Yes. Human rights override any payday
Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia should have ended long before the gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives. While the killing warranted intense media attention, it was only the latest incident in a consistent pattern of repression and human rights violations by the Saudi regime, at home and abroad.
The Canadian government’s own human rights assessment on the kingdom points to the “high number of executions, repression of political opposition, arbitrary arrest, suppression of freedom of expression and discrimination against women.”
The catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the direct result of a Saudiled military intervention that a UN panel denounced for “widespread and systematic targeting of civilian targets.”
Canadian arms are not to be authorized for export if there is a reasonable risk of misuse. The authorization or cancellation of export permits is to rely on an independent, objective risk assessment, with the human rights record of the end-user a key element.
When video footage emerged in the fall of 2017 of a violent crackdown against Shia civilians in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province involving Canadian armoured vehicles, Global Affairs Canada suspended arms export permits to Saudi Arabia and pledged a “full and thorough” investigation.
The subsequent report, released last May, indicated that some vehicles, officially intended for “transport and protection” of government officials and military personnel, underwent post-export modifications.
Mounted with turrets and machine guns, the vehicles were indeed used in that operation, in which more than 20 civilians were killed.
Despite this evidence, the report, which relied heavily on Saudi and unnamed sources, ultimately concluded that no human rights violations were committed, that Saudi forces made “efforts to minimize civilian casualties,” and that the use of force was “proportionate and appropriate.” And export permits were reinstated. If the Canadian government does indeed respond to the Khashoggi assassination by suspending export permits, its subsequent actions will require scrutiny. Another suspend-to-reinstate routine will do nothing but defuse public attention.
Ottawa’s arguments for arming Saudi Arabia have all been morally and legally unconvincing. The argument that “if Canada does not arm Saudi Arabia others will” can have no moral weight. Those who rely solely on the word of the Saudis are laughable.
Now Ottawa is claiming that failing to honour the arms contract may result in hefty financial penalties, said to be “in the billions.” Canada’s sovereign mandate, prerogative and obligation to faithfully implement the law — including cancellations of arms export permits — are somehow being subordinated to the language of a commercial contract. What does it mean if financial expediency trumps sovereign authority? Should Canadians be worried?
This last argument from the Canadian government raises a host of questions. Is the government attempting to deflect the focus from international human rights obligations to the amount of the penalty Canada must pay? Why is Canada seen to be breaking the contract if it suspends shipments, but Saudi Arabia isn’t when it commit gross violations of human rights, despite Canada’s export regulations?
In the end, despite having a foreign policy with a feminist agenda, Canada is arming one of the world’s worst oppressors of women.
Despite championing a rules-based multilateral order, it is contravening the letter, spirit and specific provisions of arms-trade regulations.
Despite seeking a seat in the UN Security Council, it is enabling the chief instigator of the devastating crisis in Yemen.
No one ever said sticking to principle was cost-free. This is why the decision around arms sales to Saudi Arabia constitutes such a compelling test of Canada’s character — and that of Justin Trudeau’s government.
How many political leaders can define their legacy by standing up for their principles before an attentive domestic and international audience?
Canada must stop sending arms to Saudi Arabia. Now. Anything else constitutes a blatant perversion of arms control regulations, and a shameful abandonment of commitment to human rights and the rights of women.
If Canada does stop shipping arms to Saudi Arabia, other arms exporters may well fill the void. But anyone who believes that such a move would be futile because it would only make a negligible difference for Saudi Arabia and Yemen is not only wrong, but misses the main point entirely: it makes a big difference for Canada.
Cesar Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares.