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Dimitri Lascaris says Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion met with Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and considered him an important ally days before the executions were carried out

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. A $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia signed under the Harper government has come under fire, since the Saudi government executed 47 people on January 2. The deal includes hundreds of combat vehicles, and will reportedly include training on Canadian soil. Despite growing and mounting protests, Foreign Minister Stephane Dion says that the Trudeau government will not reconsider the deal. This news comes as the Iranians say that the Saudis have bombed their embassy in Yemen, as well as reports that Saudis have bombed a center for the blind in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. Human Rights Watch says Saudis have used cluster bombs in residential areas, and so far the death toll is 2,800 people from this conflict, according to the UN commissioner for human rights. To discuss all of this we are joined by Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a Canadian lawyer, called to the bar in Ontario, and he’s on the board of the Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us, Dimitri. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Dimitri, this particular move and the defense of this deal by Stephane Dion is all counter to what they promised during the election campaign. Your thoughts? LASCARIS: Sure. And you know, they, they came to power after almost ten years of a government that had established new lows repeatedly for Canada’s standing in the world. For example, in its unqualified support of Israel, even through the attack on Gaza in 2014 that killed almost 500 children. In its bombastic approach to dealing with Russia. In its obstructionism on climate change. The government of Canada had really suffered badly under the Conservative government in terms of its international standing. And it was widely thought that that’s one reason why it was deprived a seat on the Security Council when the opportunity arose. So with that as the background, Justin Trudeau, the new prime minister, and his party the Liberal Party promised to return to what they regarded as Canada’s high standing in the world through a principled approach to foreign policy. That was the promise. The contract you mentioned is generating reportedly 3,000 jobs in a city called London, Ontario, where I happen to spend most of my time. A city of about 400,000 people. And in that city, of course, because of the–it has an elevated unemployment rate relative to the national average. It’s been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs over recent years. So in that city the criticism, not particularly surprisingly, of this deal has been very muted. And a number of people have even come out and supported it. But outside of the country, where the economic benefits of this deal are nonexistent, people are paying closer attention to the behavior of the Saudis recently, and they’re extremely troubled, and rightly so, about what they see, for reasons that you articulated. And for other reasons, including their apparent support for Islamic, violent Islamic extremists in the Syrian conflict. Now, all of this sort of has put a laser focus, the Saudi file has put a laser focus on the promise of principled foreign policy because–. PERIES: Now, even–Dimitri, I saw that even the Globe and Mail has taken a position against this deal, given what has happened recently in Saudi Arabia. So the resistance isn’t just coming from a few, it’s now become popular discourse. LASCARIS: I think that’s correct. It’s now entered the mainstream media. And it’s going to be very–the mainstream, not just media, but mainstream public discussion about Canada’s foreign policy on human rights. I haven’t seen this level of concern since the deal was announced in the Canadian public. And I think that that is related to the atrocities that this government, this Saudi autocracy, is reportedly committing throughout the region. The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr seems to have struck a particularly sensitive chord, because by all accounts he was a peaceful critic. There’s certainly no evidence, none that has been adduced by the Saudi government or anybody else, that he was advocating violence. He was criticizing the brutal regime, and particularly its treatment of the Shiite minority in the country, with complete justification. He had already reportedly suffered torture at the hands of the government. And he was, frankly, murdered in cold blood by the Saudi autocracy. And what was particularly troublesome for the Canadian government in this regard, and this is something that the Globe and Mail–and as far as I can see, no other corporate media outlet has touched on–is that the new foreign minister, Stephane Dion, reportedly a man of unshakable convictions, met with the Saudi foreign minister in Ottawa days before the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. On December 16, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, headed by Stephane Dion, issued a press release in which it announced that the Saudi foreign minister would be meeting with Dion in Ottawa on the 17th of December. In it the Department of Foreign Affairs went to great lengths to characterize Saudi Arabia as an important ally, and as a partner in the fight against terrorism, as a source of stability in global oil supplies. It was very much a praiseworthy press release. And there was a little throwaway sentence in there that the Foreign Minister Stephane Dion was going to raise the issue of human rights with his Saudi counterpart. And you see this language all the time when Western governments are dealing with unsavory proxies, that they’re going to raise issues of human rights. And as far as I can tell, that’s become a code for we’re going to pretend to be caring about human rights in our dealings with this particular proxy or ally. So what happened after the meeting? We don’t know what happened in the meeting other than that press release. Presumably Stephane Dion did raise the issue of human rights. That’s what he said he was going to do. And then two weeks later we hear