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A collection of evidence posted online demonstrates that Canadian-made arms are being used in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have waged war since 2015, say military and weapons experts.
The expert analysis, based on dozens of publicly-posted images and videos, contradicts statements made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government.
Canada has explicitly said it is paying careful attention to exports in order to avoid allowing Canadian-made weapons to be used in Yemen, a conflict zone that is suffering through a devastating humanitarian crisis.
But the images posted on a range of sites, including Twitter, Instagram as well as in Middle Eastern media outlets, cast doubt on the Canadian government's statements, according to several experts, including a former White House and Pentagon official. These images include:
- A photo posted on social media that features a soldier holding a Canadian-made sniper rifle standing in front of a portrait of King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The caption includes a warning to the “enemy” Houthis in Yemen: “Beware of the Saudi Army.”
- Another photo appears to show a Saudi soldier sitting cross-legged on a carpet next to a miniature mosque made of ammunition boxes. A giant, dusty, weaponized Canadian armoured vehicle is parked a few metres away.
- A video appears to show a convoy of the same vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada cruising over sand dunes in Hajjah province, Yemen, as heavy beats of electronic Arabic music blare from open tank hatches.
These posts are among a sample of several dozen that appear online.
Saudi-Canadian LAVs as far as the eye can see pic.twitter.com/NmKHzE5HL2— Anthony Fenton (@anthonyfenton) June 12, 2018
The experts say this evidence shows that several Canadian companies have produced combat vehicles, rifles, surveillance technology, and aircraft, and provided pilot training used in the Saudi-led coalition’s war against the Houthi movement that came to power in Yemen in 2014, after an Arab Spring uprising toppled its Saudi-backed dictator.
The Canadian business connection is increasingly under the microscope over concerns about human rights violations by Saudi Arabia, including the recent murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government publicly supported the 2015 military intervention in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and others. The Liberal government expressed support for Saudi Arabia “countering instability” in Yemen.
Global Affairs Canada did not address specific questions about the photos and videos cited by National Observer. Instead it sent a general statement that said it was "deeply concerned about the ongoing conflict in Yemen and its humanitarian impact on civilians, particularly women and children, who continue to bear the brunt of the fighting."
"We require and expect that Canadian arms exports are used in a way that fully respects human rights," said John Babcock, a spokesman for the federal department in an email sent on Nov. 29. "That's why the Government of Canada is committed to a stronger and more rigorous arms export system and to the Arms Trade Treaty. Canada does not export items destined for Yemen or that we suspect might be used in Yemen due to the impact on regional stability and security. Careful attention is paid to the potential for the diversion of Canadian exports to the conflict in Yemen."
The Arms Trade Treaty is an international agreement that regulates the trade of combat weapons in order to promote peace. It entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014. Led by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, the Trudeau government has introduced legislation to join the treaty. But this legislation, Bill C-47, is still under review by the Senate.
"If there is evidence that Canadian arms are being misused or have been diverted, Minister Freeland will suspend those export permits while an investigation proceeds, as she has done in the past," Babcock added.
However, use of Canadian arms in Yemen was confirmed by a former Pentagon official responsible for Saudi policy. Weapons experts who consulted their own databases and analyzed photos and videos collected by National Observer, came to the same conclusion.
The weapons include combat vehicles produced by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, specifically marked for Yemeni operations. The Saudi army has also used high-powered sniper rifles that provide a specific long-range capability for the Saudi coalition, according to weapons monitoring group Armament Research Services (ARES).
Appeals for end to military assistance growing
The Saudi war has killed more than 50,000 Yemenis, with more than 110,000 children also dying of malnutrition and cholera induced by the war, according to international aid and conflict-monitoring agencies. The United Nations has warned Yemen is on the brink of the “world’s worst famine in 100 years,” if bombing is not halted.
Some critics, including the opposition federal New Democrats have stepped up their calls for the federal government to cancel the $15 billion deal to export weaponized light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia in response to murder of Khashoggi.
Roland Paris, a former foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has also joined the chorus of critics who are urging the government to suspend the deal.
