A United Nations report listing Canada as one of several countries who helped support the war in Yemen by supplying arms to Saudi Arabia will stain its reputation in the international community, according to a political analyst.
Anthony Fenton, a doctoral student at York University who tracks Canada’s relations with Gulf-Arab states said the latest UN report, which named Canada alongside countries like France, Iran, the United Kingdom and U.S. as perpetuating the brutal war in Yemen through arms deals, is sure to “ruffle some feathers in Ottawa.”
The UN report is one of three that have been published since the onset of the Yemen conflict which began in 2015. Each report has consistently concluded that all parties involved in the conflict have committed human rights violations. The latest report, which was put together by a group of experts in the region including Canadian professor Ardi Imseis, was the first to name Canada as a perpetrator of war.
Saudi Arabia has consistently been supplied with arms from the Canadian government, since signing a $14 billion deal in 2014. In 2016, Trudeau’s government approved export permits to ship over light armored vehicles (LAVs) made by General Dynamics Land Systems, a London, Ont.-based manufacturer.
Fenton said there have been several contracts running concurrently that have either provided new LAVs to Saudi Arabia or to upgrade LAVs previously distributed to the state.
“We never know 100 per cent which orders have been fulfilled,” said Fenton, who is researching the political economy of Canada and the Gulf states for his dissertation. “We just know the bulk dollar amount of what’s been shipped by virtue of Statistics Canada.”
The most recent figures from the data agency show that as of July 2020, Canada had exported another batch of LAVs worth $866-million to Saudi Arabia.
The Canadian government has been previously criticized for their arms deals with Saudi Arabia. In 2019, footage from Yemen showed what looked like Canadian LAVs being captured and destroyed by rebel forces.
The federal government reviewed their contracts with Saudi Arabia afterwards, but said in a memo for then Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, that there was “no credible evidence” linking Canadian military exports to human rights violations committed by the Saudi government.
Fenton anticipates that Canadian officials might push this justification when it comes time to discuss the “embarrassing” findings of the report within the international community. But he said that justification misses the mark.
For the first time, Canada was named a perpetrator in the Yemen war for providing arms to the Saudi Arabia-backed coalition forces by the @UN. #cdnpoli
“The point is that on the whole these weapons, provided by foreign Western governments in particular, are fueling the war in Yemen,” he said. “By no means should we be selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, not only because they may be used in Yemen, but they may also be used against Saudis.”
“The longer the war goes on the worse it is for the people of Yemen, no doubt about that,” he added.
As the conflict has dragged on for four years, Yemen has been divided —- Houthi rebel forces, who oppose the rule of Yemini-president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, have taken control of the western side of the country which encompasses the country’s capital Sanaa. Hadi’s forces, which are backed by Saudi Arabia, where he currently resides, still hold control over most of the country.
UN reports on the conflict have always maintained that all parties have shown “no regard for international law or the lives, dignity, and rights of people in Yemen.” The latest report cites instances of murder, torture, rape and inhuman treatment of Yemeni civilians as well as reports of children under the age of 15 being recruited to fight.
The country has also been faced with an ongoing famine as a result of the war. A UNICEF report estimated that 2.4 million Yemeni children could be severely malnourished by the end of the year.
“Yemen remains a tortured land, with its people ravaged in ways that should shock the conscience of humanity,” said Kamel Jendoubi, the head of the Group of Experts who penned the latest report.
In the past, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been pressed on canceling the Saudi contracts, he said pulling out of the deal could cost Canada a penalty in the billions of dollars. In 2018, the federal government was once again pressured to pull out of the deal after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi soil.
But in 2019, instead of backing out of the deals, Canada announced in April 2020 that the contract had been renegotiated to include a more ”robust” permit-review process for the LAVs.
“Under our law, Canadian goods cannot be exported where there is a substantial risk that they would be used to commit or to facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law, international human rights law or serious acts of gender-based violence,” said the statement from Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne.
Fenton said, in a way, Canada is economically locked into lending arms to Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.
“I even come across comments in archival records where it says explicitly -- if we want to access the broader Saudi market, we have to agree to sell them weapons,” he said. “‘If we want Saudi oil on a consistent basis, we got to sell them weapons.’”
Fenton says Canada, like most Western governments, are looking to get a cut of the Saudi oil market amongst other things. On the federal government’s page outlining relations with Saudi Arabia, it states “Canada is seeking to diversify its relations with the Saudi Kingdom.”
And so, Canada is in a position where arms deals might open the “floodgates” to the rest of the Saudi market.
“Then we can get our fair share of the hand-over-fist petrodollars that all Western governments want and have wanted for decades,” he said.
The latest UN report, the first where Canada is explicitly named, could force the Canadian government to come to terms with the consequences of the arms deals or, Fenton said, it might push back with plausible deniability that Canadian products were not directly involved with the atrocities of the Yemen war.
“It's a stain on their reputation because other people read these reports in Geneva, where these things are discussed,” said Fenton. “There are going to be some embarrassing conversations.”
Premila D'Sa / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer