The Canadian military has authorized the use of one of its bases for testing and quality assurance by General Dynamics Land Systems, a private defence contractor who is set to provide the $15-billion sale of light-armoured vehicles to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This move has reignited the debate surrounding the Liberal Party’s role in the controversial arms deal and their shift from a passive to an active role in facilitating the sale to Saudi Arabia.
The sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia, which was originally signed off by the previous Harper government, found support amongst all three major parties during the election period. Recently, the NDP has criticized the deal on a few occasions and has called for a halt to the sale in order to reassess the situation, citing Saudi Arabia’s poor track record of human rights both domestically and abroad in Yemen.
Since March 2015, Yemen has faced a civil war amongst Houthi forces and forces loyal to the government of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This conflict is rooted in greater animosity amongst the two groups but has more recently been attributed to the Houthi takeover in Yemen and their subsequent dissolution of parliament and institution of a Revolutionary Committee as the interim authority.
Saudi Arabia’s role as leader of the coalition backed by the US and UK against Houthi rebels in Yemen has been a cause of concern by some in Canada due to the increased levels of civilian causalities. On August 15th 2016, a hospital in northwestern Yemen that was supported by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was hit by a Saudi air strike that killed 19 people. This marked the fourth attack on a MSF facility and subsequently led to the organization pulling its staff from six hospitals in the country. The significance of these attacks is further stressed
because MSF had given all parties in the conflict coordinates of their hospitals on a weekly basis. Additionally on October 8th, at least 140 people were killed and an estimated 600 others were injured by another Saudi-led bombing of a funeral hall.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused the Saudi-led coalition of being responsible for “twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together.” Still, the Canadian government has reaffirmed its position that it will see the $15-billion deal through.
The Liberal Party has expressed Canada’s need to keep its word as a matter of principle, and the lack of evidence that Saudi has used Canadian weapons to commit crimes, as two central responses to criticism of the deal. However, the two premises they are relying on are problematic.
In an address outside of the factory that is supplying the vehicles to Saudi Arabia, Justin Trudeau stated, “Fundamentally this is a matter of principle, the principle at play here is that Canada’s word needs to mean something in the international community.” Another important principle that seems to be less significant to Trudeau is ensuring Canada is a true advocate of human rights abroad and that it does not support the repression of citizens in other states. While it is understandable that Canada has complex economic relationships with many countries, supplying arms to a nation that has repeatedly been condemned for repression of citizens remains unjustified. Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion exclaimed that the Liberal party was “simply refusing to cancel a contract approved by the former government, a contract between a private company and Saudi Arabia.” However, a closer look at the Government of Canada’s practices and its institutions displays a very different picture. Firstly, it was Stephane Dion who signed crucial export permits for the weapons after his appointment, making the new government just as complicit in the deal as the previous. Secondly, Minister Dion’s claim that the contract was “between a private company and Saudi Arabia” is misleading. In fact, the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) facilitated the deal. On their website, the CCC describes its mandate as connecting “government buyers with Canadian expertise through the negotiation and execution of government-to-government contracts”. As an extension of the Canadian government, who according to emails received a “substantial service fee for its role” in the deal with Saudi Arabia, Minister Dion’s statement is deceitful to the realities of the Government’s role in the sale. The truth of the matter is that Canada is actively involved in the exportation of arms throughout the world.
The government of Canada further defends its position on the deal by citing a lack of evidence that Saudi has used arms exported from Canada to violate international law and commit war crimes. The government’s argument regarding the matter only deals with the legal aspect of the issue thereby neglecting the moral considerations of to whom Canada supplies arms. In effect, the argument only gives consideration to the significance of war crimes if Canada is legally complicit in their perpetration. So long as Canada is not at fault for such crimes, it is business as usual for the government.
Even if the purely legal framework for this argument was accepted, the government’s position still puts the nation at significant risk. It has already been stated by some observers that Saudi Arabia has violated international law. This in and of itself should be enough for the Liberal party to reconsider its position on the matter. The risk and consequences of Canada directly facilitating Saudi Arabia’s perpetration of crimes outweighs the economic benefits that the deal offers. It is illogical for the government to wait for such an event to occur before taking action, as Canada’s reputation in the international sphere would already be compromised.
Although some may argue that the possibility of such an event is unlikely and therefore not a reasonable grounds to scrap the deal, it is not so far fetched when assessing the role that Canadian weapons have already had in the conflict in Yemen and the caution other states have shown towards Saudi’s actions in the war. Earlier this year, Houthi rebels were pictured holding Canadian LRT-3 sniper rifles, these weapons are made by PGW Defense Technologies and are believed to have been stolen from Saudi land forces. Canada’s weapons are not only fuelling both sides of the conflict but they have actually fallen into the hands of a group that is facing an arms embargo by the United Nations Security Council. Additionally, Canada’s concern for Saudi’s actions in the conflict appears to be minimal at best, particularly when compared to the position of Saudi Arabia’s strongest backer, the United States. The Obama administration gave warning to the State department regarding the forms of assistance it gives Saudi Arabia for their campaign in Yemen. Additionally, government lawyers were tasked with looking into the legal ramifications of the United State’s participation in the matter- with no conclusive end to the investigation. Canada’s lack of concern for the issue neglects the preeminent risks associated with their compliance and support of Saudi Arabia’s actions.
Overall, the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia remains controversial as it makes Canada an active partner of a state that has had a poor record of means through which they conduct their affairs. Not only is Canada’s reputation on the line but so are the lives of many citizens who continue to be killed daily. As a country that claims to be an example for the world, the government is currently failing to live up to this title.