The agreement was signed in 2014 by the Harper government and the Liberal government approved the export permits in 2016.
CEOs of Oxfam Canada, Save the Children Canada and CARE Canada say the suspension of Canadian military assistance to parties in the conflict in Yemen “would send a clear signal, to all parties to the conflict and any remaining allies who continue to implement lucrative yet deadly arms deals, that the horrors in Yemen must stop.”
Denmark is the latest European country to halt arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, joining Austria, Spain, Holland and Germany.
Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-Canadian professor of education at Michigan State University, is an outspoken critic of the war.
Her grandmother died in 2016, having spent the last year of her life in a Yemeni city surrounded by Saudi bombing. “She was evacuated out of the city in a wheelbarrow,” Al-Adeimi told National Observer. “I can never forget that image.”
Al-Adeimi’s family came to Canada after leaving Yemen in the late 1990s and settled in London, Ontario — the same city where the General Dynamics factory makes its vehicles.
“Saudi Arabia doesn’t have their own weapons industry, they only have their oil money,” she said. “This war wouldn’t be possible without Canada and others arming them. Western countries are literally holding their hand while they wage war.”
Boom in Canadian maintenance and repair centres in Middle East
With the Trudeau government’s approval, $2.4 billion in military goods — mostly weaponized combat vehicles, and another $100 million in guns, bombs, rockets or missiles, ammunition, surveillance components for war helicopters, drones, and armour — have been shipped to Saudi Arabia since the war on Yemen started in 2015, according to National Observer’s calculations of government statistics.
Global Affairs says its own tally of Canadian exports to Saudi Arabia is lower than the amount the National Observer calculated using a Statistic Canada database. But weapons export analyst Ken Epps said Global Affairs "cannot be relied on to report accurate figures" and "doesn't have the same tracking rigour and capacity, or even interest, as Statistics Canada."
Canada has shipped $1-billion of armoured fighting vehicles to Saudi Arabia so far in 2018, according to the Statistics Canada database.
The statistics do not include sales of Canadian vehicle company Streit Group, which isn’t subject to Canadian export controls because its primary factories are in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere abroad.
It is not known what portion of these goods have been used in the war in Yemen.
The boom in business has led Canadian companies to open or expand several centres in the Middle East to promote sales and to maintain, repair or update vehicles, aircraft and war components sold to the Saudis and such allies as the United Arab Emirates, which for decades have bought billions in weapons from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada.
A video posted on YouTube shows Yemeni Houthi fighters standing on top of and next to a Canadian LAV combat vehicle captured from the Saudis in the summer of 2016, pumping their guns in the air in celebration. Later, they light a fire inside the vehicle's belly. It explodes in a giant blaze of smoke and debris.
In this case, the video appears to show activity that occurred in southwestern Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border.
Such destruction of vehicles in northern Yemen and the Saudi borderlands has become a regular occurrence over the last few years, as Saudi ground forces, backed up by warplanes, have waged fierce battles with Houthi fighters across hundreds of kilometres of rugged mountains and valleys. In spring 2018, a Houthi commander told Al Jazeera that Houthi fighters were destroying three to five Saudi vehicles per day.
While total numbers are unclear, hundreds of Saudi soldiers have died in the fighting. Thousands of Yemeni have also been killed in Saada, the northern-most city in Yemen.
‘Bling videos’ and ‘Saudi selfies’ tracked on social media
Jeremy Binnie, Middle East & Africa editor at Jane's Defence Weekly, a top international military publication verified that photos and video collected by National Observer show older models of Canadian-military vehicles within Yemeni territory.
He also pointed out that in certain videos the Canadian combat vehicles have a large ‘C’ painted onto their sides, which marks them specifically for Yemeni operations.
The export permit for the $15 billion deal with General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada includes unspecified “upgrade kits for Saudi Arabia's older fleet of LAVs,” nearly 3,000 of which have been produced for Saudi Arabia in Canada since the 1980s.
General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada did not respond to questions, including about the kind of upgrades they provide for older combat vehicles purchased previously by the Saudis.
It's not clear whether Saudi Arabia has used any of the upgraded General Dynamics LAVs in Yemen.
