Saudi arms deal sheds unsavoury light on Liberal foreign policy

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It is difficult to predict what kind of government misstep can seriously tarnish a government's reputation. Some mistakes have legs and others, inexplicably, seem not to. But the stunningly stupid decision to go ahead with a $15-billion sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia has the potential to expose Justin "Canada is back" Trudeau as a phony. Indeed you could hardly design an issue so perfectly fitted to reveal a government with a progressive public face contradicted by a ruthless disregard for human rights. The question is, did the spin doctors simply misjudge how widespread the public revulsion would be, or is there something deeper going on? Is it really just about jobs or is there a hard-nosed commitment, inherited from the Conservatives, to a backward Middle East foreign policy?

A series of missteps

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has been severely weakened by his performance on the Saudi arms sale file. First he misrepresented the government's inability to get out of the contract -- saying it was legally committed by the Conservative government's actions. He compounded his credibility problem with another misleading gambit -- that he was in fact following Canadian law in signing the export permits. Dion attacked the Globe and Mail for its accusation of hypocrisy, claiming that "[t]he Foreign Affairs Minister may block the exports permits at any time if there were serious evidence of misuse of the military equipment." That is, presumably, after our LAVs have been used to attack civilians. But in fact the export control guidelines don't refer to "serious misuse," but to whether "[t]here is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population."

There is no need here to repeat what everyone already knows about the hideous human rights record of Saudi Arabia -- it is amongst the worst of the worst. And in fact the Saudi government has used exactly this kind of armoured vehicle against its own dissenting citizens. According to Belkis Wille, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch: "The Saudis have used such vehicles to violently suppress peaceful protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011 and 2012." Is there a "reasonable risk" that it will do so again? Everything we know about the new and far more aggressive regime in Riyadh today says yes. In January the regime executed 47 prisoners (most by beheading) on a single day. The regime executed 151 in 2015 -- the most in 20 years.

The Saudi government described those executed as "terrorists," but the law defining terrorism includes anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent or violence against the government. We don't know how many were executed for acts of violence and how many for "dissent."

While the arms sales guidelines aim to protect the civilian population of the country in question, surely the Trudeau government should consider the use of its exports against civilians anywhere to be a human rights dealbreaker. It is precisely this situation which has prompted Canada's allies in the European Parliament "[t]o launch an initiative aimed at imposing an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia." Saudi Arabia's brutal bombing campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels has sparked outrage in most Western capitals. The United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen "[d]ocumented 119 coalition [bombing] sorties relating to violations' of the laws of war." 

There is little doubt that Stéphane Dion and his boss would like us to believe that Saudi Arabia's total disregard for civilian lives and its targeting of medical facilities in Yemen (a possible war crime) are irrelevant when it comes to signing arms exports permits. But it appears to many governments, international agencies and NGOs as decisive. In swimming against the international tide, Dion's new foreign policy philosophy -- "responsible conviction" -- might better be called "conviction when convenient."

Insight into foreign policy

But putting all of this down to a botched political calculation regarding Canadian jobs is not a very convincing explanation. Does this ugly bit of Trudeau policy reveal something more substantive? What does it say about the government's overall Middle East policy? One of the reasons Dion has given for the arms sale is that Saudi Arabia is an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. But anyone with knowledge of its roots knows that Saudi Arabia is the motherland when it comes to radical Islam. Right now in the U.S. there is a fierce debate raging about whether or not to release a secret 28-page section of a 2002 congressional report on 9/11, dealing with possible involvement of elements of the Saudi regime in the terror attacks.

While it is still relatively early days in the Trudeau government, promises of a significant shift in Middle East policy are still nowhere to be seen. A 2013 assessment of where Trudeau would go on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggested major shifts in balancing the interests of the two sides. But so far Canada's support for Israel seems unwavering.  What stands out is Trudeau's support of a Conservative resolution that would have the government "condemn" any advocacy for the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) campaign for Palestinian rights. He also opposes the EU's new product labelling initiative "[t]hat requires products produced in the settlements and sold in the EU to be clearly marked." And there seems to be little if any movement on Trudeau's commitment to re-engage with Iran. In short, so far, Trudeau's Middle East policy looks disturbingly like Harper's.

While policies supporting both Israel and Saudi Arabia may seem contradictory, they are, in fact, quite consistent. The two countries share a number of common enemies, including Shia Islam, Iran, pan-Arab nationalism, the Assad regime in Syria, and Hezbollah. They are also the most vociferous regional opponents of U.S. and EU efforts at a rapprochement with Iran. If Canada doesn't move on its pledges regarding policy change, it will find itself increasingly at odds with the U.S. and EU. At no time in the past three decades has the tension between the U.S. and Israel and Saudi Arabia, its two principal Middle East allies, been greater. One way for Dion to indicate he's not offside on re-balancing Middle East policy would be to end his self-righteous posturing on the arms deal and reverse the export permits.

Murray Dobbin has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's State of the Nation column, which is also found at The Tyee.

Photo: Laurel L. Russwurm/flickr

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