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Canada lifts freeze on military exports to Saudi Arabia amid COVID-19 pandemic

A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan at sunrise on Nov.26, 2006.
A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan at sunrise on Nov.26, 2006. Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press

Canada has lifted its ban on military exports to Saudi Arabia amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite concerns over widespread human rights abuses by Riyadh.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced the lifting of the freeze, put in place in 2018, in a statement released just before the long weekend.

“Following the conclusion of the review of export permits to Saudi Arabia conducted by officials from Global Affairs Canada—including those related to this contract—we have now begun reviewing permit applications on a case-by-case basis,” Champagne said.

“As always, we will ensure that they comply with the aforementioned legal requirements under Canadian law and the [Arms Trade Treaty].”
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READ MORE: Experts dispute Canada’s claim of no link between Saudi arms sales and human rights abuses

The Trudeau government had announced a review of all Canada’s existing arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2018, after reports emerged that the Saudi government was behind the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The moratorium, however, did not affect the controversial $14-billion deal with the Kingdom to export more than 700 combat vehicles, produced by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada at its plant in London, Ont.

Saudis may be using Canadian-made LAVs against civilians
Saudis may be using Canadian-made LAVs against civilians

The statement said the federal government would have had to pay up to $14 billion if it had cancelled the contract or disclosed its terms.

“We can confirm that the cancellation of this $14-billion contract—or even the mere disclosure of any of its terms—could have resulted in billions of dollars in damages to the Government of Canada, with potential damages amounting to the full value of the contract,” Champagne said.

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“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.”

READ MORE: Global Affairs finds no ‘credible’ evidence linking Saudi arms sales to human rights abuses

NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Jack Harris said although Saudi Arabia has “one of the world’s worst human rights records,” it’s important to stand up for Canadian workers.

“We can stand up for Canadian jobs and stand up for human rights,” Harris said in a statement.

“The Canadian Armed Forces have our own LAV needs and these vehicles and the people who build them should be supported with sales to other jurisdictions that respect human rights.”

Thursday’s announcement comes after Global Affairs said last September it found no evidence that Canadian exports of military exports to Saudi Arabia were contributing to human rights violations.

Experts and human rights advocates have warned there is ample evidence of Canadian made weapons, including photos and video of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and rifles, in areas of the Kingdom and in Yemen, where human rights violations are occurring.

A Sept. 17, 2019, memo from Global Affairs to former foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland acknowledged the Kingdom had been accused of “gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law due to its role leading a military coalition in Yemen.”

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The memo claimed there is no proof Canadian weapons were being used to commit war crimes in Yemen.

“There is no evidence or credible reporting that would link any Canadian exports (eg. ground vehicles, sniper rifles) to contraventions of international humanitarian law in Yemen,” the memo said.

“This is in marked contrast with exports from [REDACTED] whose military exports can be directly traced to the Saudi coalition air campaign and naval blockade.”