Federal Court denies bid to block Canada-Saudi Arabia arms deal

The Federal Court has rejected a bid by Montreal professor Daniel Turp to block Canada's $15-billion sale of light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Montreal university professor argued $15B contract should not proceed due to human rights violations

The Federal Court has rejected a legal challenge to block the sale of light armoured military vehicles to Saudi Arabia based on the country's human rights record. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

The Federal Court has rejected a bid by Montreal professor Daniel Turp to block Canada's $15-billion sale of light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

In a 28-page decision by Justice Danièle Tremblay-Lamer, the court ruled the minister of foreign affairs has broad discretionary powers to grant export permits.

"In the impugned decision, the minister considered the economic impact of the proposed export, Canada's national and international security interests, Saudi Arabia's human rights record and the conflict in Yemen before granting the export permits, thereby respecting the values underlying the conventions," it reads.

"The role of the court is not to pass moral judgment on the minister's decision to issue the export permits, but only to make sure of the legality of such a decision."

The court also noted that broad discretion would also have allowed the minister to deny the permits.

Turp, a former Bloc Québécois MP and Parti Québécois MNA, argued the federal government's decision to allow the export permits does not meet the legal requirements under the Export and Import Permits Act and the Geneva Conventions Act, according to the federal court summary of the case.

Focus on jobs, human rights

The deal with Saudi Arabia was struck by Stephen Harper's government, which highlighted the thousands of jobs it is  expected to create and keep in southern Ontario.

But the sale by General Dynamics Land Systems has been controversial due to Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

Turp was not available to react to the decision, but said through a spokesman there is a "strong possibility" that he will appeal.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of peace and disarmament group Project Ploughshares, said the ruling underscores a need for more stringent rules on exporting arms.

"The Federal Court ruling does not make the sale of Canadian military equipment to a human rights pariah — the precise type of deal Canada should be denouncing rather than vindicating — any more palatable," he said in an email to CBC News.

"If the Minister of Foreign Affairs can authorize such deals despite the abysmal human rights record of the recipient, then the ruling itself should serve as a compelling call for strengthening our military export controls."

Documents obtained by CBC News from Global Affairs Canada last April confirmed that former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion personally signed off on export permits to ship $11 billion worth of the $15-billion vehicle sale.

Daniel Turp, a member of the Université de Montréal's law faculty, launched the legal challenge along with his international law class. (Radio-Canada)

The documents say the personal sign-off was a rare exception because the deal was so high profile and worth so much money.

The documents acknowledged the human rights concerns, noting "the reported high number of executions, suppression of political opposition, the application of corporal punishment, suppression of freedom of expression, arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment of detainees, limitations of freedom of religion, discrimination against women and the mistreatment of migrant workers."

'Key military ally'

But the records also call Saudi Arabia a "key military ally," and note that the kingdom supports international efforts to counter Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as well as countering instability in Yemen.​

Today's ruling notes that Dion considered the situation in Yemen, and said there was no evidence that Canadian military equipment, including LAVs, had been used to commit the alleged human rights violations.

Tremblay-Lamer also noted that neither the United Nations Security Council nor the Parliament of Canada has adopted any resolution against Saudi Arabia.

The office of Dion's successor, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, had very little to say about the ruling.

"We thank the court for its decision," said her spokesman Joseph Pickerill in an email.

Former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion signed off on the export permits to supply Saudi Arabia with light armoured military vehicles. (Canadian Press / CBC News)

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