Binnie also verified that armoured military vehicles made by three other Canadian companies —Terradyne, Streit Group and IAG Guardian — have turned up in photos and videos from Yemen.
Saudi-backed Yemeni forces operating new Streit Pumas (with alloys), but one didn't last long in Yemen's Hiran province pic.twitter.com/nQmhTd6fup— Jeremy Binnie (@JeremyBinnie) August 24, 2018
The Canadian-owned Streit Group, which has nearly a dozen manufacturing plants around the world including in Ontario, tripled the size of its facilities in the United Arab Emirates in 2016. It boasts of having the world’s largest industrial park for armoured cars — a nine-million-square-foot venue that includes a factory for producing bulletproof glass, a helipad and a new “anti-terrorist training centre.”
The company was fined in 2015 by the United States government for illegally exporting vehicles to countries like Nigeria, UAE, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
Little is known about the full scale of Streit Group’s sales because Canadian export controls only cover military goods that originate in Canada, not in factories abroad.
But Kenneth Walker, a long-time consultant for the company, acknowledged in an exchange on Twitter with Canadian researcher Anthony Fenton that Streit Group vehicles “have been supplied to that [Yemen] conflict area in large numbers.”
Fenton is author of a book on Canadian foreign policy in Haiti and is a postgraduate student at York University who researches Canadian weapons exports to the Middle East. He shared his documentation of scores of instances of Saudi use of Canadian arms with National Observer.
Fenton closely tracks Middle Eastern media and what he calls “bling videos” and “Saudi selfies” posted on social media by Saudi military officials or Yemeni fighters who have captured combat vehicles.
Fenton says Streit’s vehicles, to which the Saudis generally add turrets and guns, have appeared more often in videos and photographs than any other Canadian-made vehicles.
“They appear tactically very important to the Saudi coalition,” Fenton says. “And there have been no political headaches regarding their use — produced at a Canadian company's UAE facility, no one seems accountable for their mass deployment in Yemen.”
Streit Group did not return requests for an interview.
Ex-Pentagon official acknowledges LAVs deployed in Yemen
A former U.S. official who worked in the White House and who oversaw Saudi policy at the Pentagon confirmed the Saudi use of Canadian military vehicles.
“The Saudis are using the armoured vehicles to solidify their border and push into Yemen a bit,” says Dave Des Roches, who is now an associate professor at the National Defence University.
Des Roches says that while Canadian combat vehicles are purchased by the Saudi National Guard, which is supposed to function as an internal “coup-protection force” for the Royal family, the Guard has increasingly been operating at the border and beyond in a role traditionally reserved for the Saudi Army.
“The roles of the two have been evolving, and we could eventually see the National Guard somehow incorporated into the Army,” he says.
The Saudi National Guard also operated outside its borders in 2011 when it sent a convoy of Canadian-made General Dynamics combat vehicles to help the Bahraini dictatorship crush a democratic uprising during the Arab Spring.
“It’s rare that a week has gone by without a Canadian-made combat vehicle or weapon showing up in Yemen — the evidence of their widespread use is overwhelming and incriminating,” Fenton says. “Yet the silence in Canada about the profitable complicity of our government and companies in the Yemen war is striking.”
‘Prestige’ Canadian rifles used by Saudis in dozens of images
A Canadian-made sniper rifle, with a silencer twisted onto its muzzle, extends almost to the length of a grown man, and stands out in the photo of a cache of guns Houthi fighters captured from the Saudis.
Canadian sniper rifles carried by or captured from Saudi soldiers in Yemen have been identified in photos tracked by Armament Research Services (ARES), a global weapons and intelligence consultancy that traces arms.
“These rifles are visually distinct so it is relatively simple to achieve preliminary identification when they turn up," ARES director N.R. Jenzen-Jones says of the rifles made by Winnipeg-based PGW Defence Technologies.
“They are often considered ‘prestige weapons,’ which is why they are shown off by soldiers in photographs,” he said in an interview with National Observer.
Jenzen-Jones has seen at least 30 different images of the rifles in use in Yemen.
