Sweet contradictions: Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia

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By Allison Pytlak, Control Arms Policy and Advocacy Specialist 

In the course of just a few days, the Canadian government both condemned recent human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and confirmed that it will proceed with plans to sell weapons there. This bizarre policy contrast that came to light earlier this month has raised eyebrows and questions from within Canada and abroad.

As a Canadian, and especially one living abroad, I’m often asked about my country’s actions. This time, however, I’ve been unable to explain why a country with a history of leadership on human rights is comfortable being an arms broker to a known offender.

The $15-billion arms deal, the largest in Canadian history, was brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) — a taxpayer-financed Crown corporation — for an undisclosed number of Light Armoured Vehicles to be manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems based in London, Ontario. While some have dismissed these vehicles as mere “jeeps”, these are in fact modern machines outfitted with large-calibre guns, cannons and mortars.

This, in turn, means that the sale should fall under the scrutiny of Canada’s arms export policies and undergo a human rights assessment. The assessment needs to determine if there is a “reasonable risk” that military exports in question will not be used against civilian populations.

It’s not clear if this assessment has taken place or if export permits have been issued. Yet the deal is proceeding with little explanation from the government. Herein lies the contradiction – and the mystery.

The appalling human rights record of the Saudi regime is well-known and well-documented. A recently–issued report by Amnesty International provides extensive documentation of war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in neighbouring Yemen. There are reports of Saudi armoured vehicles, likely Canadian-made, used against Bahraini protestors in 2011. When asked, the Canadian government didn’t deny if those vehicles were Canadian made.

What is most galling from many has been the overall lack of transparency from the government regarding the decision to allow the deal to go forward despite new and recent evidence of Saudi human rights violations. The deal was always shrouded in secrecy, with much of it worked out and agreed under the government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Throughout his time in office, Harper’s Conservative party had a close relationship with the Canadian defence industry. The victory of the Liberal party under new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 2015 was, for many, heralded as a positive turning point with the potential for change and increased transparency. That the new government has also failed to explain its rationale in allowing the deal to go ahead, or how it passed a human rights assessment, is extremely disappointing.

The real kicker, however, is that the day before announcing that the sale would proceed, Canadian Foreign Minister Dion publicly decried the execution of 47 individuals in Saudi Arabia and called on the government to “…protect human rights, respect peaceful expressions of dissent and ensure fairness in judicial proceedings.”

Canada is not alone in coming under fire for its decision to arm Saudi Arabia. Similar questions are cropping up in Belgium, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands. In December, a legal opinion commissioned by members of Control Arms UK found the British government’s sale to be in violation of its own export policy, the European Union Common Position on arms exports and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Canada is the only NATO country to not have joined the ATT, but the Trudeau government has prioritized accession to the instrument and it is expected to happen within the year. How might such an accession affect Canadian foreign policy? These arms sales to Saudi Arabia provide an illustrative test case of how the government would have to manage any future exports with even greater stringency once it joins the ATT, as well as report back to fellow States Parties on how it is implementing its commitments.

I am encouraged by the fact that in response to pressure from media and the public, the government changed course slightly. While they still have “no intention” of cancelling the deal, it could suspend or cancel weapons exports if human-rights conditions in Saudi Arabia are shown to have “steadily deteriorated.” A redacted version of their human rights analysis will also become available.

But more can be done from this country with a proud past and proven ability to use soft power to achieve change in the world. The Prime Minister who responded to questions about why he chose progressive new policies by saying, “Because it’s 2015” should apply that same reasoning towards bringing Canada in step with the ATT in 2016.