Ever since early January, when dozens of shocking executions in Saudi Arabia reignited a long-simmering controversy over a major Canadian arms deal with the human-rights-abusing nation, the Liberal government has been extremely cautious in its public statements, while steadfastly maintaining the Harper regime’s policy on the issue.
And despite widespread condemnation from activists and incisive questioning from the press, the government has refused to withdraw its approval of the sale of $15 billion of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) or elaborate very much on its justification of the deal.
But on February 18,
Foreign Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion appeared before the Senate for questioning on a variety of subjects, and Québec Senator Serge Joyal raised the issue. Invoking Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, Joyal demanded to know how Dion could square his department’s explicit rules on the issue – “The policy with respect to countries with serious human rights problems places the onus on proving `no reasonable risk’ squarely on the exporter” – with the government’s decision to allow the sale proceed.
Dion’s response was incredibly revealing, and demonstrated clearly what the Liberal Party’s priorities are. I quote his statement here in full:
Hon. Stéphane Dion, P.C., M.P., Minister of Foreign Affairs: Thank you, senator. This is a very, very important subject.
First of all, the government is not approving this contract. The government is simply refusing to cancel a contract approved by the former government, a contract between a private company and Saudi Arabia. That is an important difference because, if we were to cancel a contract that had already been approved, Canadian taxpayers would probably have to pay some pretty hefty penalties. It would also dilute the credibility of the Canadian government’s signature on contract approvals, not just in this case, but in many others as well.
Moreover, what would surely happen is that the equipment in question would be sold to Saudi Arabia by a less scrupulous country, and the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia would not change one iota. We strongly object to Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record, which you just described so well, and we vigorously voice that opinion.
Furthermore, one of the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ responsibilities is to review export contracts and to cancel them if the equipment sold to a country is to be used in a manner that would violate human rights or the interests of Canada or its allies. That is my responsibility and one that I will have to exercise with utmost rigour. With respect to this file and every file, in the coming years — this is a multi-year contract — I will exercise this responsibility in accordance with the law and the guidelines that you just mentioned.
Dion makes three distinct points here, all of which could be easily demolished by any half-decent high school debate club. I’ll deal with each of them in turn.
First of all, Dion tries to distance his government from this deal. And yes, it is true that it was the Harper government, not the Trudeau government, which gave the deal its initial green light. But it’s also true that the Trudeau Liberals haven’t exactly been timid about reversing Harper-era policies and decisions when it has suited them. And reversing this contract is well within the government’s power – the deal was facilitated through a crown corporation, and the Department of
Foreign Global Affairs ultimately has a veto over whether foreign arms sales are permissible. By allowing the deal to proceed, the Trudeau government is essentially taking ownership of the transaction.
Dion furthermore suggests that there would “probably” be some “hefty” penalties for which Canadian taxpayers would be left on the hook. This frames the problem exclusively as a monetary one. The cost of cancelling the deal (in dollars) to Canadian taxpayers is implied to be greater than the cost of allowing the deal (in freedoms, rights, or even lives) to Saudi dissidents and activists. The cost of cancelling the deal to Canada’s credibility as a facilitator of business is likewise perceived to be greater than the cost to Canada’s credibility as a defender of and advocate for human rights.
Put another way, surely there is a conceivable regime so completely reprehensible that the government would be willing to cancel an arms deal with it regardless of the financial penalty. Given the near-universal condemnation of Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, it is therefore completely on this government to justify to the public why paying a penalty is not a justifiable cost to escape a toxic deal. Dion engaged in no such justification here; he merely seems to take it for granted that the taxpayers want to avoid paying “hefty” penalties at all (non-monetary) costs.
Secondly, Dion engages in a puerile pseudo-justification of allowing the sale of lethal weaponry to a regime with a long record of using disproportionate force against their own citizens – if we didn’t do it, somebody else would.
This kind of shit doesn’t fly in most contexts. Imagine a bully summoned to the principal’s office for stealing some poor nerdy kid’s lunch money. If the bully said in his defence that if he hadn’t stolen the lunch money, somebody else would have, do you think the principal would have been satisfied with that explanation? Or the bully’s parents? Even if it was true?
In Dion’s version of reality, there is literally nothing that Canada can do to push Saudi Arabia to be more respectful of the human rights of its citizens beyond giving them a stern talking-to in the middle of an otherwise pleasant and mutually enjoyable meeting of
Foreign Global Affairs Ministers.
Furthermore, it’s extremely dubious to assert that if somebody else would step in if we didn’t supply the lethal machinery to the Saudis. Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom have all recently denied requests for arms exports, cancelled ongoing deals, or announced that further deals would be impossible without major reforms.
In other words, Canada’s allies aren’t falling back on facile ex-post-facto justifications of unjustifiable deals. They’re not saying that if they didn’t do it, then some other unprincipled nation (like Canada) would do it instead. They’re putting principles ahead of revenues.
Lastly, Dion attempts to bafflegab his way through the end of his response by mouthing empty platitudes about exercising responsibilities and upholding laws rigorously and etc. In no way does he ever address Senator Joyal’s actual question: “How can you say that selling armoured vehicles to [Saudi Arabia] is not in direct conflict with your department’s guidelines?”
He didn’t answer it because he couldn’t. The sale of these armoured vehicles is a clear and obvious contradiction of the government’s explicit guidelines on this issue. The deal is being allowed to proceed solely because of money and politics.
This much is obvious in Dion’s response. He frames the problem in terms of dollars and pragmatism, and while he acknowledges Saudi Arabia’s “terrible” human rights record, he doesn’t seem to consider for one moment the actual human cost of selling lethal weaponry to a regime which violently oppresses dissidents and is currently engaged in an atrocity-ridden war of aggression against Yemen.
The cost (in dollars and in diplomatic leverage) of deciding to not enable this type of reprehensible behaviour is a price that Dion and his government are apparently unwilling to pay. Which is to say, white livelihoods matter more than Arab lives, and Canadian diplomats’ undisturbed relations with this “important” “ally” are prioritized over basic, fundamental human rights.
Shame on the government for allowing this unjustifiable deal to proceed. They clearly know that it’s unjustifiable – their point person on the issue was completely unable to provide even the feeblest of actual justifications for their policy – and yet they’re allowing it to go ahead for crass monetary and political reasons. This deal should never have been allowed in the first place, and by choosing to not reverse it when it is fully within their power to do so, the Trudeau Liberals are completely complicit in whatever atrocities and repressions this sale enables.