Latest Saudi behaviour another reason to cancel arms deal

In Saudi spat, Canada stumbled onto a strong human rights position. But if Trudeau wants to remain ‘firm’ on values, the $15-billion arms deal is untenable, Cesar Jaramillo argues.

By: /
August 10, 2018
Saudi tank
Saudi tanks are deployed at the Saudi border with Yemen, April 13, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Of course, Canada must remain firm in its call for Saudi Arabia to respect human rights. Such a stand merits unequivocal applause and support. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated this week, standing up for human rights — at home and abroad — aligns with longstanding Canadian values.

As it happens, it is also the only politically viable position for the government. Consider the alternative. An apology to Saudi Arabia over human rights the year before federal elections? Not a chance.  

The key driver of this bizarre story was Saudi Arabia’s extreme and disproportionate response to a routine expression of concern by Global Affairs Canada. A tweet by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, prompted by the recent arrest of activists, including Samar Badawi (sister of imprisoned activist Raif Badawi), rightly called for the release of all civil society and women’s rights activists.

The “offending” tweet, however, was not particularly harsh. It was certainly no more forceful than numerous previous instances in which Canada has raised concerns about human rights abuses in the kingdom. Throughout the controversy surrounding Canada’s multi-billion-dollar deal to supply Saudi Arabia with weaponized armoured vehicles — which include “heavy assault,” “direct fire” support, and “anti-tank” configurations — Ottawa has been quick to reiterate that it takes every opportunity to raise human rights concerns with Riyadh.

Earlier this year, a GAC report into allegations of Saudi misuse of Canadian military exports similarly indicated that Canada “remains concerned” about, among other issues, “the high number of executions, repression against political opposition, arbitrary arrest, suppression of freedom of expression and discrimination against women.” However, the weight and credibility of Canada’s expressions of concern about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia have been steadily eroded as Ottawa continues to authorize arms exports to the known culprit.

There is a years-long, well-documented, consistent pattern of human rights violations both within Saudi borders and in neighbouring Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is the indisputable chief instigator of one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time.

Canada is well aware. But willful blindness has been the name of the game to preserve the lucrative arms deal. Two consecutive governments have persisted in the wrong-headed demand for evidence of previous abuses with Canadian-made military exports, when the key criterion for both domestic export controls and relevant international law is reasonable risk that such abuses might occur. Still, ample evidence has been produced to meet even this higher standard.

"Willful blindness has been the name of the game to preserve the lucrative arms deal."

The latest major red flag related to allegations that Canadian-made armoured vehicles had been used against civilians in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, causing numerous casualties and destruction of infrastructure. After damning footage surfaced in 2017, Global Affairs Canada pledged an investigation into the matter, putting arms export permits to Saudi Arabia on hold. However, GAC eventually endorsed the Saudi version of events, which justified the offensive against the Shia minority on the grounds of national security, and reinstated the export permits.

Paradoxically, in embracing the official Saudi narrative around the Eastern Province offensive targeting the Shia population, Canada undermined the very arguments it is now espousing to denounce the recent arrests of activists who, under dubious charges, are also labelled a threat to security by the Saudi government. Canada also considered assurances of respect for the rights of civilians during Riyadh’s violent crackdown in the eastern part of the country to be credible and sufficient.  

From a human rights perspective, Canada’s multi-billion-dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia has always been ill conceived. Now Saudi Arabia is bullying Canada — increasingly asserting its place in the driver’s seat concerning all manner of bilateral interests, including arms deals.  

Back in 2016, the Saudi ambassador in Ottawa had already framed the contract as an act of goodwill to Canada, emphasizing that the deal could have gone elsewhere. Canada, on the other hand, has given Saudi Arabia carte blanche time and again to preserve the deal, despite mounting evidence of the risks involved, thus obfuscating the letter and intent of export controls. 

Saudi Arabia appears to be less forgiving. The regime has grown bolder in demanding non-interference in domestic affairs under newly-powerful Prince Mohammad bin Salman, while its human rights record remains indefensibly abysmal.

Canada is right to take a firm stand on human rights violations wherever they may occur. But rhetoric must be joined with concrete measures; no one ever said taking a principled stand was necessarily a cost-free proposition.

Saudi actions against Canadian interests, values and norms cannot be rewarded. If there is to be any semblance of coherence in Ottawa’s handling of this file, the time has come to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia.