Renewed Calls for Ottawa to End Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia

Complexity added by proxy war in Yemen between Iran-backed rebels and Saudi-led forces backing internationally recognized government

Renewed Calls for Ottawa to End Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia
A guard stands outside Sana'a International Airport in Yemen on Sep. 23, 2020. (Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)
Lee Harding
News Analysis

Ottawa has received new calls to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia after a U.N. report named Canada as one of the western powers that have enabled the armed conflict in Yemen.

But such a move would change little, as suppliers could just relocate to the United States, one expert says. The nuance of the situation in the war-torn country where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting a proxy war with Iran adds further complexity.

Yemen has been a location of intense fighting for the past six years. A Saudi-led coalition, which has the support of the United States and U.K., backs the internationally recognized government based in the south, while a Houthi-armed movement backed by Iran controls the capital Sana’a.

The U.N. report said that “third states have helped to perpetuate the conflict by continuing to supply parties with weapons.”
“We are particularly concerned with the fact that third states continue to supply arms to the parties to the conflict in Yemen,” Ardi Imseis, law professor at Queen’s University and a member of the three-person panel who issued the report, says in a video on the U.N.’s website. 

“There are a few leading players in that: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and this year we added Canada because there has been an uptick in arms sales by the Canadians in 2019.”

Last year, Canada exported nearly $2.9 billion of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, almost entirely consisting of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) made in London, Ont., by a subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor General Dynamics Corporation. The shipments were part of a $14 billion contract brokered by the Harper Conservatives in 2014. Trudeau’s Liberal government then gave final approval in 2016 when it issued export permits covering 70 percent of the deal.

After journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, the next month Canada suspended approvals of new arms export permits to Saudi Arabia pending a review. Then in December that year, Trudeau said his government “was looking for a way out of the Saudi arms deal.” However, he said conditions of the contract meant penalties for taxpayers of at least a billion dollars.

In April 2020 the Canadian government lifted the suspension after having renegotiated the contract.

“It’s a difficult position for the government, because the reality is you’re not going to stop the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia,” Craig Stone of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute told The Epoch Times.

“If the government was to decide to cancel the sale, General Dynamics would just move the production to the States, shut down the plant in London, and sell the vehicles to Saudi Arabia.”

General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada employs some 1,850 people in its London plant and thousands more indirectly.

The United States has faced its own calls to end its support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, given the civilian casualties of the war.

Appearing before a U.S. House Foreign Affairs committee last year, Dafna Rand, vice-president for policy and research from Mercy Corps, an international relief non-profit, said the coalition has been responsible for direct attacks on civilians, "including the August 2018 coalition attack on a bus of schoolchildren and the numerous other attacks on weddings, markets, and food production, agriculture sites, and distribution sites.”

Following Khashoggi's murder, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers passed a bill last year to end the country's support for the coalition, which was vetoed by the White House.

James Phillips and Madyson Hutchinson Posey of the Heritage Foundation believe that cutting U.S. support would hurt the elected and internationally recognized government of Yemen.

"The war in Yemen is complex. Those who rush to blame Saudi Arabia entirely for the suffering of the Yemeni people ignore the war crimes and heavy-handed treatment meted out by the Houthis to their opponents and the ruthless role that Iran plays in supporting the Houthi Ansar Allah ... movement, a Shia Islamist extremist group," Phillips and Hutchinson Posey wrote in a paper.

"The Saudis are rightly criticized for not doing more to prevent civilian casualties as they target Ansar Allah positions. But the Houthis should not be given a free pass for deliberately targeting civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with increasingly sophisticated Iranian ballistic missiles," they added.

The U.N. report, released on Sept. 9, insists there are “no clean hands” in the Yemen conflict, which is thought to have killed about 100,000 combat personnel and over 12,000 civilians. Verified abuses include the arbitrary deprivation of life, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, gender-based violence, torture and other degrading treatment, the recruitment and use of children in hostilities, and the denial of fair trials.

In 2019, Canada acceded to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which obligated it to agree not to “authorize any transfer of conventional arms … if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians … or other war crimes.”

Stone says revoking the arms deal is not high on the list of priorities for most Canadians and their government.

“It’s a significant number of jobs in the southern Ontario region with a significant number of votes and a significant number of seats in the House of Commons,” he says.

He also notes that ethical considerations around the subject of war are murkier than ever, as the Geneva Convention doesn’t cover issues such as artificial intelligence and cyber warfare.

“Although there’s international law that talks about just wars and the laws of armed conflict, I’m not sure that there are many of those around just on the basis of the kinds of conflict that exist today: ethnic conflicts, race and religion, dictators wanting their own way,” he says.