Daniel Turp was once a politician. Today, he is a law professor at Université de Montréal. For the last three years he has fought a protracted and seemingly quixotic legal battle against the federal government to hold it accountable for selling weapons to a murderous regime. For this, Turp deserves another title: hero.
The origin of Turp’s wholly appropriate outrage harks back to 2014, in the sunset days of Stephen Harper’s government. In February of that year, Harper’s Conservative government approved the sale of $15 billion worth of LAV-25 armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
As anyone with access to Wikipedia can tell you, selling weapons to the Saudis is a terrible idea. The House of Saud is violent, misogynistic, repressive and exclusionary, with a long history of violent crackdowns on the country’s sizeable Shia minority — and a similar bloodlust for Shias in neighbouring Yemen.
No less than an authority than Gerald Butts, Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, tweeted his ire in early 2015 by pointing out how practising homosexuality, blasphemy, adultery and/or the consumption of alcohol in Saudi Arabia often results in a death sentence. “Principled foreign policy indeed,” Butts tut-tutted Harper’s Conservatives.
These pangs of Liberal self-righteousness lasted well less than a year. “They aren’t weapons, they’re Jeeps,” Trudeau said with typical poncy aplomb on Tout le monde en parle about a week before the 2015 election. (Go on the internet and type in “LAV-25” to see how little the vehicle in question resembles a Grand Cherokee.) Once in office, Trudeau’s government approved the export of armed vehicles to one of the worst governments on the planet. Principled foreign policy indeed.
And the Liberal government would have done so quietly were it not for Turp. In early 2016, he and a clutch of his law students prepared and filed a motion to prevent this very rubber stamp. It pitted Turp against Stéphane Dion, his old ideological foe on issues of national unity, in a battle whose stakes are infinitely higher: the spilling of blood by way of Canadian-made weaponry.
Turp has been consistently stymied by the courts, which have ruled that Ottawa, in considering how these armed vehicles may undermine the “peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country,” had satisfied the tenets of the law regarding this type of sale. This week, Turp suffered another setback when for a second time a federal court judge ruled the government hadn’t “exercised its discretion in an unreasonable manner” during the sale of the vehicles.
And yet facts seemingly belie the government’s case even as Canadian courts bolster it. Last July, the Saudi National Guard deployed the Gurkha RPV, a Canadian-made armoured personnel carrier, in the predominantly Shia town of Al-Awamiyah, killing several civilians. The government suspended arms sales to Saudi for a probe into the incident. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declared herself “deeply concerned.” Yet sales resumed when the resulting report concluded the Saudis had used “proportionate and appropriate force” against its citizens.
Exactly why the Liberals have been as tenacious in selling weapons to the Saudis as the Conservatives before them is a matter of cynical retail politics. The LAV-25 is manufactured by London, Ont.-based General Dynamics Land Systems. London, surely a lovely place, is also four vote-rich federal ridings that are key to Conservative and Liberal electoral fortunes alike. The 2000 well-paid, unionized General Dynamics jobs in London and beyond are of great political importance — dissenters in Saudi Arabia be damned.
Thankfully, Turp remains a well-placed thorn in the government’s hide. The 63-year-old law professor is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. Common sense — governments selling weapons to murderers shouldn’t be allowed — will prevail should he be successful. More importantly, it will force these very governments to consider human lives, not just political horse races, when it comes to the exportation of deadly firepower.