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No One Running for PM Plans to Scrap Canada's Arms Deal With Saudi Arabia

The $15-billion agreement to ship Light Armored Vehicles to Saudi Arabia is the largest export contract in Canadian history. It was controversial last year, but has barely registered on the campaign trail.

by Aaron Mate
Oct 15 2015, 2:55pm

Canadian LAVs. Photo by Bill Graveland/Canadian Press

Those seeking a point of concord in the final days of Canada's bitter federal election take note: the three leading candidates for prime minister agree that a deal to arm one of the world's most repressive regimes should proceed.

The $15-billion agreement to ship Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) from London, Ontario to Saudi Arabia — the largest export contract in Canadian history — has sparked controversy since it was brokered last year. On the campaign trail, it's hardly registered. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said the LAV transfers will support a vital ally in the fight against terrorism while creating more than 3,000 Canadian jobs, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau thinks we are just sending over "jeeps", and the NDP's Thomas Mulcair says that while he opposes the deal, he won't cancel it if elected.

The tri-partisan consensus might surprise those who wouldn't expect Canadian weaponry in the hands of a government regularly included in the US State Department-funded Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" list of most authoritarian countries.

The Saudi kingdom rules with a feudal barbarism that would overwhelm Prime Minister Harper's proposed "Barbaric Cultural Practices" hotline, were it to take foreign calls. Amnesty International says Riyadh has beheaded at least 175 people in the last 12 months, with this year on pace to break the kingdom's modern-day record of 192, set in 1995.

Offenses punishable by decapitation include consensual gay sex, witchcraft, drug possession, and adultery. The next victims could include two Saudi youths, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon, both arrested for taking part in anti-government protests at age 17. Other jailed dissidents include the blogger and activist Raif Badawi, sentenced in January to 10 years behind bars and 1,000 lashings to be delivered 50 at a time over a 20-week period. The kingdom has paused the lashings for now to let Badawi recover from injuries sustained during the first flogging in January. Badawi's wife and three children live in Canada as refugees, and the Harper government has pledged to raise his case with the Saudi regime (although, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, now back in Canada, says Harper left him "betrayed and abandoned" during his nearly two years behind bars in Egypt, another friendly Middle East regime).

Related: A UK Pensioner Is Facing 350 Lashes for Possessing Homemade Wine in Saudi Arabia

There's also Saudi Arabia's military adventurism, which is currently helping push neighboring Yemen into a "humanitarian catastrophe." The United Nations says a Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels is responsible for two-thirds of more than 2,300 civilian deaths in the country since March. The targets have included hospitals, civilian infrastructure, factories, and in the deadliest attack to date, a wedding party that killed over 130 people last month. A crippling naval blockade has deprived Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, of vital shipments of food and medicine. Asked about the civilian toll last month, the Saudi-led coalition's spokesperson replied: "Why would we acknowledge something that doesn't exist?"

The Harper government, meanwhile, has refused to say whether it's complying with Canadian export laws mandating that arms deals be reviewed in cases where the recipient countries have a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens" to ensure "there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population." 

The issue is of added importance in light of questions over whether Saudi Arabia used Canadian vehicles during its crushing of the 2011 civilian uprising in Bahrain. Citing "contractual and confidentiality reasons," LAVs' manufacturer, General Dynamics — which hailed the deal as "a testament to the skills and quality of work that exists in Canada today" — has refused to release any information on the vehicles, including when they'll be delivered and whether they'll be armed. Unsurprisingly, the Saudi government has been so cagey that they won't even acknowledge that a deal was reached.

Harper has recently assured Canadians that the sale "[is] not an arms contract — it's actually for military transport vehicles." But there is reason to doubt Harper's claim. "[14.8] billion dollars is not an order for cargo trucks," a military industry analyst pointed out for the Atlantic Council, "it's clearly an order for armored vehicles meant for combat." Asked by VICE to confirm the LAVs would not be armed or used in combat, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs responded: "For commercial confidentiality reasons, we are unable to reveal details about the vehicles which will be sold."

The Liberals' Justin Trudeau has echoed Harper's avowal, telling an interviewer: "These are not arms, these are jeeps." Trudeau also downplayed the government's role, calling the deal "an agreement between a manufacturing company here in Canada and Saudi Arabia." That prompted a salvo from Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, who accused Trudeau of "lying" by omitting that the sale was brokered and backed by a Crown corporation. Duceppe has been the most forceful candidate on the arms deal, raising it during campaign stops and the French-language debate last month. Though in fairness, given the Bloc's recent dedication to matching Harper's race-baiting on the niqab, his motives are worthy of scrutiny.

Duceppe did not participate in the subsequent Munk debate on foreign policy, where the Saudi arms deal didn't even come up. It was a conspicuous omission for the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, who just days earlier had accused Harper of "breaking the rules" in failing to look into Riyadh's human rights record. Mulcair's concerns drew criticism from Unifor, a union representing a group of workers at General Dynamics' London, Ontario plant. "We asked the NDP to not make this an issue, that it be kept under wraps," said Unifor area director Fergo Berto. "There are a lot of (other) issues out there to be talking about." (On its Twitter account, Unifor later said Berto "gravely misspoke.")

Related: Canada Is Helping a Private Arms Company Sell Light Armored Vehicles in the Middle East

At a VICE Town Hall event Tuesday night, VICE News reporter Justin Ling asked Mulcair to clarify his stance on the Saudi arms deal. While criticizing Harper for signing it in the first place, Mulcair said he would still let it go through. "You don't cancel a commercial accord retroactively, it's just not done," he asserted.

The same day in Britain, a public outcry forced Prime Minister David Cameron to do just that, nullifying a deal for British training support to Saudi Arabia's prison system.

Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected head of Britain's opposition Labour party, said Cameron had been "shamed" into backing out. "We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the U.K. is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century and would damage Britain's standing in the world," Corbyn declared. 

Whatever the election outcome, Canada's next prime minister doesn't agree.

Follow Aaron Maté on Twitter: @aaronjmate