Arms Sales


Three lessons to draw from the Saudi arms deal controversy

The Globe and Mail, Thursday, Apr. 28, 2016

All arms sales are controversial, but when the buyer is a country with a human-rights record like Saudi Arabia’s and the deal is worth billions, the public scrutiny rightfully reaches a new level.

Such is the case for the Trudeau government, where critics have openly questioned the morality of Canada’s $15-billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles, known as LAVs, to Saudi Arabia.

The respective handling of the deal by the Harper and Trudeau governments illustrates their differences in governing style – and sheds considerable light on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reintroduction of ministerial accountability in government.

While Mr. Trudeau has fielded questions publicly, the file clearly belongs to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion. In contrast, during the 2015 federal election, Stephen Harper characterized the deal as a sale of “transport vehicles” and the file was handled largely through his office.

When it comes to global arms sales, Canada is not a big player. That status goes to the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France. These countries accounted for most of the estimated $400-billion (U.S) in global arms sales in 2014. In terms of company sales, the leaders are U.S.-based Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Both companies supply and source from Canada, underlining the deeply integrated supply chain nature of Canada’s defence industries.

Canada sold just more than $12.5-billion (U.S.) in arms worldwide since 1950. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, after the United States, our next biggest customers are, in U.S. dollars: Saudi Arabia ($740-million); Botswana ($555-million); Turkey ($482-million); Belgium ($386-million) and Australia ($332-million).

But the $15-billion deal with Saudi Arabia represents Canada’s biggest arms sale ever – and it is the Trudeau government’s first real brush with a foreign-policy controversy.

The bumpy ride has left a few bruises, but there are also some cogent lessons to draw from the controversy.

First, include an examination of arms-sales policies in the current defence review. These policies need to be scrutinized to restore public confidence.

Second, move on the promised signature of the UN Arms Trade Treaty. This will oblige regular arms-sale reporting. The last of the three Harper government reviews covered the years 2012-13.

Third, publish the human-rights reviews of all countries Canada is currently selling arms to. The U.S. State Department uses their reports to encourage better global governance. We should do the same.

Democracies around the world have developed elaborate procedures for arms sales including restrictions on the transfer of technology and re-sales, as well as considerations around the human-rights record of the buying nation. Saudi Arabia is regularly ranked among the worst of the worst in terms of human rights by Freedom House.

Canada first instituted arms-sales permit policies during the Spanish Civil War. The last major review of this policy took place in 1986 during the Mulroney government. It instituted a country control list and regular reporting on arms sales. In 1997, The Chrétien government reinforced the permit process by requiring a “rigorous analysis” of security and human-rights criteria.

In a statement justifying the Saudi deal, Mr. Dion describes Riyadh as a “strategic partner” and says Canadian credibility is at stake. So are the jobs of 70,000 Canadians, including veterans, employed in our arms industry. The better levers to mitigate human rights in Saudi Arabia, argues Mr. Dion, include the experience of the 16,000 Saudi students in Canadian universities.

The Saudi deal is an early illustration of what Mr. Dion calls “responsible conviction,” the principle that will guide his foreign-affairs stewardship. The awkwardly wonky phrase, drawing from German sociologist Max Weber, is authentically Dion. In terms of applied foreign-policy direction, Mr. Dion says this includes action on climate change; clemency on capital punishment; and advocacy for human rights, including sexual and reproductive health rights.

The Saudi deal reflects the pragmatism of responsible conviction. We would like to live in a world without weapons, argues Mr. Dion, but we do not. The sale of these armoured vehicles means jobs for Canadians and, for Mr. Dion, that’s responsible decision-making.

It’s also a useful reminder that, in foreign policy, the choices are not black and white, but shades of grey.

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Canada and Iran-Saudi Tensions: You need to be there to be useful

Harper government’s break with Iran leaves Canada without influence in Saudi spat: experts

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans and hold anti-Saudi placards and flags during a rally to protest the execution by Saudi Arabia last week of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric, by Saudi Arabia, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans and hold anti-Saudi placards and flags during a rally to protest the execution by Saudi Arabia last week of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric, by Saudi Arabia, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The Harper government’s closing of Canada’s embassy in Tehran in 2012 leaves Ottawa virtually impotent to exercise any kind of influence to reduce the inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, former diplomats and foreign affairs experts suggest.

“If we’re not in one of the two critical capitals, it’s hard to bring analysis and on the site expertise. We just don’t have that,” said Colin Robertson, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former Canadian diplomat.  “Until we have people on the ground in Tehran, we’re handicapped.”

Tension between Saudi Arabia, the major Sunni Muslim power in the region and Iran, the major Shiite player, has sharpened over the past several days following the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr along with 46 others accused of terrorism.

Iranian protestors attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran, following the news, causing Saudi Arabia to announce it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran — and prompting multiple Middle Eastern Sunni countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, to follow suit and restrict their own relations with the Islamic Republic.

The Harper government cut off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and formally listed it a state sponsor of terrorism. All Canadian diplomats were pulled out of the country, leaving Canada powerless to act even as a back-channel between the two rivals in the current conflict.

“Iran would not be willing to even consider, let alone accept, a conciliatory role for Canada,” said Thomas Juneau, former strategic analyst on the Middle East for the Department of National Defence and an associate professor with the University of Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the election campaign that he would restore diplomatic relations with Iran if elected but has not yet said when that will happen.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Tony Clement said Monday on CBC News’ Power & Politics that Canada should hold off restoring relations with Iran until it shows it is willing to behave better.

But any changes to Trudeau’s plans are unlikely, experts say, because the conflict is throwing the need for accurate intelligence into sharp relief.

“I think the pressure is just to get a more informed view of what’s happening in the region by having diplomatic representation on the ground,” said Scott Heatherington, former director of then-Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development’s foreign intelligence division. “I would expect that to continue, notwithstanding what’s happening this week.”

Adam Chapnick, a professor at the Royal Military College specializing in Canadian foreign policy, agreed, saying the conflict emphasizes the need for Canada to get people on the ground in Tehran if it wants to have any role in influencing or even mediating outcomes in the Middle East.

Canada’s long-term economic and security interests also mean that Iran is too important a player to simply ignore, as the Conservatives did, Chapnick said.

“If you want to have influence in a region, you need to have eyes and ears on the ground,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion issued a statement Monday morning expressing concern at the executions and the potential they have for further inflaming sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias.

Global Affairs Canada also declined a request from iPolitics to speak with Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, offering instead a brief emailed statement.

“Canada regrets the incidents which have led to Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever its diplomatic relations with Iran,” departmental spokesman Francois Lasalle said. “We urge countries of the region to work with all communities to defuse these tensions and promote reconciliation. We also call on Iran to protect diplomatic premises on its territory as per the Vienna Convention.”

The government also said Monday the strife will not impact the $15-billion deal it has with the Saudi government for the sale of light armoured vehicles.

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