Government renegotiates Saudi arms deal to lift export permit ban amid COVID-19 pandemic

Published April 9, 2020 4:36 p.m. ET
Updated April 9, 2020 7:37 p.m. ET

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OTTAWA -- The government has renegotiated its arms deal with Saudi Arabia amid the COVID-19 pandemic and will now allow for new export permits to be issued for controlled goods, including military equipment, to be shipped to the region.

The goods will have to pass a case-by-case permit application review conducted by officials from Global Affairs Canada. Light-armoured vehicles (LAVs), for which the Canadian government had signed a $14-billion contract in 2014 to ultimately sell to Saudi Arabia, are among the controlled goods which will now be open for export permit approval.

As part of the renegotiated deal, the government was also freed up to provide details on the LAV contract it had brokered with Saudi Arabia. Had Canada cancelled the contract, as human rights groups and some NDP politicians were calling on the government to do, Canada could have been on the hook for the entire $14 billion.

"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," read the statement from Global Affairs Canada, released Thursday afternoon.

The news was released on the same day the government unveiled its federal modelling data on the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Canadian population.

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne held a press conference Thursday afternoon in which he said today's announcement had "nothing to do" with COVID-19, and is instead the result of Saudi Arabia’s recent signing of an amendment to the existing deal.

"The timing of today is really the fact that these amendments was signed by the Saudi counterparts on the 31st of March, 2020," Champagne said.

The government said they would ensure their exports adhere to best practices for arms exports in accordance with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), of which Canada is a state party.

Still, critics have been vocal against Canada providing military equipment to the region throughout the lifespan of the deal, which was first signed about six years ago. They point to human rights concerns in the region, noting that Canada could be providing Saudi Arabia with the very military equipment the Kingdom uses to crack down against its own citizens.

However, in the statement released on Thursday, Global Affairs Canada insisted they would not export goods that could be used to violate human rights.

"Under our law, Canadian goods cannot be exported where there is a substantial risk that they would be used to commit or to facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law or serious acts of gender-based violence," the release reads.

It's a message Champagne reiterated during the press conference Thursday.

"We are troubled by the human rights situation in Saudi, particularly with women’s rights," he said.

He said the export permit reviews will be "robust" to ensure exports aren't used in negative ways. The government is also pushing to establish an international inspection regime for ensuring compliance with ATT.

When asked about the decision on CTV's Power Play Thursday, outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that if Canada really wants to teach Saudi Arabia a lesson, it should stop importing their oil.

"My position with this has always been if we want to teach Saudi Arabia a lesson, it's not about stopping taking their money for things we make here, it's to stop buying things from them and sending our dollars to Saudi Arabia," Scheer said.

"Those are Canadian consumer dollars going to Saudi Arabia, supporting that regime. That doesn't make any sense to me when we have people out of work."

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris also weighed in, noting that the reasons the government initially put a moratorium on the export permits — heightened concerns over the kingdom's human rights record in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — still stand.

"Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian regime with one of the world’s worst human rights records," Harris told in an emailed 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."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had told CTV News in December, 2018 that he was looking for a way out of the deal.

"We are engaged with the export permits to try and see if there is a way of no longer exporting these vehicles to Saudi Arabia," Trudeau said.

However, with Thursday's release, the government has been freed up to issue export permits for controlled goods like the LAVs — and they say there are stiff financial penalties linked with the contract.

"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, which includes hundreds of small and medium enterprises," the release read.

"We need to ensure that we are always ready to strengthen available tools to conduct proper due diligence on all exports."

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