Q&A with Daniel Turp, professor behind case against Saudi deal

June Chua
Canada Politics

[Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion responds speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Jan. 26, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld]

A $15-billion dollar Canadian deal with the Saudi government to supply light-armoured vehicles (LAV) is the focus of a major legal action headed by Daniel Turp, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Montreal.

Turp and his students filed a notice of application for judicial review on March 21 accusing Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion of illegally issuing permits to allow the export of combat vehicles to a country with a poor human rights record.

“This is very disappointing,” Turp told Yahoo Canada News. “[The Liberal] discourse on human rights is not consistent with their actions.”

Canadian export rules as well as the Geneva Conventions Act (which Canada is a signatory of) restricts the sale of weapons to countries that may use them against a civilian population in addition to human rights abuses.

The application by Turp and his students read: “Saudi Arabia is a country ruled by a dictatorship supported by a powerful army … [It is] a state which consistently, severely and systematically violates its citizens’ human rights.”

Several international organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia as it continues to wage a war in neighbouring Yemen, drawing condemnation also from the United Nations.

Last month, members of the European Parliament voted in favour of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia. It is not legally binding but the idea is to stigmatize arms sales to the Middle Eastern kingdom. Recently, the Dutch parliament also adopted a motion to stop its government’s weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

More than 3,200 Yemeni’s have been killed in fighting in 2015, according to Human Rights Watch, which has pointed fingers at the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Spain for selling weapons used in that conflict.

The Saudi National Guard has posted photos on its Twitter account showing columns of combat vehicles near the border with Yemeni. Many of the vehicles have specific features found in earlier LAV models that were manufactured in Canada.

Turp — a former Bloc Québécois MP, who later served as a Parti Québécois MNA — spoke to Yahoo Canada News about the court case:

Q: Why did you pursue this as a judicial review?

The government doesn’t want to listen to arguments of a moral nature. We think this sale is illegal and the court is a good place to present our arguments. We have legislation concerning contracts with governments with poor human rights records and we have a commitment to the Geneva Convention — there is something very wrong with not sticking to these policies.

Canada is a country ruled by law. We also have international commitments to human rights so taking this case to court is the right thing to do.

Q: What do you think of the Liberal government’s contention that it has to go through with this sale? Dion as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said the contract was already signed by the previous government of Stephen Harper and Canada cannot renege on the deal. They also maintain 3,000 jobs are dependent on the sale and Dion has argued other countries are lying in wait to make a deal, so it won’t make a difference anyway.

They are not valid arguments when it comes to this arms deal. In the law, it says we shouldn’t export to countries where human rights are repeatedly breached. Arguments of a geo-political nature are not about what is in the law.

There is no freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia. People are routinely killed or beheaded for minor crimes. Homosexuality is forbidden. This is a state that has a very poor record on how it treats people. Saudi Arabia is essentially buying the silence of Canada: don’t meddle in our domestic affairs and we will provide you [lucrative] contracts.

Fundamentally, we have to look at what we stand for. This is what we stand for — Canada signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We made it a key principle of our foreign policy. Trudeau and Dion are not respecting that.

In terms of those jobs, my students have asked: why not focus on green jobs? Why not export goods to help other countries sustain the environment and do things that don’t put people at risk?

Q: On Tuesday, Dion made a statement about the Liberal’s form of foreign policy as “responsible conviction” — evoking ideas from the late German sociologist Max Weber. In a speech at the University of Ottawa, Dion talked about being more engaged in the world.  Does this support the Saudi sale?

This deal has nothing to do with that doctrine. In fact, it is irresponsible action. On a moral and legal level, it is not convincing at all to be using Weber’s ideas. You don’t engage with a government that has that kind of track record.

Engagement doesn’t always work. Look at what happened with South Africa and apartheid. People were arguing that we had to keep the channels open, to trade with the government and somehow, force a change. But it only worked when the world disengaged [and isolated that country] that apartheid was taken down.

Dion, in his argument, is siding with engagement on this issue of human rights and affecting change. What you should do is engage with the civil society and not sell tanks to the government!

The Saudi government has one of the worst records on fundamental human rights.

Apparently, the Liberals had an official dinner with Saudi officials last week in Ottawa. We shouldn’t be proud of this — with a government that has given precedence of international trade over human rights.

I look at the previous government of Stephen Harper, which emphasized business, hard power and focused on things such as arms deals. We thought it would be different under the Liberals but it is business as usual.

Q: What happens next?

We have to file an affidavit [a written statement of facts] in the next 30 days and a judge will be appointed to hear that. My lawyer [from the Montreal firm of Trudel Johnston & Lespérance] thinks our arguments could be heard in a federal court in June. But we will see.

This depends on the government’s response — will it challenge my standing or say it is a matter of foreign policy and therefore not for a court of law?

The court may also decide to strike it down without listening to our arguments.

At least, we have kept this issue in the spotlight and we have been well received in our campaign. We have put pressure on them.

In the end, it is about the law. The court is here to remind the government that it should abide by the law.

This interview has been condensed and edited.