Power & Politics

Departmental review finds no 'credible' link between Saudi arms exports and human rights abuses

Global Affairs Canada says it has found no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment to human rights violations by the government of Saudi Arabia — and it has another 48 applications for permits to export military equipment to the kingdom ready for government approval — a newly released document shows.

Review says department has a further 48 permit applications ready for approval

A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) arrives to escort a convoy at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan at sunrise on Nov. 26, 2006. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Global Affairs Canada says it has found no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment to human rights violations by the government of Saudi Arabia — and it has another 48 applications for permits to export military equipment to the kingdom ready for government approval — a newly released document shows.

These revelations are part of a departmental briefing note for then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland dated Sept. 17, 2019.

The briefing note says the department has been examining the domestic human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom's involvement in the war in Yemen ever since the Canadian government announced a review of all Saudi arms sales and a freeze on new export permits in November 2018.

While the document acknowledges that Saudi Arabia's overall human rights record remains problematic, it says "officials found no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items to any human rights or humanitarian law violations committed by the Saudi government."

"Officials did not identify any existing permits or pending applications that would be of concern under the standard robust risk assessment framework," says the document.

The document says the department believes there is "no substantial risk" that current Canadian exports of military equipment will result in any human rights violations within Saudi Arabia.

The memo also says that, during its period of review, the "department has assessed and processed a further 48 permit applications for exports of controlled goods to KSA" — the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — and that these permits "have been deemed ready for approval by officials and await your further consideration."

Left: Jamal Khashoggi. Right: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images, Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

The Liberal government announced its review of existing permits and a freeze on new permits following the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. U.S. intelligence has concluded that the dissident journalist's murder was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Canada has a contract worth roughly $14-billion with Saudi Arabia for Canadian-made light armoured vehicles. Exports of these vehicles have continued unabated during the course of the review.

Although the department says it has found no substantial risk in Canada exporting arms to Saudi Arabia, the Canadian review and the freeze on arms export permits will remain in place until Trudeau's cabinet makes a policy decision about sales of military materiel to the Saudis.

"We are reviewing export permits to Saudi Arabia and no decision has been made. While this review is ongoing, no new permits have been issued," said Natasha Nystrom, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

The document says the minister of foreign affairs has "broad discretion to make the determination of whether an export of controlled goods is consistent with Canada's interests, so long as it is not based on irrelevant considerations and is not arbitrary and capricious."

"The absence of any credible evidence of a substantial risk does not require that you issue a given permit, as there may be other foreign, security or defence policy reasons not to grant a permit," says the document.

One month after the briefing note was prepared, new footage surfaced that appears to show Canadian-made Saudi military equipment captured or destroyed by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Canadian government officials are "closely" reviewing that footage.

Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak — who was expelled by the Saudi government last year — said he agrees with the findings in the new document.

"The arms we're selling are not being used for violations of human rights. They're just not, whether it's in Yemen or whether it's elsewhere," he said.

Horak said he thinks conditioning arms sales on evaluations of whether they will be used to violate human rights is a more reasonable measure than considering a country's overall human rights record.

"Some of the places we're going to send them to are not going to be perfect Western-style democracies," he said.

$2B in trade affected by bilateral spat

The document also includes an assessment of the Canada-Saudi Arabia bilateral relationship, which deteriorated following a tweet from Freeland last year criticizing the Saudi government's treatment of the Badawi family.

The Saudi regime was enraged by the tweet and responded, in part, by expelling Canada's ambassador to the kingdom, selling off Canadian assets and freezing new investment.

"No progress has yet been achieved in normalizing the bilateral Canada-KSA relationship," says the document. "The punitive diplomatic and trade measures that KSA instituted against Canada in August 2018 remain in place.

"Engagement by departmental officials with 20 companies that have a history of exporting to KSA suggests that approximately $2 billion in trade has been affected since August 2018."

Officials at the department also pointed to the negative impact Canada's ongoing review and freeze on export permits has had on Canadian companies.

"The open-ended nature of Canada's moratorium on new export permits, and the lack of identified conditions that would allow a resumption [of] permit issuance, present a high commercial risk for Canadian companies."

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