Listen Now

Canada’s go-ahead for new Saudi exports leaves questions unanswered

With Global Affairs Canada giving the green light to 48 permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, Justin Mohammed of Amnesty International Canada explains why its review was problematic and examines the questions that remain.

By: /
9 December, 2019
Armoured personnel carriers are seen on the property of General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario, Canada. The Canadian government has signed a deal with the company worth $15 billion to provide light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
By: Justin Mohammed

Human rights law and policy campaigner, Amnesty International Canada

For arms control advocates, September 17 was a day of celebration. Canada officially joined the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an international convention that aims to better regulate the global trade in weapons.

Little did we know that on the very same day, officials at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) signed off on a memorandum addressed to then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland indicating that there is “no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items” in the commission of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In so doing, the department paves the way for a resumption of arms exports to the Kingdom, noting that 48 permit applications have been deemed “ready for approval” and await the minister’s authorization.

The status of exports to the Kingdom had been uncertain since November 2018, when, in the wake of the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Freeland instituted a review of exports and a moratorium on new permits.

GAC’s memo was recently made public and, from what can be discerned from the unredacted portions, it’s majorly flawed both in process and substance.

The first question to ask is whether this memo actually constitutes the conclusion of the long-awaited review.

If it does, it’s woefully inadequate. After a year, GAC produced a whopping six-page report (the first of which is a summary). The department, which was ostensibly tasked with examining the risks posed by Canada’s exports, produced a document that instead focuses on the impact of the moratorium on Canadian economic interests, stakeholder views, Canada-Saudi bilateral relations, and the positions of “like-minded” countries. In other words, things that have nothing to do with the risk that Canadian exports could be used to commit serious international crimes.

“The first question to ask is whether this memo actually constitutes the conclusion of the long-awaited review.”

If this memo is not the promised review, it’s important to recognize that it provides no insight into why GAC has green-lit 48 export permit applications. The department’s homework is long overdue, and it appears to have given an answer without showing how it got there. What inquiries were made? What reports were considered? The reader, in this case Freeland, would have been left to wonder.

Even more troubling are sections of the memo that at best are selective and at worst misleading. Two examples are illustrative. First, in the section on like-minded countries, the memo focuses on the countries that are still allowing some exports to Saudi Arabia or could easily resume them. Nowhere mentioned are countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Greece and Austria, which have either suspended or terminated their transfers.

Second, GAC is largely dismissive of the findings of the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. According to GAC, the experts' report “takes the view that some states that export arms to [the Kingdom] and the [United Arab Emirates] (specifically, the [United States], [United Kingdom] and France) could be complicit in war crimes in relation to the conflict in Yemen.” In fact, the report confirms that over the past five years, the conflict in Yemen has given rise to a multitude of war crimes. Also omitted from GAC’s memo is the fact that the experts specifically highlight the ATT’s prohibition on weapons transfers where there is knowledge that they would be used to commit war crimes, call the legality of the transfers “questionable,” and note that the continued supply of weapons to parties to the war in Yemen “perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.” Apparently, these minor details were not worthy of the minister’s attention.

In any event, the decision to issue new export permits rests with new Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne. Under the law, he must consider whether these exports would undermine peace and security, or could be used to facilitate serious violations of international law, before signing off on new permits. Moreover, under the ATT, Canada must not authorize transfers where there is knowledge that the weapons would be used to commit attacks against civilians or civilian property — the very acts that have taken place regularly in the conflict in Yemen. With the death toll in this war surpassing 100,000 last month and Canada’s international legal obligations now fully in force, the answer should be more than clear.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter