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Analysis: The changing nature of why the Liberals stand behind Saudi arms deal

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, pictured with the Saudi Ambassador to Canada, is defending his government's decision to back a controversial arms deal with the Gulf state. Marc Doucette/Global News

Saudi Arabia is said to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. Women often need a chaperon to leave the house and the justice system regularly sentences criminals to execution.

In January the Gulf state executed 47 people in a single day and ever since then the Liberals have been under increased pressure to explain why they won’t cancel a $15 billion dollar deal to provide the Kingdom with arms.

A clear answer is hard to find.

Back in February, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion told the Senate “The government is not approving this contract. The government is simply refusing to cancel a contract approved by the former government.”
READ MORE: Dion breaks bread with Saudi ambassador, but ‘can’t reveal nature of discussion’

About a month later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his own expanded line of reasoning to a New York audience.

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“Regardless of how we may feel about a previous government, the fact is they were democratically elected,” Trudeau said. “They signed on to a contract and we are bound to respect that contract.”

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia thanks Canada for helping Syrian refugees. But how much is it doing? 

Are they bound though?

A previous Liberal government didn’t follow that logic. In 1993 Jean Chretien cancelled a controversial helicopter contract and paid half a billion dollars in penalties.

Asked by Global News why his government can’t just do the same thing, Dion surprisingly said they could.

“Yes, we may do it. It’s not impossible,” Dion said in Ottawa. “You decide to cancel the treaty and to pay the penalties for it.”

When pushed to explain why the Liberals didn’t then cancel the deal, Dion offered a number of reasons.

“Because we’d have to pay penalties for it, because it would put people out of jobs,” he said. “Because the weapons would be sold from Michigan or Ohio.”

That explanation drew a sharp response from former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour, who was attending the same conference as Dion in Ottawa.

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“This argument that if we don’t do it somebody else will do it I find frankly the least convincing,” Arbour said. “It is not infused with moral, ethical values to say that somebody else will do the bad deed.”

READ MORE: Responsible conviction’ will drive Canada’s foreign policy: Dion

Liberals promise future deals involving arms will go through a more rigorous process.

“We think this deal should be respected,” Dion said. “This being said, the export permits…must be improved and become more transparent.”

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