Trudeau brushes off Saudi arms criticism as he pushes for UN Security Council seat
Published Wednesday, March 16, 2016 4:25AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, March 16, 2016 10:01PM EDT
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s push for a Canadian seat on the UN Security Council got off to a rough start Wednesday, when reporters asked how Canada plans to campaign on a platform of peace and human rights while at the same time refusing to cancel a deal to sell armed vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
Trudeau told reporters in New York that Canada’s $15-billion deal to sell light-armoured vehicles must go ahead in order to preserve the principle that “a change of government does not endanger everything that was previously signed.”
"It would indeed be just about impossible for Canada to conduct business in the world ... if there was a perception that any contract that went beyond the duration of the life cycle of a given government might not be honoured,” he said.
Trudeau made the announcement that Canada will vie for a two-year-term on the Security Council starting in 2021 while in New York for a bilateral meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"We are determined to revitalize Canada's historic role as a key contributor to United Nations peacekeeping, in addition to helping advance current reform efforts," Trudeau said.
"And Canada will increase its engagement with peace operations, not just by making available our military, police, and specialized expertise, but also by supporting the civilian institutions that prevent conflict, bring stability to fragile states, and help societies recover in the aftermath of crisis,” he added.
Amnesty International is calling on a dozen countries, including Canada, to stop arm sales to Saudi Arabia because of what they call “overwhelming evidence that the Saudi-led military coalition is failing to protect civilians, and that some attacks may amount to war crimes,” in their war in Yemen.
Pressure on western suppliers is increasing after Germany promised to review its arms sales to the kingdom, and the EU and Netherlands voted this month to ban them.
In January, the Liberal government officially condemned 47 executions and reiterated “our call to the Government of Saudi Arabia to protect human rights."
The Quebec wife of Raif Badawi, a blogger enduring lashings and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for the alleged crime of insulting Islam, has long been critical of the deal.
So too has the NDP’s Foreign Affairs Critic Helene Laverdiere.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion suggested last month that the Liberals might not have approved of the Conservative-signed deal to sell the LAVs, but was concerned about financial penalties from cancelling.
"The government simply refused to cancel a contract that had been given the go-ahead by the previous government; a contract between a private company and Saudi Arabia," Dion told a Senate committee last month.
"This is an important distinction, because if we would cancel a contract that has been approved, there would probably be stiff penalties that Canadian taxpayers would have to pay."
Former Defence Minister Jason Kenney has criticized the Liberals for Jean Chretien’s decision to cancel a deal to replace aging military helicopters -- at a cost to taxpayers of nearly half-a-billion dollars.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the deal to export the LAVs, which are made by General Dynamics Land Systems, is expected to create 3,000 jobs in an area of southern Ontario hurting from manufacturing job losses.
Conservative MP Tony Clement told CTV’s Power Play last month that his government was satisfied with the deal after a review concluded the Saudis weren’t “using the equipment against their own people.”
Former UN Ambassador Paul Heinbecker disagreed, telling CTV News Wednesday he believes the LAVs “would likely be used inside Saudi Arabia with respect to the Saudi population.”
Heinbecker, who was the last Canadian to represent Canada at the UN Security Council, said the government may face financial penalties from cancelling the deal, but that’s not clear because the contract has not been made public.
“The conundrum for the government,” he said, is that “it can give them a bad image either way.”
“These are the people that brought us Wahhabism, which is at the root of ISIS and al Qaeda,” he said of the Saudi kingdom. “These are the people who are accused by international human rights organizations, and indeed the UN, of indiscriminate bombing in the war in Yemen, which essentially they started.”
For the Liberals, it comes down to a question of “whether you’d rather have a reputation for upholding a contract or not selling these kinds of weapons to a country with the human rights background Saudi Arabia has,” he said.
Heinbecker suggested it was more acceptable to cancel arms deals than other contracts. “We’re not talking about selling wheat, we’re not talking about selling forest products or banking services,” he said. “We’re talking about selling arms.”
He noted that the U.S. cancelled a similar contract for planes that Pakistan had already paid for.
“A lot of jobs depend on it,” he added, “(so) it’s understandable the government … is concerned about what will happen to those jobs and those Canadians.”
‘Not a slam dunk’
Heinbecker told CTV’S Power Play earlier Wednesday that winning the seat “will not be a slam dunk.”
He said Canada will be competing for one of two spots against Norway, which is a “very big spender on foreign aid,” and Ireland, “which will have the backing of the EU, which is the biggest aid spender in the world.”
However, Canada ought to have a better chance in 2020’s vote than if it had run for the next two-year term, Heinbecker said. That would have required going up against allies like Israel and Germany.
Heinbecker said Canada will need to “stand for something” in its campaign, explaining that Jean Chretien’s government promised to promote a landmines treaty, the International Criminal Court and protect civilians in armed conflicts.
Heinbecker said Canada lost to Germany and Portugal in 2010’s vote because the Conservative government “treated the UN with a mixture of disdain and contempt.”
The Ambassador also made the case that being one of the 10 non-permanent members security council is a worthy goal, even though the five permanent members have vetoes.
“The best analogy I can give is it’s the difference between being a backbencher and a cabinet minister,” Heinbecker said. “If you’re a backbencher, you’re trying to interfere with what’s going on at that table from the outside through other people. When you’re at the table yourself, you are able to make a difference.”
With files from The Canadian Press and a report from CTV National News Correspondent Katie Simpson