It’s what human rights advocates have been saying for almost a year and a half – if the Liberal government sells Canadian-made arms to Saudi Arabia, those arms could be complicit in the ongoing fight in Yemen, where thousands upon thousands of civilians have been killed.
Now, the Justin Trudeau government is investigating precisely that. Recent videos appear to show Saudi troops using the Canadian-made armoured vehicles against civilians, and Canada’s track record on human rights could be hanging in the balance.
Almost from the moment the Trudeau Liberals took office, his government has been under fire for allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which is widely denounced as one of the world’s worst abusers of human rights.
While the previous Conservative government negotiated the deal in 2014, the current Trudeau’s cabinet opted to honour it and signed the deal for General Dynamics Land Systems to manufacture light-armoured military vehicles for the Saudi National Guard.
Even when the Conservative government originally penned the deal, advocates were raising concerns the Saudi government might use the Canadian-made vehicles for actions tantamount to human rights violations.
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Canadian export controls prohibit the sale of arms to countries with a persistent record of serious human rights violations against their own citizens, and the government has said it expects the “end user,” in this case Saudi Arabia, to “abide by the terms in our export permits.”
Still, when the new Liberal government was called upon to cancel the deal with Saudi Arabia, officials initially said they couldn’t, for several reasons.
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One reason given was that the Liberals’ hands were effectively tied, since the previous Conservative government had already made the deal. As it turned out, the Conservatives had actually only approved minor-level export permits for the vehicles; it was the Liberal’s then-foreign minister, Stephane Dion, who signed off on $11 billion worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
Another reason the Liberal government said it couldn’t stop the deal was that doing so would subject Canada to economic fallout and financial penalties. Though possibly true, documents from Global Affairs Canada made public last year suggest diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia were of greater concern than the potential 3,000 jobs in Ontario and unconfirmed, though potential, monetary penalty.
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New video evidence:
Videos and photographs from Saudi Arabia have recently emerged appearing to show Canadian-made armoured vehicles in the Middle Eastern conflict.
The alleged evidence has appeared in news and social media posts from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the Saudi government is attempting to stamp out unrest among the region’s minority Shia population.
In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has instructed her office to investigate and determine whether the vehicles in the video are, in fact, from Canada.
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Canada’s human rights record:
International advocacy group Human Rights Watch has long called for a complete embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, given the “indiscriminate targeting of civilians,” said Farida Deif, the Canada director for the U.S.-based research and advocacy group.
The Middle Eastern nation has “an abysmal” human rights record at home and in Yemen, she said in an interview on Tuesday.
“This is not a country that should be receiving arms from Canada, should not be receiving arms from the U.K. or the U.S.”
Now, given the new footage recently revealed, Deif said she is hoping the Trudeau government will completely reassess all arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
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“I think, unfortunately, many governments, including this government, become blinded by how lucrative the deal is … this type of arms deal can really tarnish the record of a government that is, for the most part, largely in many ways rights-respecting,” Deif said.
“You can’t be an outspoken critic of human rights abuses in the country when you are really getting a very huge payout from Saudi Arabia.”
For its part, the government maintains it is a fierce defender of human rights.
“This government is deeply concerned about this situation and that is why the minister asked officials to review it immediately,” a spokesperson for Freeland wrote in an emailed statement.
“Canada will review all available information as it determines an appropriate course of action.”
— With a file from The Canadian Press