Ex-ambassador delivers aggressive defence of Saudi arms deal

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia — expelled this summer in a falling out with Riyadh over human rights — has delivered one of the most blunt, tenacious defences of the $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles to the kingdom.

'When countries have arms and they're in wars, they're gonna use them'

Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak says that Canadians need to get used to the idea that if Canada is going to be in the arms trade, the weapons it sells are going to be used. (CBC)

Canada's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia — who was expelled from the country this summer after Ottawa had a falling out with Riyadh over human rights — has delivered a blunt, tenacious defence of the $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles to the kingdom.

In a recent interview with CBC News, Dennis Horak insisted the troops carriers, some of them heavily armed, are for defensive purposes — and that if we're going to sell weapons to another country, we have to accept they're going to be used.

"They're used to defend their country," he said Tuesday. "That's why we sold them."

The remarks have raised the ire of Amnesty International, which has long opposed the deal and now says it's curious that a diplomat kicked out over a point of principle would stick up for such a regime.

Meanwhile, a defence expert who has closely followed developments with the contract said Horak's remarks are significant because they underline a question the Liberal government has sought to avoid: Should Canada be in the arms business at all?

The former Conservative government signed the Saudi arms deal in 2014. Horak said that, to his knowledge, the highly-advanced LAV 6s have not been used in Saudi Arabia's brutal, and highly controversial, war in neighbouring Yemen.

"It's a good deal for Canada. It was a good deal at the time and I still think it's a good deal for Canada," Horak said.

"The equipment we're selling is governed by (the) export controls regime, which is strong and it's enforced, and we've been selling some of this equipment to them for more than 25 years. We don't have a record of them using these particular vehicles and this equipment for abusing human rights."

The disappearance and possible murder of Saudi journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi​ has reignited the debate about whether Canada should pull out of the armoured vehicle sale.

'They're gonna use them'

There were similar calls over the summer when Riyadh barred Horak from returning to the country and froze all new trade with Canada.

Cancelling the deal, the former ambassador said, might make some opponents of the Saudi regime feel better, but it would not change Saudi policy or behaviour.

He said he recognizes that a lot of Canadians are uncomfortable with the arms industry — and they deserve a public debate.

"When countries have arms and they're in wars, they're gonna use them. And I think we have to expect that if we're going to be in the arms industry," he said.

Canada sold an earlier generation of armoured fighting vehicles to the kingdom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Horak said he's not certain whether those vehicles have been used on the border with Yemen.

"You have to have the expectation that they maybe use (them) some time and if they're used on the Yemeni border ... it's a very violent border."

The Yemen war, he added, is brutal and needs to end.

Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said he found Horak's remarks both galling and surprising, coming from a diplomat who was expelled over his government's human rights concerns.

The fact that "it's a very violent border is no justification for turning a blind eye to war crimes and human rights violations," he said.

Canada and the arms trade

Thomas Juneau, a Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa, said Horak's remarks are reasonable — but they also raise an important point about the arms industry.

The former Conservative government had no qualms about selling weapons to other countries and attempted to boost exports of Canadian-made arms.

However, the Liberals, who ran in the last election on toughening the country's export rules on weapons, have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the arms trade.

They have avoided a debate about whether Canada should be in the weapons-making business at all, Juneau said.

"I would want us to have more of an open debate on the issue of selling weapons to a country like Saudi Arabia, or others for that matter," he said.

"This is a very important, a very relevant debate that we've never fully had in this country ... the Liberal government has decided, pretty early on in 2016 and 2017, (that) we will uphold the deal with Saudi Arabia. But basically we don't want to talk about it."

He said Canadians should "talk about it as a country because it is an issue with serious consequences."