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


Faith communities must show clear leadership: Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

by Rebekah Sears

“We thus make a passionate plea to the leaders of all religions, all people of good will, and all leaders of nations both with and without nuclear weapons to commit to work to eliminate these horrific devices forever,” from a statement adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, November 2018, developed by Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute.


Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

Last month I had the privilege of participating in the Parliament of the World Religions in Toronto. The Parliament is a gathering held every six years, bringing together religious leaders and organizations from around the world, with the purpose of seeking interfaith cooperation to addressing the greatest challenges and obstacles for a just peace facing our world today – challenges that transcend international borders, and that impact peoples of all ethnicities, faiths and creeds.

The theme of this year’s Parliament was: The Promise of Inclusion, the power of love: Pursuing global understanding, reconciliation and change. For seven days, thousands of people participated in plenaries and keynotes, as well as hundreds of workshops, on responding to the global forced migration and refugee crisis; protecting the rights, sovereignty and languages of Indigenous peoples; confronting violence against women and supporting greater leadership of women in faith communities; urgent, timely and coordinated action on climate change; combating social injustice, and countering hate and war; and speaking with a united voice against the looming threat of nuclear war.

Unfortunately, so often religion has been, and continues to be, used as a cover to justify political and social injustice and violence. Faith is a persuasive motivator, and regrettably has, and continues to be, used and manipulated in the pursuit of power – often as a great divider of peoples.

The message at the Parliament was aimed at countering such actions, seeking unity, in both action and conviction, calling all faith leaders to reject the use of religion to harm or oppress others, and instead applying such principles to uphold human dignity and justice.

There are so many themes, panels, workshops and keynotes that I could highlight, but one of the issues that kept coming up – from both political leaders and leaders of faith – was the looming threat of nuclear war and the call to abolish nuclear weapons.

Though only held and controlled in the hands of the few and powerful, the possible and very real and devastating threat of nuclear weapons knows no borders nor abides by international law or recognizes human dignity.

Last year, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) oversaw the final push for the adoption of a  Global Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, for which ICAN was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. The nine states that currently hold nuclear weapons refused to sign the treaty, as did many of their allies, including Canada.

The position of the leadership of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on this is clear, based on a statement released just after the conference. It was a call to action for religious leaders of all faiths to lead the way and speak truth and demand justice and peace from the powerful nations of the world, regarding the very real threat of nuclear weapons.

Representatives of ICAN were also at the Parliament itself, professors and experts Dr. Emily Welty, also of the World Council of Churches, and her spouse Dr. Matthew Bolton. At a plenary session they spoke about the often-patronizing reaction they get when speaking out to states resistant to signing the treaty, both weapon-holders and others – “It’s complicated.” Yes, like most big geopolitical issues, denuclearization is a complicated process. But to throw in the towel and ignore the potential devastating realities is just not an option.

FB Welty

Photo courtesy of the Parliament of World’s Religions Facebook Page.

The message of Welty and Bolton was clear. We know, through the research and investigations – the science and testimonies – the definite devastating impacts of a possible nuclear war. As we speak, nuclear testing continues to have devastating impacts on communities on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, along with a dozen other countries where there has been nuclear testing since 1945. Locals are rarely consulted and often not even warned. As people of faith we understand the call to come together on the issues that unite us and to speak up for justice and human dignity.


After this plenary session, Peter Noteboom, the General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and Cesar Jaramillo, Executive Director of Project Ploughshares co-lead a workshop called Principles to Practices: peace and abolishing nuclear weapons. Peter and Cesar presented research, testimonies and personal stories with a call to action from a Christian faith perspective. Earlier this year the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) passed a resolution outlining their Shared Principles of Peace, for all member churches. The document outlines principles of peace as part of the vocation of the church and its members, peace as means to work for justice, peacemaking as political engagement and a response to the threats of conflict.


Cesar Jaramillo and others at a press conference when ICAN won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Photo courtesy of Paula Cardenas Left to right: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) campaigners Setsuko Thurlow, Ray Acheson, and Cesar Jaramillo call on Canada to join a UN nuclear weapons ban at a press conference in Toronto on October 27, 2017. Jaramillo is the executive director of Project Ploughshares, an MCC partner.

To Peter the vocation of people of faith is clear – to be a united voice, speaking out of both practicalities and principles to demand a nuclear weapon-free world now – not after another Hiroshima…now!

Rebekah Sears is the MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

Swords into ploughshares

When Ernie Regehr and Murray Thomson started Project Ploughshares in 1976, their initiative was only supposed to last six months.

