In the midst of our COVID-19 crisis, Canada lifted its moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia
(April 15, 2020) — Did Global Affairs Canada (GAC) consider the ironic contradictions of the announcements it made just one day apart last week?
On April 10, GAC issued an official statement in support of a global ceasefire, in response to the high-profile appeal on March 23 by UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The day before, however, it had announced that it was lifting a moratorium on arms-export permits to Saudi Arabia, one of the worst violators of human and women’s rights on the planet.
The Secretary-General’s appeal was intended to focus the energies of the international community on defeating the COVID-19 pandemic, while also drawing attention to the special vulnerability of populations in war-ravaged countries. Serving as a poignant example, impoverished Yemen, now in its sixth year of armed conflict and with its infrastructure in shatters, reported its first COVID-19 case last week.
Saudi Arabia is the chief perpetrator of the catastrophe engulfing Yemen, which the UN called the worst in the world weeks before the pandemic began. A UN panel has denounced the “widespread and systematic” targeting of Yemeni civilians by the Saudi-led coalition – acts that constitute war crimes.
Yet Canada’s support for weapons sales to Saudi Arabia has never faltered. Even during the moratorium, arms shipments continued, including exports of light-armoured vehicles (LAVs).
Canadian armoured vehicles are heading to Saudi Arabia.
The moratorium was issued after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, described by Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, as a “premeditated extrajudicial execution” for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible. Still, already-approved exports and shipments were not affected by the moratorium.
All that was suspended was the issuance of new export permits. And now that restriction has been lifted – even though it is now certain that Riyadh repeatedly lied to the world about the Khashoggi affair.
Perhaps Ottawa’s most egregious argument for continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia is that there is no conclusive evidence that Canadian-made military exports have been misused. This is not only inaccurate but misses an essential point.
First, there is evidence of the misuse of Canadian-made arms. In one instance in the fall of 2017, video footage emerged of a violent crackdown against Shia civilians in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province involving Canadian armoured vehicles, which prompted Global Affairs Canada to pledge a “full and thorough” investigation. The report from GAC acknowledged that some vehicles were mounted with turrets and machine guns as a result of post-export modifications and that they were indeed used in the security operation, in which more than 20 civilians were killed.
Nonetheless, the report, which relied heavily on Saudi and unnamed sources, concluded that Saudi forces made “efforts to minimize civilian casualties,” and that the use of force was “proportionate and appropriate.” Export permits, which had been suspended during the investigation, were thus reinstated.
But the critical point is that the whole emphasis on evidence is wrong. No proof of misuse is required to deny export permits under Canadian and international law. All that must be established is the risk that abuses might occur. The word “evidence” does not appear once in the international Arms Trade Treaty that Canada joined last September.
Ottawa has also said that failing to honour the most recent deal for LAVs could result in hefty financial penalties, said to be in the billions of dollars. What is not clear is how or why Canada’s sovereign mandate, prerogative, and obligation to faithfully implement the law, including the ability to cancel arms export permits, would somehow be subordinate to the language of a commercial contract.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted global conversations about the need for a better world order, one in which the protection of the individual is paramount and in which there is better allocation of resources. There is talk about shifting industrial capacity from tools of destruction to tools for protection.
At the same time, irresponsible arms transfers to countries such as Saudi Arabia continue to exacerbate armed conflict, to enable the violation of human rights and to sustain repressive regimes.
In foreign policy, as in life, actions do speak louder than words. And Canada’s decision to lift the moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia right in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis makes its rhetorical support for a global ceasefire sound disappointingly hollow.
Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of Project Ploughshares, an antiwar group that tracks arms sales.
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