On Saudi arms deal, the new boss in Ottawa is just like the old boss

The secret memo signed by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is a gem of hair-splitting, parsing, wilful blindness and justification for selling billions worth of fighting vehicles and weaponry to Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth.
Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's memo green-lighting the bulk of the Saudi arms deal could have been written by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, Neil Macdonald writes. (Canadian Press)

Well. If further proof was needed that the sunny new regime in Ottawa is perfectly capable of behaving just like the un-sunny previous regime, we now have it, in a memo that was stamped "Secret," then rather inconveniently laid bare in the Federal Court of Canada.

The document, signed by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, is a gem of hair-splitting, parsing, wilful blindness and justification for selling billions worth of fighting vehicles and weaponry to Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth.

It employs the death-merchant logic of a long list of other countries that have profited for decades by arming despots: The deal means jobs and the customer assures us it won't misuse the weapons and we can't prove otherwise.

Besides, anti-tank weapons and heavy machine-guns don't kill people; people kill people.

With a single checkmark, Dion concurred with everything in the memo.

Backers of global extremism

Among other things, Dion explicitly endorses Saudi Arabia's ruinous military campaign in Yemen, the victims of which, according to the United Nations, are overwhelmingly civilian.

The Saudi-led campaign, Dion agrees, is an attempt to "counter instability" in Yemen and is "consistent with Canada's defence interests in the Middle East."

(CBC News Graphics)

Another view would be that Saudi Arabia's fundamentalist Sunni regime is grimly determined to suppress, violently if need be, any demands for autonomy by Shia populations living on the Arabian peninsula.

When Shia demonstrations erupted in Bahrain during the so-called Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia sent armoured columns across the causeway linking it to the Sunni-ruled island, which proceeded to pitilessly crush the dissent, imprisoning and killing and torturing and demolishing Shia mosques.

The kingdom was also an eager and early bankroller of the Sunni rebels in Syria. That some of those groups were affiliated with al-Qaeda was irrelevant to Riyadh.

The Saudis, like ISIS, are fans of public beheadings, and for many years rich Saudis have financially supported extremists worldwide. It has been reported that a portion of the congressional report on the 9/11 attacks, still officially secret, concludes Saudi officials gave consular support and help to some of the hijackers, most of whom were… Saudi.

Women executed for 'sorcery'

Then there is the little matter of how the Saudis treat their own citizens.

They have a hideous record of torture, oppression, arbitrary arrest and mistreatment of detainees, suppression of speech and religion, and institutional misogyny. They execute women for sorcery. Homosexuality is a grave crime.

This is a regime Canada wants to supply with arms and war-fighting vehicles?

As Gerald Butts, now the prime minister's most senior adviser, tweeted when the Liberals were in opposition: "Principled foreign policy indeed."

Once in government, though, moral outrage is a less affordable luxury.

While the Dion-approved memo acknowledges that the Saudi airstrikes have left Yemen strewn with dead civilians — to quote Human Rights Watch, "strikes against populated residential areas, hospitals, schools, markets and mosques may constitute war crimes" — it notes that there is no proof that any of the armoured fighting vehicles Canada has so far provided have been involved in such slaughter.

(That bit is crucial, because Canadian law forbids selling arms to regimes that are likely to use them against civilians).

It also carefully notes that "to the best of the department's knowledge," the Saudi troops sent into Bahrain were merely there to "protect key buildings and infrastructure, and had no part in suppression of peaceful protests."

And in any event, says the memo with which Dion so fully concurs, the Saudis have stated "their respect for and compliance with the rules of international humanitarian and human rights laws."

Ah. Well. Good to hear.

Oil, oil, oil

Perhaps more to the point, the memo also notes that the Saudis have the world's largest oil reserves.

None of this is to suggest that Canada is any more hypocritical than other countries that shill vigorously for their arms manufacturers.

But the Dion memo could have just as easily been signed by Stephen Harper or one of his ministers.

Ensaf Haidar, wife of blogger Raif Badawi, takes part in a rally for his freedom in Montreal in January. He been sentenced to a brutal flogging in Saudi Arabia for writing about Shia rights. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

So far, the Liberal message has been that while it wouldn't have negotiated the deal, it was stuck with it, and it is a legal contract and therefore must be honoured.

But Dion could have checked any one of three boxes when presented with the memo by department staff: "I concur," "I don't concur" or "I wish to discuss."

You'd think, if this was a deal he truly thought should never have been negotiated, and was only signing because he had to, that he'd at least have wanted to discuss some of the more strained logic and reassurances in the memo. Or snip them.

But he didn't. He concurred, completely.

Somehow different?

I wrote to Butts, now in the Prime Minister's Office, asking him to square his tweet last year denouncing the Conservatives' lack of principle with Dion's wholehearted concurrence, which the Prime Minister's Office had surely approved.

I promised I would print his response, so here it is:

"That tweet," he replied, "is from a period when Jason Kenney and others were routinely posting vile (and often incorrect) photos and graphics about the Middle East conflict."

(Butts later clarified that by "Middle East conflict" he meant ISIS.)

"I was pointing out the hypocrisy of their justification of their government's Middle East campaign on the moral ground of human rights, while simultaneously pursuing deeper ties and expanded trade with a country that has a less than stellar record on that front."

He continued: "At that time, Trudeau had already stated our party's support for honouring a signed contract, so to suggest I had a different position then, as his principal adviser, is to misunderstand the context."

And there it is.

This is different, somehow.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.