Canada lifting Saudi weapons export block

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Canada is lifting a freeze on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia and renegotiated a criticised $14 billion contract to sell General Dynamics armoured vehicles to Riyadh, Ottawa said.

“Significant improvements” to the contract would secure thousands of jobs at the US firm’s Canadian subsidiary, where the vehicles are being made, Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said.

The announcement marks a retreat by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said in December 2018 he was looking for a way out of the deal.

A month earlier government froze new permits pending a review. Some exports continued under permits already issued.

Human rights groups and political opponents, citing the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen war, insisted Ottawa scrap a deal agreed by the Conservative government in 2014.

Champagne said under terms of the renegotiated agreement, Canada could delay or cancel permits without penalty if it discovered Saudi Arabia was not using the vehicles for their stated purpose. Ottawa would boost scrutiny on all proposed weapons sales, he added.

“This not a blank cheque to anyone who wants to export to Saudi Arabia,” he told reporters.

Trudeau said there would be penalties for scrapping the deal but gave no details. Champagne said the penalty clause was potentially worth the entire value of the deal.

Opposition New Democrats said Ottawa was “sending armoured vehicles to an undemocratic authoritarian regime with a terrible human rights record” and demanded the deal be scrapped.

“We are troubled by the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, particularly with women’s rights,” Champagne said.

The agreement was signed despite a diplomatic dispute in August 2018 after Canada criticised Saudi Arabia over human rights.

The General Dynamics plant is in London, Ontario, an area with relatively high unemployment. The Saudi announcement came as Canada reported record job losses in the coronavirus outbreak.

“As we enter a world of deep economic recession, countries – including Canada – will be less willing to give weight to human rights considerations in decisions over arms exports,” said Thomas Juneau, assistant professor and Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa.

“Basically this is good money and we need it.”