According to a public opinion poll in 2019, 39% of Canadians would rank human rights in the top three priorities to consider when dealing with another country. Out of the twenty four countries surveyed, Canada was among only four countries that stated human rights should be in the top three priorities (the others being the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Hungary).
However, in 2014, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to a controversial long-term military deal with Saudi Arabia, selling CAD 15 billion worth of Canadian-manufactured light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Kingdom over the span of fifteen years. When the deal was signed, Canada became the second-largest arms exporter to the Middle East in the world.
In 2015, when the Liberal Party of Canada won the federal election over Harper’s Conservative Party, human rights advocates hoped that new prime minister Justin Trudeau would cancel the deal. But despite Trudeau’s claims that it was a “done deal” when he came into office and he couldn’t cancel it even if he wanted to, it was the Liberal Party’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Dion who approved the export permits allowing the deal to officially go through.
Human Rights in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has an extremely poor human rights record. The country does not guarantee everyone fair trials, often uses torture and the death penalty, and has banned the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the Kingdom has also harshly suppressed the Shia population in the country’s Eastern Province, where Canadian LAVs have been spotted.
In 2015, human rights activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to one thousand lashes to be given in public and ten years in prison for creating a website focused on facilitating political debate. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post writer who was highly critical of the Saudi Arabian government, was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at the order of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
After this blatant violation of justice, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway suspended their arms sales to the country. Trudeau responded by suspending the approval of new export permits, however the Canadian government did nothing to halt previously signed export permits and proceeded with arms sales to the country. Seeing as the 2019 federal election was coming up, Trudeau might have refrained from completely cancelling the deal due to the three thousand jobs it created for Canadians in London, Ontario, which brings into question how sincere the Liberal government’s motives were behind the suspension.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia entered the war in Yemen, leading a coalition with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There is evidence that human rights abuses have been committed by all actors in the conflict. Notably, the Saudi-UAE coalition has carried out a number of indiscriminate attacks including bombings and airstrikes of civilians. Since the start of the conflict, 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen. The United Nations (UN) has called the war in Yemen the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and blacklisted the Saudi-UAE coalition in 2019 for the third year in a row due to evidence of the coalition killing 729 Yemeni children in 2018.
Amnesty International has pointed out that the war is dragging on due to the West supplying Saudi Arabia and the UAE with advanced military equipment. They have called for all countries to stop supplying arms to these two states to bring an end to the conflict. There is also building evidence that Canadian-made military equipment is being used to kill civilians in Yemen. Obviously, the Canadian government is not listening.
Despite promises to cancel the deal if there was evidence of Canadian military equipment being used to violate human rights, Canada sold almost CAD 3 billion of military equipment to Saudi Arabia in 2019, more than double the amount sold the previous year. What’s more, in September of 2019, Canada officially joined the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Under this treaty, the sale of weapons to places where there is knowledge that the arms could be used to commit human rights abuses is prohibited. On the same day that Canada joined the ATT, Global Affairs Canada stated that there was “no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items” to violations of international human rights laws by Saudi Arabia.
After the 2019 election, the responsibility of reviewing the deal shifted again to the current Foriegn Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne. Once again, human rights defenders hoped that the government would cancel the deal but once again, they were disappointed. In April, Champagne reportedly made “significant improvements” in terms of the deal’s transparency, implying that the government was planning moving forward with the contract. However, despite these so-called “improvements,” Champagne still admitted he could not talk about the specifics of the arrangement. Furthermore, he continued to repeat the Liberal government’s claims that going through with this agreement did in fact support Canadian values because upholding a previous engagement makes Canada a reliable business partner.
No matter what is said to the public, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government have not cancelled the arms deal despite growing evidence that Canadian military equipment is being used to kill innocent civilians. This undermines the Liberal government’s claims that they support human rights and sets a dangerous precedent for future Canadian arms deals, as the standard for who Canada sells arms to seems to be set extremely low.