It’s been nine months since Justin Trudeau’s government launched its review of a $15 billion arms contract with Saudi Arabia, and all Canadians have heard are crickets.
In October, Justin Trudeau warned that Canada would be on the hook for a sum “in the billions” if the government intervened to scrap General Dynamics Land Systems’ deal to supply the Saudi military with light armoured vehicles. Even so, he said he’d work to find a way out of the “extremely difficult contract,” which was inked by the Harper Conservatives, who welcomed the deal as an economic coup for southwestern Ontario.
But the Saudi-orchestrated murder of Jamal Khashoggi put a face to the regime’s numerous and ongoing human rights abuses, making a Canadian government wishing to claim any sort of moral leadership look like a hypocrite.
When asked for an update on the review process that started last August, all a government spokesperson said is that there’s “no final decision” and that the “review is ongoing.”
The slow-walking of this has brought “the sincerity of the effort into question,” according to an open letter from a dozen organizations, including Amnesty International Canada, Oxfam Canada and Save the Children Canada.
At this rate, the government may not take a stand at all before the election. While the review is underway, no new export permits of the contentious LAVs are being signed.
It may be politically wise to run out the clock on this before Canadians head to the polls in October, but it’s dangerous to kick foreign policy decisions down the road indefinitely for reasons that seem purely political.
The nine-month long silence on this file also shows that Trudeau and his foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, were unprepared to deal with the consequences of their virtue signaling.
Last spring, Canada’s foreign office started a Twitter battle with Saudi Arabia with a tweet demanding release of human rights activists from Saudi prisons. When Khashoggi was killed in Turkey’s Saudi embassy a few months later, fuel was added to the fire when Canada added its condemnation to the global chorus.
Canada was right to condemn the killing of Khashoggi, and is right to advocate for the release of people unjustly imprisoned (though I’d say our foreign office should leave attempts at geo-political Twitter fights to Donald Trump).
But these bouts caused more trouble than they solved. The Canadian government was quick to mouth off, but has since dithered on any action for the better part of a year.
I have no clue how Trudeau and Freeland didn’t see from a mile away that they’d be called on to do something about the GDLS contract by taking aim at Saudi Arabia. If a country is so barbaric, why sell them military equipment?
It’s an unenviable position for the Liberals. Trudeau is stuck deciding between moral purity of Canada’s trading partners and a multi-billion-dollar contract that has created real jobs for people in London and around the region. This Sophie’s choice is why the Conservatives never should have allowed the deal in the first place, though the Liberals nevertheless managed to add their own bungling to the situation.
The Conservatives seem to be unrepentant about it. The party’s foreign affairs critic said last week a Conservative government would make restoring relations with Saudi Arabia a priority and try to “win some trust” with the Gulf state.
Engagement is important, but Canadians shouldn’t get behind any position rooted in the idea that the onus is on us to fight for Saudi trust and not the other way around. Even with the understanding of Saudi Arabia’s positioning as a somewhat ally in the fight against radical ideologies in other Muslim states, the West’s soft tolerance of Saudi Arabia (which does go far beyond oil, contrary to what the Left says) doesn’t mean carte blanche for human rights abuses. It shouldn’t mean that, anyway.
Just last week Saudi Arabia made the grand gesture of allowing women to travel without male guardianship. This comes a year after women got the right to drive. At this rate, maybe they might get to choose their own clothing within a decade or two.
I get that Riyadh wasn’t built in a day, but let’s not pretend we’re dealing with a country on the cutting edge of progress here.
Canada should champion its agenda to Saudi Arabia as it does to any other country. By all means, let’s sit at the table with them. But we owe them no apology.
Photo Credit: Toronto Star
Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.
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