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April 4, 2016

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tried to claim the moral high ground for his decision to proceed with a $15-billion arms deal with the government of Saudi Arabia. Speaking to the United Nations March 15, Trudeau said the government must honour all contracts signed by the previous government whether it agrees with those contracts or not.

It does not seem to matter to the prime minister that there is near-moral-certainty that the light armoured vehicles (aka, tanks) will be used in suppressing dissent and the human rights of the Saudi people.

The prime minister told the UN, "It would indeed be just about impossible for Canada to conduct business in the world . . . if there was a perception that any contract that went beyond the duration of the life cycle of the current government might not be honoured."

Trudeau makes a valid point. A new government should not go about casually disregarding contracts signed by its predecessor.

However, this is not "any contract." Trudeau has ignored another moral norm: No contract can bind a party to do what is morally wrong.

For example, consider the fictional case of George, a trafficker in human sex slaves. George contracts with a pimp to provide him with 10 young women to be used as prostitutes. If George later decides to abandon his lucrative, but immoral business, we should laud, not criticize, his reneging on his contract with the pimp.

The Saudi government's human rights violations are legion. Last year, it beheaded at least 157 people for a wide variety of crimes with another 47 beheaded on Jan. 2. The country is notorious for its poor treatment of women, foreign workers and dissidents.

As for the arms sale, it is the country's national guard, whose role is to control internal dissent, which has contracted to buy hundreds of "light armoured vehicles" over a 14-year period from General Dynamics of London, Ont.

As well, the previous Tory government was negligent in its duties. It failed to carry out a legally required assessment of the human rights record of Saudi Arabia prior to approving the sale. It also failed to obtain required assurances from the Saudis that the tanks would not be used against their own people.

Nixing the arms sale to Saudi Arabia would strain relations between Canada and a notorious human rights violator. Doing so might have further negative economic repercussions. Nevertheless, Canada should cancel the contract. It should not be a contributor to another country's human rights violations.