News Roundup: Human Rights and Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Welcome to the semi-regular MCC Ottawa Office News Roundup! It’s our opportunity to share news stories, reports and resources from various sources around the web, with the goal of providing more background information and context on the countries and themes where MCC and our partners are working. We also want to speak to the role and responsibilities of the Canadian government, highlight what MCC is doing, and outline how you can get involved! The articles are drawn from a variety of sources and do not necessarily reflect the position of MCC.

By Rebekah Sears

News media has consistently featured the debate around arms sales to Saudi Arabia for the past several years. For Canada, the public debate emerged in 2014, when it came to light that the Canadian government, under Prime Minister Harper, was negotiating the biggest arms deal of our history – a $15 billion deal to manufacture and send Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi Kingdom. The debate and analysis continued when Prime Minister Trudeau’s government finalized the paperwork, setting the deal in motion, and maintaining the deal despite the continuing emergence of significant human rights concerns. See many of the details and implications of the deal here.

For this Roundup we want to dig into some of these dynamics, admittedly just scratching the surface! MCC does not have program in Saudi Arabia, Circular logo with wrapped text NO RING CMYKbut we recognize the Kingdom’s influence in the region, particularly impacting dynamics within Syria and Iraq, among other parts of the region.

We are also interested in how this deal seems to contrast with Canadian foreign policy priorities and a self-proclaimed commitment to global human rights. Canadian civil society has thoroughly and consistently raised the alarm on these inconsistencies, notably Project Ploughshares, an MCC coalition partner.

Ulterior Motives: Taking Sides in Middle East Proxy Wars

How the Saudi-Qatari Rivalry Has Fueled the War in Syria, The Intercept, June 2018

For decades, the rivalry of regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran/Qatar has dominated politics and conflict in the Middle East, including fueling brutal proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and throughout the region.

Major global players like the U.S. and Russia, and their allies (Canada with the U.S.) have long aligned themselves diplomatically, economically and militarily in this rivalry; the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Russia with Iran/Qatar.

How can we defend human rights while selling arms to Saudi Arabia?, Special to Globe and Mail, September, 2018

Despite numerous credible allegations of human rights violations by both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the condemnation on the part of countries like Canada remains incredibly

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (centre) with Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (left) in Peru, 2018 (Wikimedia Commons)

one-sided, with economic, diplomatic and military alliances – or just plain self-interest – seemingly surpassing the self-proclaimed commitments to human rights.

For years the Canadian government, particularly Parliament, has consistently and firmly spoken out against human rights violations in Iran and Iran-backed governments or movements, but Canada has been anything but firm on its stance on Saudi Arabia. Let’s take a closer look over the last few years…

Timeline: Canada and Saudi Arabia, 2017-present

Summer 2017-Summer 2018; Token human rights stances and vested interests

Advocates push for independent review into use of Canadian-made armoured vehicles in Saudi Arabia, Globe and Mail, July 2018

In 2017 when video evidence emerged showing the Saudi government using Canadian-made LAVs in crackdowns on civilians, the government, appearing to be shocked, temporarily halted exports, and promised a swift investigation. A year later, the government released a portion of a report claiming “proportionate and appropriate force” was used by the Saudi government. Civil society, including Project Ploughshares and six other organizations, was less than impressed and responded with, an open letter, calling out the complete lack of transparency and grossly insufficient process, as the investigation was carried out by government insiders with vested economic interests in maintaining the arms deal, rather than through an independent body.

How Canada could use the Saudi quarrel to help the Middle East – and itself, Dr. Jeremy Wildeman, The Conversation, August 2018

Let’s not forget Twitter diplomacy/activism. Refusing to cancel the arms deal, Canada decided to call out targeted Saudi crackdowns on human rights defenders on Twitter. It’s doubtful that the government anticipated such a harsh response, with the Saudi Kingdom shaming Canada and closing off multiple diplomatic ties (excluding oil and arms sales, of course). But then Canada missed a significant opportunity to use this apparent Saudi outrage to take a firm and consistent human rights stance. Disappointing. See a timeline/explainer of the Canada-Saudi diplomatic dispute here.

Fall 2018: Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen and the slowly fading Canadian government resolve

The Khashoggi killing has done what the deaths of 60,000 people could not, MacLean’s, October 2018

“It took the slaying of a celebrity journalist for western governments to face up to Saudi Arabia’s brutality [in Yemen]. Are they [including Canada] outraged enough to pursue meaningful change?” That is truly the question of the hour, dominating headlines for weeks, if not months, but in the end, will any change materialize in Canada?

Al-Mazraq camp houses about 5,000 people and was established in 2001 by the United Nations in Hajjah province to accommodate Yemenis displaced from the capital, Sana’a. Annasofie Flamand/IRIN (shared with permission from Ploughshares, featured in their 2018 report: The War in Yemen: 2011-2018: The elusive road to peace)

Prime Minister Trudeau was quick to respond to the Khashoggi murder, as Executive Director of Project Ploughshares, Cesar Jaramillo, puts it, “with apparent resolve” commenting that Canada would “not hesitate” to freeze arms exports bound for the Saudi Kingdom. Yet as the weeks and months went by, Canada’s resolve seems to have faded.

Where is the debate today, where does Canada stand?

Should Canada cancel its arms deal with Saudi Arabia? Yes, Cesar Jaramillo AND No, Dennis Horak (The Big Debate: Toronto Star, October 2018)

There are real and significant costs for the Canadian government to cancel the Saudi arms deal, including a financial penalty possibly up to $1 billion, not to mention the possible loss of jobs at the manufacturing company, General Dynamics, and finally, nothing would stop other countries from filling Canada’s gap.

Project Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo testifies at Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on Bill C-47 (ie. Canada and the Arms Trade Treaty), Nov 2018, (c) Project Ploughshares

However, if this is the basis of Canada’s rationale, why even develop and claim to hold to a principled foreign policy approach if it folds over in the face of pressure? I’ll let Cesar Jaramillo address this:

“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…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.”

Time for answers: Letter to Trudeau on the Saudi arms deal, Project Ploughshares (and civil society partners), March 2019

It is now March 2019, and we have yet to hear concrete plans from the Canadian government regarding the Canada-Saudi arms deal. Speculation has come out that Canada will continue with business as usual. Yet, as the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate – not to mention six other NATO members have either suspended or terminated their own Saudi arms deals – it is past time for concrete answers from Canada.

Rebekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

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