Justin Trudeau’s no-good, very bad excuse for arms deals

We live in strange times when Conrad Black does a better job of defending Liberal foreign policy than Justin Trudeau.

Black bluntly defended Canada’s sales of arms to Saudi Arabia: Canada isn’t important enough to influence Saudi Arabia’s policies, someone else will sell them weapons if we don’t, and no one really cares about things like the Geneva Convention or the UN Declaration on Human rights. It’s an odious, selfish defence that values trade dollars over human lives, but at least it’s an honest one.

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has made only the flimsiest of excuses for the deal, maintaining it was already here when he moved in.

As he told The Star:

“We inherited the contract that was signed with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Going forward, we will make sure that we are much more rigorous and transparent about living up to Canadians’ expectations. But, at the same time, we can’t turn around and cancel a contract like that without putting in jeopardy Canada’s business relationships with countries around the world.”

There’s some truth in his statement – the Conservative government announced the deal between London-based General Dynamics Land Systems in February 2014. And cancelling a deal worth $14 billion would probably have some repercussions in the future.

But Trudeau’s descriptions of the deal as being between Saudi Arabia and a private company have glossed over the Government of Canada’s role in regulating the sales of military equipment to other countries:

Among other policy goals, export controls seek to ensure that exports from Canada:

  • do not contribute to national or regional conflicts or instability;

  • are not used to commit human rights violations;

It’s difficult to describe how terrible Saudi Arabia’s record is on human rights. The government greets even the lightest form of dissent with torture and capital punishment. Since last year, the country has been fighting a war in Yemen and has conducted air strikes on civillian targets such as schools and hospitals; the very best you can say is that they don’t care who they drop bombs on.

(It’s technically true that we don’t know that Saudi Arabia will use these specific vehicles to kill civillians, but that’s partly because a) the government has refused to explain exactly what we’re selling, and b) Saudi Arabia will attempt to imprison, torture, or kill anyone who reports unfavourably on the government or its military.)

Steven Harper’s government may have negotiated the deal and taken credit for it, but it never got around to granting permission to export military equipment to a country with a complete disregard for human rights or the laws of war. Justin Trudeau’s government did that.

Perhaps you believe that Saudi Arabia, despite its faults, is a stable ally in a volatile region, and Canada will have more opportunities to influence its policies through engagement. I’d be skeptical of this belief, and remind you that decades of Western support for the least-bad option in a region has not always turned out very well, but at least I could respect the goal.

Maybe it’s only a matter of dollars and cents for the Canadian government: Someone is going to sell Saudi Arabia weapons, so it might as well be us, and the creation of jobs in Ontario outweighs the loss of lives in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Or maybe it would be too expensive to cancel the deal. That’s a cynical and mercenary view of the world, and the way Stephen Harper ran his government, but at least I could respect the honesty and practicality – at least, I might if the government disclosed the exact details of the cancellation costs, which this one has refused to. (I’d also ask if there was any country you wouldn’t sell weapons to, since the list of countries with a worse record than Saudi Arabia is pretty short.)

But for Prime Minister Trudeau to justify the deal by saying that Canada must “stick to its word” is nearly as offensive as making the deal in the first place.

As a general rule, Canada should stick to its word. But the Government of Canada also gave its word to itself, and the Canadian people, not to export weapons to countries that are likely to use them against civilian populations. The Canadian government should not be reduced to rubber stamping sales of deadly weapons to any country.

Canada should not feel obligated to stick to its word when new situations arise. Since the announcement of the arms deal in February 2014, Saudi Arabia has conducted multiple airstrikes on civillian targets in Yemen, including several strikes on MSF-run hospitals. The fact that these civillian deaths, whether deliberate or merely reckless, were not caused specifically by Canadian-made equipment should not soothe anyone’s conscience.

Trudeau said “We need to make sure we are respected on the world stage by keeping our word.” I would rather Canada be respected on the world stage for valuing human rights and lives at least as highly as multi-million dollar contracts. I want Canada to be respected for being open and transparent about how and why deals like these are made. I want the rest of the world to to know that my country won’t blindly “stick to its word” when confronted with evidence of human rights violations and war crimes.

(On the subject of transparency: Though Trudeau promised to be more “rigorous and transparent”, the Liberals killed an NDP motion to provide a more rigorous and transparent oversight of arms exports. But we can remember that the NDP also refused to do anything about the deal. On this subject, every party is noxiously hypocritical.)

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party had the opportunity to stand up and say “This deal should not have been made.” Or, like Conrad Black, they could have made the best defence possible under the circumstances.

Trudeau did neither. If he and his ministers didn’t actually lie about the deal (though, at a bare minimum, Trudeau lied when he called the vehicles “jeeps“), they obfuscated, hedged, and misdirected around the issue. As much as he would like us to believe otherwise, Justin Trudeau had a choice, and he chose to value Canadian business relationships over human rights and Canadian law. The least he could do is be honest about it.