Canada’s defence minister says the federal Liberal government is taking a wait-and-see approach following the suspected murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan was in Kamloops on Friday morning, speaking to the Kamloops Chamber of Commerce about the United States Mexico Canada Agreement.
Afterwards, he told reporters the government is waiting for more information before making any decision about an arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia reportedly worth billions of dollars.
CBC reported earlier this year details of the confidential deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia, a $15-billion agreement that saw Canada sell to Saudi Arabia 928 light-armoured vehicles and 119 heavy assault vehicles with cannons.
The government previously downplayed the significance of the deal, despite Saudi Arabia having been criticized for egregious human rights violations and for killing Yemeni civilians. Concern also arose when images surfaced showing Canadian-made vehicles used during a state conflict against Saudi Arabian Shiites.
Canada’s foreign ministry took aim at Saudi Arabia in recent months over human rights, taking to Twitter and calling for the release of imprisoned activists. The fallout, however, was swift — with the Saudi government quickly expelling the Canadian ambassador, suspending trade and calling for the withdrawal of Saudi students from Canada.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has taken heat after the suspected gruesome murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and state critic working in the United States and writing for the Washington Post.
About two weeks ago, Kashoggi visited the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to get documents pertaining to his divorce and never re-emerged. Turkish officials believe he was tortured and murdered and the Saudi government is suspected to have orchestrated his death. International outrage ensued amidst his continued disappearance, with journalists cancelling engagements in the country and others withdrawing investment, including British billionaire Richard Branson’s decision to suspend investment in a CDN$2 billion train project.
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It appears business as usual, however, between Canada and Saudi Arabia.
Asked if he believes Canada should continue to do business with Saudi Arabia, Sajjan told KTW: “First of all, as you know, our prime minister and [Foreign Affairs] minister [Chrystia] Freeland have been very clear. When it comes to human rights, our government both will always publicly and privately stand up for human rights,” Sajjan said.
“The situation here with Mr. Khashoggi is very troubling and we, too, have made statements with our allies on this regard. We are right now waiting for more information as well to get further clarity before making any further decisions. But our government has always been very clear when it comes to human rights and freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is a fundamental pillar in our democracy and we stand by that.”
Pushed on whether Canada would uphold its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Sajjan reiterated the need for more information. Asked if a Saudi Arabian investigation into what happened to Khashoggi could be trusted, Sajjan said the government would have “more to say once we have more information.”
He stressed trust in intelligence agencies and said he doesn’t want to make assumptions.
Trudeau has said in the past the government would honour its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which was initiated by the former Conservative government.
Asked if Canada should renew a deal with Saudi Arabia in the future, Sajjan said: “Right now, we need to be able to get our agency to be able to do the appropriate work and we’ll make our decision based on the facts, but our stance on human rights has been very clear and also our very strong stance on the importance of freedom of the press.”
Calling the suspected murder of a Saudi Arabian journalist concerning, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo (Conservative) MP Cathy McLeod echoed the Liberal government in saying time is needed to investigate the situation before any decisions are made.
McLeod said the story continues to evolve, with the Saudi government reportedly now confirming Khashoggi’s death.
She said there are many opportunities to get to the truth from within the international community.
“This is a very, very concerning story,” she said.