By Peggy Mason
With videos emerging on social media of Canadian armoured vehicles being used in a violent crackdown against the Shia minority in Eastern Saudi Arabia, the controversy over our $15-billion arms deal with one of the world’s most repressive regimes has resurfaced with a vengeance.
This sordid saga has featured prominently in Canadian media since at least January 2015, when the Saudis carried out a brutal public flogging of a young blogger, Rauf Badawi, whose family had sought refuge in Quebec, after his imprisonment for proposing an online dialogue on religious matters. The new journalistic focus on the terrible human rights record of Saudi Arabia stood in sharp contrast to the relative lack of media critique when the mammoth deal was actually concluded by the Harper government in early 2014. This was despite an outcry from human rights groups like Amnesty International Canada, Project Ploughshares and the Rideau Institute.
Canadian and international media attention was further heightened when the richest Arab nation — Saudi Arabia — invaded the poorest — Yemen — in early 2015, followed almost immediately by credible allegations of war crimes being committed. Reports came from organizations like Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that the Saudis were deliberately, even wantonly, targeting civilians in schools, markets, hospitals, funerals and wedding parties. The Netherlands and Sweden halted their arms deals with Saudi Arabia amid calls by the European Parliament for a total embargo. By October of 2016 the United Nations was condemning Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
The sale of heavily weaponized armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia blatantly contradicts Canadian export policy guidelines which came into force in 1986. Those guidelines restrict the export of military equipment to “countries whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.” [Emphasis added]
It is also worth noting that the broader context of this controversy includes a Liberal campaign promise to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty, which enshrines international standards for arms exports, and a stated intention to play a bigger role in support of the UN — including seeking a term on the Security Council in 2021–2022) and championing human rights and multilateral diplomacy.
Since the intense scrutiny over the deal began, the Liberal government has cycled through an array of excuses, beginning with “It‘s a done deal; we are bound by it or our reputation as a reliable partner will suffer.” Then disclosure of documents in a legal challenge to the sale revealed that it was not the Harper government but Liberal Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion who, in April 2016, had approved six export permits, covering more than 70 per cent of the total transaction. Suddenly the main public rationale became the lack of hard evidence of actual human rights violations by Saudi Arabia using Canadian equipment, backed up by the profoundly immoral catch-all — ‘if we don’t sell to them, others will.’
Even more troubling was the private rationale — that is, the departmental justification for its recommendation to the minister that he approve the export permits. In what can only be described as Orwellian logic, the memo stated that a new generation of Canadian-made LAVs would “help Saudi Arabia counter instability in Yemen.” If anyone wants proof of the impact of 10 years of Harper depredations on the capacity of the Canadian foreign service to promote human rights and international law, surely they need look no further than this!
Dion, after repeated grillings in the House of Commons and in press scrums, did finally concede that he would rescind the permits if actual evidence emerged that the Canadian LAVs were being used to violate human rights.
The legal challenge foundered on Government of Canada assurances that no hard evidence of misuse of Canadian equipment existed. Mere days later, while that decision was being appealed, the social media images of Canadian armoured vehicles appeared.
Neither the Canadian company in question nor the government sought to deny that the equipment was Canadian, and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland announced an immediate investigation. Subsequent statements by the Saudi government seeking to justify its actions confirmed the use of Canadian equipment including LAVs.
Polling conducted in early 2017 — before the revelations of actual use of Canadian military equipment against Saudi civilians — found that a majority of Canadians oppose this arms deal, and believe it should be cancelled, despite potential job losses. It would seem they agree with the very sensible proposition that Canadian jobs should not depend on the maiming and killing of innocent civilians.
To argue otherwise is to invite the question, Where will we draw the line? If potential complicity in war crimes is not a step too far, then what is?
And let us not forget that there are a number of practical steps the Liberal government can take to mitigate the economic impact of cancelling the deal, not least of which is to speed up the purchase by National Defence of this new generation of LAVs.
Even the architects of the original deal, the Conservatives, are now calling for the cancellation of the export permits.
It seems painfully clear, however, that the Liberal government is hoping to ride out the storm.
But a wide range of Canadian civil society organizations, aided by superb investigative journalism, are unwilling to let that happen. There will need to be Committee hearings on Bill C-47, the draft legislation amending Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act, to prepare for Canada’s accession to the Arms Trade Treaty. Those hearings will allow opposition parties and civil society experts alike to keep the Saudi arms deal in the public eye. And so will the growing international media focus on the Canadian deal including several Al Jazeera reports and an upcoming BBC documentary
The Liberal government still has time to turn this debacle around and make the right decision. That means cancelling all further deliveries of LAVs and related armoured vehicles and other such equipment to Saudi Arabia and any other country where similar risks arise. With the moral vacuum in the Trump White House now impossible to ignore, it is all the more important that human rights and international law are at the forefront of Canadian international policy.