that a peaceful critic of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, has been murdered in cold blood. The government of Canada did not react immediately on the news of the execution of the Sheikh. A number of days went by. There were very critical reports of the Saudi government in the Canadian press. And then it came out with a press release a few days ago in which it decried–that’s the word it used–it decried the execution of the sheikh, and said it was particularly concerned about the fact that this was potentially going to generate instability in the region. A region that is already on fire with deadly conflicts. Now, the government said also in that press release that it was going to continue to raise the issue of human rights with the Saudi government. But if that were even remotely remotely effectual, then why didn’t the raising of the issue of human rights on December 17 by Stephane Dion impede or deter the Saudi government from executing Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr? It clearly had no effect whatsoever. And of course, reports came out after the 17th also of this incident you mentioned, the bombing of a center for the blind in Yemen. There’s absolutely no indication that the Canadian government’s purported efforts to raise the issue of human rights with the Saudi regime, or the efforts of any other Western government to do so, is having any kind of moderating effect on the Saudi government. And at the end of the day, all that’s going to matter to that government, if anything, is going to be meaningful economic and military repercussions. It’s within that context that a couple of days ago Stephane Dion, the man of purportedly, the foreign minister with purportedly unshakable convictions, went on the CBC and announced that he was going to allow the arms contract to remain in place. And as the Globe and Mail noted, these are not purely defensive weapons. There are automatic weapons mounted on these armored vehicles. And even if they were purely defensive, they are being used to protect a military force and security forces that are engaged in atrocities throughout the Middle East. PERIES: And there’s evidence that they have used some of this weaponry that they’re acquiring both from the United States and now from Canada against their own people that are protesting some of what’s going on. LASCARIS: Sure. And not only that, but they sent a column of armored personnel carriers, or vehicles like this, into Bahrain during the Arab Spring back in 2011 and brutally put down, with the assistance of a minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain. Bahrain brutally put down an uprising by the majority Shia population. So there is no, there’s no way to put a kind face on this arms deal. It is an absolute abomination. You could hardly find a worse government in the world to which to sell these arms, and they can be used in an offensive capacity, not purely a defensive capacity. PERIES: And the only justification that is available is that it’s creating jobs in the community, or in–what other defense is there? LASCARIS: Well, there’s not. And that’s not even a defense, because ultimately the government is capable of providing employment. The government has the resources to convert manufacturing facilities like those where these vehicles are being produced in London to a productive, peaceful use. But it’s not using those resources. It’s doing things like spending, you know, massive amounts of public money, for example, on subsidizing the fossil fuels industry. The resources are there to give these people good jobs that doesn’t involve facilitating human rights violations. They’re not being employed. So apart from the Saudi file, I think there are two other incidents that I want to mention. One is that Justin Trudeau said that he was going to end Canada’s participation in the bombing mission, the U.S.-led bombing mission in Syria and Iraq. He said this repeatedly during the campaign. And then after he was elected, he said the next day that he had spoken to Barack Obama, and that he had reiterated his commitment to ending the bombing issue. Well, here we are two months later, and the six CF-18 fighter jets that Canada has sent to be part of this mission are continuing to bomb. There was a report as late as early January that CF-18s had engaged in a bombing attack in Syria. And there were reports in the Iraqi press in December that CF-18s had struck a primary school in Iraq and had caused extensive civilian casualties, an accusation that was largely ignored by the Canadian press. So there’s no indication that this bombing mission is coming to an end anytime soon, even though Justin Trudeau keeps saying that he’s committed to ending it. And then the third file where we’ve seen no move towards a principled foreign policy as was promised is the case of Israel. Right after the election, I think actually in Paris, Trudeau met with Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government has adopted an openly racist and violent policy towards the occupied territories, and he reiterated Canada’s strong commitment to supporting Israel and the invaluable, purportedly invaluable nature of the friendship between the two governments. He gave absolutely no indication in discussing the future relations with Israel that there are going to be meaningful repercussions for Israel’s systematic disregard of Palestinian rights. And as you know, and I know you’re going to be covering this, as recently as a couple of weeks ago a Canadian Palestinian was shot in the West Bank. And you know, as I know you’re going to find out when you speak to the victim of that shooting, she was shot by an Israeli sniper. Her name is Rehab Nazzal. The Canadian government has done nothing, as far as we can tell, to address that, that atrocity. So when it comes to any of those three files, the CF-18s and the bombing mission in Syria and Iraq, the case of Israel, the case of Saudi Arabia, principled foreign policy is nowhere to be seen in Canada. PERIES: Dimitri, it sounds like Saudi Arabia is also getting the exception rule, as does Israel, on matters of human rights, and also of war, conflict, and use of military weapons against its own people. I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us this extensive report. LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at