Canada is looking for a way to end a multibillon-dollar deal to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, according to the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, but the country hasn’t yet figured out how to leave the agreement.
“We are engaged with the export permits to try and see if there is a way of no longer exporting these vehicles to Saudi Arabia,” Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday, in the latest signal that his government is increasingly likely to terminate the contract.
Following the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and mounting civilian deaths from the war in Yemen, Trudeau has been under increasing pressure from rights groups, academics and policy advisers to cancel the arms deal.
Both Germany and Sweden have cancelled arms contracts with Saudi Arabia following public outrage over the brazen killing of the dissident journalist, but Trudeau has previously said that cancelling the contract would cost the Canadian government billions.
Trudeau’s unwillingness to cancel the deal has frustrated arms control activists.
“The government has clearly gotten to a point that its most pragmatic staffers and advisers must be convinced that this is too costly for Canada’s reputation,” said Mark Kersten, deputy director of the Wayamo Foundationand author of Justice in Conflict. “But there needs to be a degree of healthy skepticism here. We’ve seen this before with the Trudeau government: they say one thing and either do nothing, or the exact opposite.”
The arms deal, initiated under the previous Conservative government in 2014 but continued under the Liberals, supplies the Saudis with light armoured vehicles and is worth C$14.8bn ($19.8bn).
At the time, it was the largest export deal in Canada’s history, making the country the second-largest arms exporter to the Middle East.
Kersten called Trudeau’s previous public statements on the deal – that it couldn’t be cancelled and that the deal represented part of Canada’s global reputation – a “comedy of cop-out excuses”.
Earlier this year, the Trudeau government was forced into a U-turn on another weapons deal after news broke that an order of helicopters sent to the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, could be potentially used against civilians. The Canadian government has previously approved export licences for military goods to China and Algeria, both nations with poor human rights records.
After videos of security forces attacking civilian protesters began circulating in August 2017, the government temporarily suspended permits for armoured vehicles exported to Saudi Arabia.
“It comes down to a deceivingly simple question,” said Kersten. “Do we want to be a country that has an arms trade with very unsavoury states, who may actually end up using these very same weapons to commit the kinds of atrocities and rights abuses that Canada has proposed to stand up against?”