PGW did not respond to questions about whether they monitor the use of their weapons, but the company website lists the Royal Saudi Land Forces as one of its customers.
Between 2016 and 2018 there were 58,506 rifles, not only sniper models, exported to Saudi Arabia from Canada, mostly by PGW. The sales were worth $36 million, compared to zero in 2015, according to Statistics Canada.
“PGW makes precision rifles chambered for powerful calibers with a range of up to two kilometres, offering a specific capability which is quite distinct in the Saudi coalition service,” Jenzen-Jones says.
ARES has produced a report on the use of three different PGW rifle models within Yemen, using a database that draws on open and closed sources including social media accounts, private groups and online chats, and confidential informants. They have also engaged personnel on the ground in Yemen.
The monitoring group tries to collect primary photographs rather than secondary reproductions circulating online, finding the shortest chain to the original images.
ARES has drawn on pro-war Saudi social media accounts that Jenzen-Jones says often receive photos directly from soldiers serving in Yemen. While he couldn’t discuss specific techniques in detail, he noted that ARES has access to secret groups used to share such images.
Only the United States receives more rifles now from Canada than Saudi Arabia.
Neither Global Affairs Canada nor PGW responded to questions from National Observer about the outcome of the investigation.
A 2016 Global Affairs memo recommending six export permits to General Dynamics addressed an unspecified media report on a photo of a Houthi fighter with the PGW rifle. The memo, which appeared to be referring to a CBC report, said the rifle was likely captured from Saudis in border fighting. “This type of battlefield loss of equipment is to be expected as a result of military operations,” it said.
Canadians companies have trained fighter jet and drone pilots
Another Canadian company, Montreal-based CAE, has been training Kuwaiti pilots and has trained U.S. pilots who refueled Saudi fighter jets in mid-air during bombing raids, which have destroyed hundreds of hospitals, schools, markets and mosques.
In early November, the U.S. government said it would suspend its refueling support, which some observers saw as an attempt to head off Congressional legislation that would force the U.S. to withdraw broader military support for the Saudi coalition strikes.
The Saudi bombing campaign, aided by U.S.-supplied bombs and intelligence, has targeted Yemen’s farmers, herders, fishers and food depots, says a recent report from Tufts University. The report concludes “there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution.”
Saudi Arabia has also imposed a blockade by air and sea of Yemen, which relies on imports for 90 per cent of its food supply.
It has denied government workers’ salaries, and flooded the Yemeni economy with vast sums of new printed money, sending the currency tumbling and wiping out people’s savings. These measures have laid the economy to waste, leaving as many as 13 million civilians at risk of starvation.
Other Canadian companies, one assisted by a former government official, have provided components and maintenance for Saudi coalition aircraft and helicopters.
Provincial Aerospace, which has former top Canadian general Rick Hillier as an advisor, has won several contracts with the United Arab Emirates to sell and modify aircraft used for surveillance and to repair Saudi military aircraft.
Jane’s Defence Weekly noted in an October, 2016 article that such contracts are “likely to increase in the coming years, as operational feedback from operations in Yemen… are going to drive procurement priorities.”
Pratt & Whitney Canada has provided maintenance to war helicopters and built hundreds of engines for Saudi and UAE aircraft, while L-3 Wescam has provided aerial surveillance technology for Blackhawk helicopters and aircraft bought by the Saudis and which have been downed over Yemen.
A poll released by the Angus Reid Institute in early November found that nine out of 10 Canadians want the government to ban future military sales to Saudi Arabia.
In its statement to National Observer, Global Affairs Canada noted that the government led a resolution to renew a mandate of a special panel of experts that are investigating allegations of human rights allegations in the country. It also says Canada has provided $44 million in "life-saving assistance" to people affected by the conflict in Yemen.
Al-Adeimi, the Yemeni-Canadian professor of education at Michigan State University, isn't impressed by what Canada is doing.
“The Canadian government can't be an arsonist and then sometimes play at fire-fighting," she says. “You have to stop helping kill Yemenis. If Canadians want a morally upright foreign policy, Yemen is a huge stain on everything you want to stand for.”
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