Better late than never: Why Canada must cancel its Saudi weapons deal now

Better late than never: Why Canada must cancel its Saudi weapons deal now
Comment: It's time Justin Trudeau met Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights record with real action, and cancelled Canada's weapons sales, writes Jillian Kestler D'amours.
5 min read
The $14-billion Canadian-Saudi arms contract has been a point of contention for years [Getty]
As Canada laboured to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus last month, Justin Trudeau's government quietly announced it was lifting a freeze on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia.

A $14-billion arms contract to ship light-armoured vehicles, manufactured by Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, to the Saudi government has been a point of contention for years.

Rights groups have urged Ottawa to nix the deal - which was brokered by a state-owned Crown corporation - amid concerns the vehicles could be used in human rights abuses inside Saudi Arabia and in conflicts abroad, such as the devastating war in Yemen.

But under the cover of Covid-19, the Trudeau government did what it has done since taking office on the question of Saudi Arabia: it used the language of human rights and promises of future, more robust safeguards to maintain business as usual with the regime in Riyadh.

The Canadian government said on 9 April that cancelling the now-renegotiated contract "could have resulted in billions of dollars in damages" and the loss of thousands of jobs, and that it made sure that it had eliminated any future financial risk related to delays or denials of exports.

The government also said it would establish an "arms-length advisory panel of experts" to make sure Canadian arms exports are in line with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, to which Canada is a signatory.

Since he was elected in late 2015, Trudeau has made it clear that the Saudi weapons deal, which he inherited from his conservative predecessor Stephen Harper, would move forward, despite a long list of reasons it could and should be cancelled.

Canada has applied a twisted standard to determine what a 'substantial risk' really means

Trudeau has had no shortage of reasons to forgo the deal – from rights abuses committed against Saudi civilians and rights activists to Riyadh's devastating bombing campaign in Yemen, and the brazen murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

His government insists, however, that Saudi Arabia has never misused Canadian-made weapons, and for that reason, the deal can move forward.

Yet a 2019 law under which Canada acceded to the UN's Arms Trade Treaty states that Ottawa must not issue an arms export permit when there is a "substantial risk" those arms could be used in rights abuses.

That includes violations of international law, international human rights law, or international protocols to which Canada is a signatory, as well as gender-based violence against women and children.

Even a perfunctory examination of Saudi Arabia's human rights record makes it obvious that shipping militarised vehicles to the Saudi government presents such a risk - but Canada has applied a twisted standard to determine what a "substantial risk" really means.

Read more: What another fired watchdog reveals about Trump's shady Saudi deals

In its final report on Saudi arms exports, Global Affairs Canada says whether a country shows "a pattern of repetitive behaviour" for the misuse of weapons is the deciding factor to determine "substantial risk" - not the presence of risk itself. The ministry also argued that Canadian military exports to Saudi Arabia actually "contribute to regional peace and security".

The assertion is laughable, and a myriad of recent Saudi rights abuses proves it is false, too.

Saudi Arabia started 2015 - the year Trudeau's Liberal Party beat the Harper-led Conservatives to secure a majority government - by publicly lashing pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi 50 times.

In late March of that year, Riyadh launched a devastating military campaign to root out the Houthis rebels in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition used cluster munitions in civilian areas and its blockade on the impoverished country pushed millions to the brink of starvation.

As Trudeau introduced a gender-balanced cabinet in Ottawa in November 2015, Saudi Arabia maintained its discriminatory male guardianship system, which bars Saudi women from marrying without permission from a male relative, among other restrictions.

The next year, Trudeau's then-foreign minister signed off on the final export permits for the General Dynamics deal despite continued Saudi human rights abuses at home and the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen, which caused a deadly cholera outbreak.

Reports emerged in 2017 that Saudi forces appeared to be using Canadian-made light-armoured vehicles in a security operation in the country's Shia-majority east. Rights groups decried the crackdown in Awamiya, and residents of the town said security forces were shooting at and arresting anyone that left their home.

The Saudi arms deal has been a litmus test for the Canadian prime minister - and it is one that he has failed

In 2018, Saudi Arabia's abysmal rights record showed no sign of improvement as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) launched a crackdown on leading feminist advocates who had pushed for the right of women to drive in the Gulf kingdom.

The powerful crown prince tightened his grip on power through a series of politically motivated arrests, and in 2019, his top advisers carried out the horrific assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The CIA later concluded that MbS was responsible for the killing, though he has repeatedly denied being involved.

These are only a few of the many human rights abuses carried out by Saudi Arabia since Trudeau's government was sworn in in 2015 on a promise to restore Canada's reputation as a global human rights leader.

The Saudi arms deal has been a litmus test for the Canadian prime minister - and it is one that he has failed.

In an open letter to Trudeau in mid-May, Amnesty International Canada and other rights groups said Canada's promises to strengthen its arms export system "will lack credibility" when it allows weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia to go ahead. The answer is clear, the groups said: cancel the deal.

Trudeau has had five years to do it, but better late than never.

Jillian Kestler D'Amours is a journalist based in Canada.

Follow her on Twitter: @jkdamours

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.