Just over forty years and many awards and accomplishments later, Ploughshares stands as one of the leading peace research organizations in Canada.

How did it all begin?

The seeds of Ploughshares were first sown four decades ago when two groups of people, each working separately on a common concern, came together.

Ernie Regehr—witnessing the links between militarism and under-development while working in southern Africa—teamed up with Murray Thomson (then-Director of CUSO) in 1976 to create a Working Group called “Ploughshares.” With the help of a bit of seed money and support (from CUSO, Canadian Friends Service Committee, Conrad Grebel University College, and Mennonite Central Committee), they studied the role of the international arms trade in impeding social and economic progress in developing countries.

Meanwhile, that same year, John Foster of the United Church had also convened a Working Group called “Canadian Defence Alternatives,” which aimed to educate the public on the increasing militarization of national security policy in Canada.

When these two groups merged together, Project Ploughshares was born.


“Let us beat our swords into ploughshares,” by Evgeny Vuchetich (for the UN, 1959).

Emerging as the ecumenical voice on defence policy and disarmament, Ploughshares—formally established as a division of the Canadian Council of Churches—provided a critical assessment of the expansion of the Canadian arms industry, the nuclear arms race, and the impact of the world’s massive and growing stock of “swords” on security and development.

Not surprisingly, calling for the transformation of “swords into ploughshares” (Isaiah 2:4) was not an easy sell with political decision-makers.

As staff wrote in the very first issue of the The Ploughshares Monitor (which hit the shelves in April of 1977),

It is a common assertion of federal politicians and government officials that there is “no constituency” for peace issues. Public interest in the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and related issues is said to be minimal, making it difficult to place these items on the national political agenda. However, people with an active concern about these issues know otherwise. There is a “peace constituency” out there….

Over the decades, Ploughshares has proven that the peace constituency is alive and well!

Our office copy of the very first Ploughshares Monitor (Vol. 1, No.1)!

Serving as the focal point for broader church and civil society participation, they have shaped public policy conversations on some of the most complex international security challenges—from nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, to conventional arms control, weaponization of space, reduction of armed violence, and more.

Some of this work has focused on mobilizing Canadians to act for peace.

In the 1980s, for instance, during a time of deep public anxiety about the Cold War, Ploughshares not only led a high-level church leaders’ delegation to meet with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on nuclear disarmament, but they organized Canadians to send two million postcards to MPs, urging them to oppose the modernization of nuclear arsenals.

Later, in the lead-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, Ploughshares co-wrote Prepare for Peace in Iraq, a statement endorsed by 40,000 Canadians, which helped influence the government’s decision not to participate in the “coalition of the willing.”

Other elements of Ploughshares’ work may have been less visible to the broader public, but have played a significant role in furthering various agendas of the global disarmament community.

indexIn 1986, for example, they created the only database on Canadian military production and exports, still used by international organizations researching the global arms industry.

Since 1987, they’ve published the annual (and popular!) Armed Conflicts Report, which monitors the number and nature of conflicts worldwide.

And in 2003, they initiated the annual Space Security Index project, the first and only comprehensive and integrated assessment of space security.

In addition to providing technical expertise, Ploughshares has co-founded some important coalitions (the International Action Network on Small Arms, Mines Action Canada, etc.) and provided thoughtful leadership on others (like Control Arms Coalition). This civil society collaboration has been particularly important in the development of a convention like the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Since the 1990s, Ploughshares, in partnership with other NGOs, actively and persistently promoted a treaty to regulate the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. In 2013, this decades-long endeavor finally paid off when, after rigorous negotiations, the UN adopted the ATT—a monumental achievement for the disarmament community.

Over the last number of years, they’ve weighed-in on many important public debates: in 2010, they critiqued the planned Joint Strike Fighter Jet program, long before it became top political news; this last year they’ve questioned the government’s $15 billion Saudi arms deal through innumerable op-eds and interviews; and, most recently, they’ve called out Canada—once a disarmament champion—for its absence at UN negotiations to create a worldwide nuclear ban.


Ploughshares staff, past and present (photograph by Emilia Zibaei–at the 40th anniversary celebration; from the Ploughshares website)

As new staff have come on board, Ploughshares has been able to delve more deeply into research on fully autonomous weapons systems, and to expand into new areas such as refugees and forced migration.

Known for its credible research, precise analysis, and long-term commitment to advancing policies for peace, Project Ploughshares as consistently punched well above its weight.

Where will the next 40 years lead?

Jenn Wiebe is Director of the MCC Ottawa Office and serves on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares