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Canada - Saudi Arabia: AI Canada open letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Nicholson on arms trade deal

    May 28, 2015

    The Honourable Rob Nicholson
    Minister of Foreign Affairs

    May 28, 2015

    Dear Minister Nicholson,

    Over the past several months, Amnesty International has – in letters to the government and in comments in the media – highlighted our serious concerns about the human rights implications of the $15 billion deal reached between London, Ontario-based General Dynamics and the Saudi Arabian government for the sale of potentially hundreds of armored vehicles over the next decade.

    The Canadian government, as you know, has an obligation to carry out a human rights assessment of the deal to ensure that, among other things, “there is no reasonable risk that the good might be used against the civilian population.”  Given the very serious and widespread human rights violations regularly committed by Saudi officials, and given the nature of and potential uses of the vehicles that are the subject of this lucrative deal, a thorough and transparent human rights assessment is urgently required. 

    We are writing this Open Letter to you with a request that such an assessment be conducted if that has not yet already taken place, and that the results be released to the Canadian public.

    The following excerpt from our most recent Annual Report offers a stark summary of how serious and widespread human rights violations are in Saudi Arabia.  We have also highlighted our concerns in recent submissions to the UN Human Rights Council. 1 

    The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process, including a special anti-terrorism court that handed down death sentences. New legislation effectively equated criticism of the government and other peaceful activities with terrorism. The authorities clamped down on online activism and intimidated activists and family members who reported human rights violations. Discrimination against the Shi’a minority remained entrenched; some Shi’a activists were sentenced to death and scores received lengthy prison terms.

    Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and sentenced others to flogging. Women faced discrimination in law and practice, and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence despite a new law criminalizing domestic violence. The authorities detained and summarily expelled thousands of foreign migrants, returning some to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights abuses. The authorities made extensive use of the death penalty and carried out dozens of public executions. 2

    Our concerns about this deal arise at the same time that a troubling case of human rights abuse in Saudi Arabia, with close Canadian connections, has attracted widespread political and public attention across Canada and around the world.  Raif Badawi, whose wife and children now reside in Quebec as resettled refugees, has been sentenced to a ten year prison sentence, 1,000 lashes to be administered publicly and other sanctions, simply because he has exercised his right to freedom of expression through a blog that highlights human rights and other issues.  Minister, Amnesty International members across Canada await hearing from you publicly about Raif Badawi’s case, clearly and unequivocally calling on Saudi officials not to proceed with any further flogging and to unconditionally release him from prison.

    The human rights concerns associated with the deal extend to ways in which the vehicles may be used in Saudi Arabia but also in other countries.  Saudi forces have, been active in recent years in Bahrain and are at the present time in the midst of a military campaign in Yemen.  Amnesty International has highlighted concerns about violations committed by Saudi forces in both of those foreign contexts. 3

    Given the potential implications of the arms deal and the deep concern about human rights in Saudi Arabia as illustrated by Raif Badawi’s case, we have called on the government to ensure that a thorough human rights assessment of the deal is carried out and that the results are released publicly.  That is why Alex Neve wrote alongside the directors of Project Ploughshares and PEN Canada in a Globe and Mail opinion piece on January 22, 2015, calling on the government “to release its assessment and show Canadians that it takes human rights seriously, especially when approving arms deals.” 4

    It is not entirely clear what assessment has or has not been conducted of this arms deal, and when that may have happened.  We are further deeply troubled by the recent reports in the Globe and Mail indicating that any such assessment will not be released to the public because of the need to protect the “commercial confidentiality” of General Dynamics. 5

    Minister Nicholson, that cannot stand.  There is no need to reveal sensitive or competitive commercial aspects of the deal.  But it is of inescapable importance that the deal’s human rights implications be fully assessed and the results shared openly with Canadians.  That includes details of the arms being sold, a thorough overview of the government’s analysis of the current state of human rights in Saudi Arabia and an assessment of the degree to which these arms in that context may be used to violate human rights, either in Saudi Arabia or by Saudi forces operating in other countries.

    Quite simply, there can be no secrecy when it comes to protecting human rights; no matter the country and no matter the context.  We look forward to hearing news that there has been a through human rights assessment of this arms deal and that the results are being released to the Canadian public.

    Alex Neve    
    Secretary General   
    Amnesty International Canada  
    (English branch)


    Béatrice Vaugrante
    Directrice Générale
    Amnistie internationale Canada francophone


    1.  Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia: is this what is to be expected of a UN Human Rights Council member (Part 1)?, MDE 23/1054/2015, 24 February, 2015,; Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia: is this what is to be expected of a UN Human Rights Council member (Part 2)?,  MDE 23/1647/2015, 20 May, 2015,
    2. Amnesty International Report 2014/15,
    3. See, for example, Amnesty International, Mounting evidence of high civilian toll of Saudi-led airstrikes, 8 May 2015,
    4. Alex Neve, John Siebert and Tasleem Thawar, No more Saudi business as usual, 22 January, 2015,
    5. Steven Chase, Ottawa aims to keep lid on details of Saudi arms deal, The Globe and Mail, 27 May, 2015,


    For further information contact John Tackaberry, Media Relations
    (613)744-7667 #236


    Amnesty International Canada Open Letter