O Canada: A call for equal opportunity outrage over weapons sales to human rights abusers

O Canada: A call for equal opportunity outrage over weapons sales to human rights abusers
Blog: How did the definition of 'Canadian' go from Pierre Berton's "someone who can make love in a canoe" to "someone who sells weapons to human rights abusers"?
6 min read
16 Aug, 2017
Trudeau's foreign policy doesn't seem to differ much from his Conservative predecessor's [Getty]

Canadian politicians have rightly raised concerns over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in light of new evidence that combat machines made by Terradyne Armored Vehicles, based in Newmarket, Ontario, have been used to quell a Shia uprising in the Saudi Arabia's volatile Eastern province.

Experts have identified the vehicles featuring armour cladding and weapons turrets as Terradyne Gurkha RPVs.

"We shouldn’t be selling any more arms to Saudi Arabia," an outraged Irwin Cotler, who served as justice minister under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, told The Globe and Mail last week.

"I don't think we should be [undertaking] arms sales with a country that is engaged in major human rights violations," he added.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, in the Philippines for the ASEAN-Canada ministerial meeting, said she had instructed her officials to "urgently" investigate the matter and that she was "deeply concerned" over the reports of Canadian weapons being used against Saudi citizens.

Freeland also said she had raised the matter with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini while in Manila.

And well-meaning activists here have been holding up the Swedish example - they tore up lucrative arms contracts with Saudi Arabia a few years ago ostensibly over human rights concerns, and are considering an outright ban by 2018 - as something to which Canada should aspire.

But if you look beneath the surface of this apparent outrage at Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia, there are so many elephants in the room that this international weapons circus is too crowded for one big top.

First of all, as per usual, no one has mentioned any of the other perpetrators of human rights abuses we enthusiastically sell arms to, including Israel.

In March of this year Canada announced an investment of $13 million to further strengthen the country's export control regime

Canada's weapons export-control rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens". In theory, if there's risk that the client state could use the weapons against their own population, exports are supposed to be blocked.

In March of this year Canada announced an investment of $13 million to further strengthen the country's export control regime, promising to implement new brokering controls and to improve transparency.

Terradyne Gurkha vehicles are allegedly being used by Saudi Arabia
in their reported campaign against Shia villagers

So current outrage directed exclusively at Saudi Arabia would seem to fly in the face of human rights abuses perpetrated by other Canadian arms clients. Some human rights abusers, it would seem, are more equal than others.

At stake is Canada's national mythology as a peace loving nation (not to mention "progressive" Sweden's - a major player in global arms exporting), but also any notion of Justin Trudeau's foreign policy - especially in terms of the Middle East - being any different than that of his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

While the myth of Canada as a neutral broker in terms of Israel and Palestine is belied by a long history of Canadian Christian Zionism, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B Pearson's important role in UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land, the millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations used to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service ties to Mossad, Harper's policies were nakedly pro-Likud.

In 2009, the then-prime minister cut funding to KAIROS, a well-regarded NGO deemed too "pro-Palestinian", and in 2012 refused - alone among G8 leaders - to embrace President Obama's peace plan based on pre-1967 borders, before voting against a Palestinian bid for statehood, contrary to the wishes of a majority of Canadians, according to polls.

Ammunition sales to Israel spiked from 2010-2013 according to Industry Canada reports, as did (according to Foreign Affairs) bombs, grenades, torpedoes, mines, and military software and technology exports. This enthusiastic arming of the Israeli state occurred just in time for 2014's "Shock and Awe" campaign visited upon trapped civilians in Gaza - in a year where Israel killed some 2,300 Palestinians and injured 17,000 - more than any other year since 1967.

Then in January 2015, the Conservative government amended its military export law to permit Canadian shipments to Israel and Kuwait of prohibited weapons such as handguns and automatic weapons.

And while Trudeau has recently paid lip service to establishing a more even-handed foreign policy on Palestine, it would seem to be business as usual. Canada has continued to vote consistently against numerous UN resolutions supporting Palestinian rights and in May of this year on the Nakba anniversary, Trudeau pledged to fight the growing BDS movement in Canada: "Today, while we celebrate Israel's independence, we also reaffirm our commitment to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism."

The Canadian BDS movement is actively lobbying for a total military embargo on Israel, in light of their war crimes in Gaza, while Canadian activists including Richard Sanders of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade have compiled damning data on Canadian military components used in Israel's wars against Lebanon - as well as "Canada's largest pension funds and their $5.8 billion dollar investments in 66 firms supporting Israel's military-police-surveillance-prison-industrial complex."

In fact, Foreign Affairs records show that Canadian military exports to Israel in 2016 were valued at more than $9.7 million (and almost $4 million to Turkey and, intriguingly, almost $11 million to Sweden) up from $7.8 million in 2015.

And in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) list of top arms exporters from 2011-2015, Israel, Sweden, Canada were respectively 11, 12 and 13.

Canada... certainly has no monopoly on failure to live up to its national mythology as a peace-loving nation

How did the definition of a Canadian go from Pierre Berton's famous aphorism - "someone who can make love in a canoe" - to "being a citizen of a country that sells weapons to human rights abusers"?

Canada - whose arms industry enjoyed a significant growth spurt in the early 1990s when the Liberal Party was in power - although parties across the political spectrum continue to receive millions of dollars in donations from war industries - certainly has no monopoly on failure to live up to its national mythology as a peace-loving nation.

And its military exports to Israel and Saudi Arabia are dwarfed by its neighbour to the south - although claiming the moral higher ground against the Americans remains our other national sport.

While Sweden has been praised for its seemingly principled stance on Saudi weapon sales, some critics claim that their real motivation is more bottom line - a desire to stop Saudi Arabia from developing its own capacity for manufacturing weapons.

It was long an open secret that Norway - the nation where the Nobel Peace prize initiated by Swedish industrialist and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel is awarded each year - sold arms to both sides, even as it was negotiating the ill-fated Oslo Accords.

But if Canadians - whose special forces, tripled in Iraq since the sanctimonious 2015 withdrawal of fighter jets from the US-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State group, took part in the murderous US-led "liberation" of Mosul - want to get outraged about selling weapons to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, it should be equal opportunity outrage.

After all, Saudi Arabia and Israel may have more in common than not - and are currently united in their stand against "rabble-rousing" Al Jazeera. Why play favourites? Wouldn't it be the Canadian thing to do to include Israel in the international pariah club? Or at the very least to stop sending them parts for fighter jets that kill Palestinian and Lebanese children?

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars