Canada’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia moves forward despite brutal executions

Today, the Saudi Arabian government executed forty-seven people on terrorism charges, several of them by beheading and the rest by firing squad.

The most prominent of the forty-seven was Sheikh Nimr al-Namr, a Shia cleric who had been critical of the House of Saud for several years and took a prominent role in a 2011-12 protest movement against the regime in the nation’s eastern provinces.

Charged with “disobeying the ruler” and “encouraging, leading, and participating in demonstrations”, al-Namr was sentenced to death last October. His death has provoked outrage from human rights advocacy groups and in Shia-majority nations, including Iran, where protesters apparently stormed and looted the Saudi embassy.

But expect to hear little or no condemnation of the Saudi regime from our government here in Canada. One can easily imagine the outcry if it were, say, Iran, or Russia, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad brutally executing four dozen dissidents, but when it comes to our “allies” the Saudis, most Western governments have a massive blind spot.

Late last month, when meeting his Saudi counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion raised the issue of Raif Badawi, a blogger imprisoned by the Saudi regime for comments critical of the government, but declined to otherwise challenge the Saudi Minister on his government’s atrocious record on human rights and blatantly political use of the death penalty. (Badawi, who is facing a sentence of 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes, has a Canadian connection: his wife and three children have asylum here and continue to pressure the Canadian government to intervene more vigorously on his behalf, as Stephane Dion himself did when in opposition.)

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has indicated that a $15-billion arms deal with the Saudis is going to proceed, notwithstanding the fact that it’s still unclear how the deal made it past the Department of Foreign Affairs’ mandatory review of arms sales on human rights grounds.

Though disappointing, the move comes as no great surprise; during the campaign, Trudeau minimized the lethality of the shipment of light armoured vehicles, describing them as “Jeeps” while appearing on a popular Quebec talk show, Tout le monde en parle, an appearance which provoked a furious reaction from Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe:

[Duceppe] also took Mr. Trudeau to task for dismissing the military equipment in question as jeeps. The light-armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, in London, Ont., are marketed as equipped with automatic weapons. The LAV 6.0 model is described as having “effective firepower to defeat soft and armoured targets.”

“Do you see jeeps like this on [Highway] 117?” he asked. “Have you ever seen a jeep like that?”

I’ve written before about Saudi Arabia’s atrocious record on human rights issues, which extend far beyond its rigged and hyper-punitive judicial system. It’s not a secret that they have one of the worst records in the world on these issues. Their behaviour today, though deplorable, is in no way out of character.

The arms deal in question is, however, the largest in Canadian history, and that, in the eyes of some, makes it worthwhile:

Stephen Harper is defending a major military deal with Saudi Arabia in the face of questions about human rights abuses in that country.

He says cancelling the contract could punish Ontario plant workers.

The issue arose as a young man, arrested at age 17 for protesting the Saudi regime, faces imminent beheading and crucifixion in a country known for crackdowns on opponents and the repressive treatment of women.

“Notwithstanding its human rights violations which are significant, this is a contract with a country that is an ally against the Islamic state, a contract that any one of our allies would have signed,” the Conservative leader said at an event in Riviere-du-Loup, Que [on Sept 25, 2015].

Shorter Harper: Yeah, yeah, but MONEY, bro! Or, in other words, white livelihoods matter more than Arab lives.

By refusing to even review the former government’s approval of this controversial deal, Trudeau essentially embraces this logic. He would have ample political cover to push back against an arrangement to sell weaponry to one of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers. If he’s choosing not to do so, then it’s because he doesn’t want to.

Citizen Action Monitor, in a fantastically detailed summary of this issue, asks the obvious and burning question:

[T]he Saudi arms deal was permeated by a double standard in which moral, ethical and democratic principles must not compromise short-term corporate profits or Canadian jobs. It appears that business with dictatorships and countries with systemic corruption and discrimination, can, to some extent, be accepted if the profits are high enough.

Which leads one to ask — Does Saudi Arabia use lucrative trade deals – especially arms trade deals – to buy silence and complicity from influential western governments?

If so, then it’s a brutal deal which puts the lie to the whole notion of upholding so-called “Western values” like democracy and freedom of speech. In trading these armoured vehicles for boatloads of oil money, Canada’s government is essentially dooming the next generation of Saudi protesters – those who want more democracy, better treatment of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites and other minorities, equality for women, and an end to autocratic rule by a plutocratic dynasty – to facing a better-armed and more lethal state apparatus, one which history has shown has no compunctions when it comes to killing citizens it considers to be threats.

Solidarity with those executed today for opposing this vile regime, and solidarity with the oppressed peoples of Saudi Arabia, who suffer under tyrannical rule with the silent complicity of Canada and other Western powers.

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