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.

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