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Canada’s Liberals kill arms panel in Saudi exports row

Liberal MPs vote against establishing arms exports oversight committee as pressure mounts to justify $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party blocked a motion to create a parliamentary sub-committee to oversee Canadian arms exports (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada – Members of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party blocked a motion to create a parliamentary sub-committee to oversee Canadian arms exports, as Ottawa continues to field criticism over a $15bn weapons deal with Saudi Arabia.

Opposition foreign affairs critic Helene Laverdiere made a motion in the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in early February to establish an oversight committee for all Canadian weapons exports.

Six Liberal MPs voted against establishing the sub-committee on Tuesday, while Laverdiere and three Conservative MPs voted in favour.

“I can’t see any valid reason to say no, especially as they promised more transparency. But they’re not doing it. It’s an empty promise,” Laverdiere told Middle East Eye in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

“I think it would have been a very useful committee. I think that Canadians are really preoccupied by this issue. They’ve lost trust in the processes we have, so it’s important to have an open dialogue,” she said.

The landmark weapons deal was brokered in 2014 between the Saudi government and Canadian Commercial Corp., a federal Crown corporation, under Canada’s previous Conservative government. Ontario-based company General Dynamics Land Systems will manufacture and ship light-armoured vehicles to Riyadh.

But last week, documents showed that Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion personally signed off on the export permits needed to finalise the sale.

Global Affairs Canada did not immediately return Middle East Eye’s request for comment on Wednesday on the arms exports sub-committee vote.

In an email last week, department spokesperson Joseph Pickerill said Ottawa is reviewing the country’s export control measures “to find ways to make the process more open, transparent, and accountable”.

“The federal government is committed to increasing the rigour and transparency of Canada’s export control regime,” Pickerill said.

The government maintains that Canada already has some of the most stringent arms export controls in the world, and says if evidence of human rights abuses emerges it can cancel the agreement.

But Amnesty International has warned Canada that the sale could make it an accomplice to human rights violations.

“Saudi Arabia has an alarming record when it comes to human rights, one that affects the lives of thousands of people, including prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia and civilians in Yemen,” the group said in a statement.

“To supply arms to Saudi Arabia with full knowledge of this record is to risk being an accomplice to these violations.”

Laverdiere told MEE that she envisioned Canada’s oversight system as being similar to the UK’s Committee on Arms Exports Controls, which is made up of parliamentarians from the business, foreign affairs, defence and international development committees.

But the British system is far from perfect: Questions were raised in January when it was reported that the UK committee had not met for more than nine months, “allowing the government to grant export licences for weapons with no independent oversight”.

The UK has also been under pressure to justify its own arm sales to the Saudis, which one expert recently said are illegal under international law. The British government has issued weapons licences worth $4bn for sales to Saudi Arabia since the Riyadh-led Arab coalition entered the war in Yemen in March 2015.

Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen, including the deliberate targeting of schools and hospitals. The United Nations estimates that more than 6,400 people have been killed and almost 2.8 million forced from their homes.