PM doesn’t like Saudi deal, but he’s stuck with it

by Paul Wells

Canada would be seen as a “banana republic” if it scrapped a $15-billion deal to sell armed vehicles to Saudi Arabia, Justin Trudeau says.

“People have to know that when you sign a deal with Canada, a change in governments won’t immediately scrap the jobs and benefits coming from it,” the prime minister said in an interview in his office in Parliament’s Centre Block. “Because we’re not a banana republic.”

The prime minister’s remarks constituted his most forceful defence yet of an arms deal that promises substantial economic benefits, but has turned into a public-relations nightmare for a government that prizes itself as a human-rights champion.

The deal, reached in 2014 between the Conservative government of Stephen Harper and the Saudi regime, gives General Dynamics Land Systems Canada a 15-year contract to sell light armoured vehicles to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. That’s the unit of the Saudi security apparatus dedicated to containing internal unrest. That raises the prospect of Canadian-made vehicles, some fiercely armed with 105-mm guns, being turned some day against pro-democracy protesters by a regime that brooks no opposition and is particularly oppressive of women’s rights.

In his interview with the Star, Trudeau suggested he doesn’t much like the Saudi deal and will seek to avoid comparable agreements in the future. But he says he’s stuck with this one.

“We inherited the contract that was signed with Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Going forward, we will make sure that we are much more rigorous and transparent about living up to Canadians’ expectations. But, at the same time, we can’t turn around and cancel a contract like that without putting in jeopardy Canada’s business relationships with countries around the world.”

Striking that balance between commerce and rights is “really important,” Trudeau said. “I think that Canadians in general very much understand … that we need to engage in the world and stand up for human rights. And getting both of those things right is really important. It’s something that Canadians generally feel the last gang didn’t do a very good job on.”

Trudeau has struggled to find his footing on other foreign-policy files. The new prime minister left immediately after his government was sworn in last November on a string of foreign trips – to Turkey, the Philippines, Malta and Paris. Only the last stop, the Paris climate conference, was one he was at all eager to make. Aides to Trudeau grumbled that the rest were largely a distraction from the early work of a new government with a heavy and pressing domestic agenda. Ever since, Trudeau has basked in adulatory coverage abroad. He is on the cover of this week’s Le Nouvel Observateur, a French newsmagazine, for a story that suggests Canada could be a model for France. But he has also been criticized for the way he conducts his foreign policy.

China is another example. Last week, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, berated a Canadian reporter for asking about the country’s human-rights record. Canada’s foreign minister, StÈphane Dion, listened silently and took two days to express support for the reporter on Twitter.

In his Star interview, Trudeau said, “Big global players like China need to do a better job of respecting human rights.” But that remark was prefaced with a long explanation of China’s potential as an export market for Canada.

“I think Canada needs to engage more fully in the world in commerce. China is a growing opportunity, not just as a market – because 300 million new members of the middle class makes a big difference in the kind of products Canada can export. And higher-value products, not just natural resources.”

But Canadian exports are valuable precisely because Canada is admired around the world, Trudeau said, and blowing that advantage by overlooking human-rights concerns would be a false economy.

“If a middle-class family in Shanghai or Guangzhou is looking for a good-quality product, we want them to look at a maple leaf and say, ëOK, it’s good quality,'” he said.

“Now, what goes into the brand of a country? Well, obviously it’s not just environmental sustainability and good health care for our workers. It’s also human rights and respect for individuals. So it’s part of Canada’s identity that we stand up for human rights.”

Trudeau said that once when he travelled with his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in China after his retirement, he asked whether his father had discussed the bloody repression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests with the Chinese leadership.

“And the answer was, ëYes, I did, and they instantly started talking about indigenous Canadians and how we weren’t doing very well on human rights either,'” Trudeau recalled.

“Well, I’m very aware that this is now something we’re working on significantly here at home, to improve the situation and the relationship with indigenous Canadians.”

Paul Wells is a national affairs columnist

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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