the death sentence of 21-year-old Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, set to be beheaded at any time. Al-Nimr was 17 years old when he was arrested in 2012 for protesting against the government.
Doctors Without Borders said this week the Saudi-led military coalition intervening in Yemen bombed one of its hospitals. According to Vice News, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN admitted the hospital was hit by “mistake” but then recanted his statement and denied the coalition had anything to do with the strike.
Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing Saudi clerics on his website. His wife, who lives in Quebec with their three children, has been pressuring the Canadian government to help secure his release.
Earlier this year Trudeau called on the Harper government to intervene in the case but he hasn’t indicated whether he plans to do that himself as PM.
Trudeau has said he has no intention of ripping up the arms deal. And he was sharply criticized for calling the light armoured vehicles “jeeps” during the election campaign. He did say he’d sign the arms treaty, however.
A government has to find a “delicate balance” between its international commitments to protect human rights and the “responsibility to create jobs and do other things that… the Canadian people are expecting from the government,” said Houchang Hassan-Yari, a political scientist at the Royal Military College of Canada,
But he thinks the arms deal could be used as leverage, giving the government an opportunity to raise concerns about human rights violations.
“To have any influence, Canada has to have at least a minimal of relationship with a country,” he said.
A Liberal party spokesperson wouldn’t say whether a Trudeau government will take Saudi Arabia to task over its human rights track record.
And Heinbecker is trying to be realistic about what the new government can achieve.
With research assistance from Anna-Sofia Lesiv and Ali Al-Hamdani