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The hypocrisy of the $15 billion Canada-Saudi arms deal

The $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and General Dynamics Land Systems – a London, Ontario, based arm of the U.S. defense and aerospace contractor – has been an elephant in the room as the human rights stand-off between Canada and Saudi Arabia continues. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has voiced its support for the arms deal which was signed in 2014 under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The contract includes the export of 900 light armored vehicles but in March, the Globe and Mail discovered the contract included heavily weaponized armored vehicles, a detail which the government had no disclosed to the public.  Although the Liberal government has put a ‘pause button’ on approving permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, it is clearly not enough from a government that prides itself on promoting and defending human rights.

Parliament last week sanctioned 17 Saudi individuals linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; however, the $15 billion arms deal is still ‘business as usual’ for the Canadian government.

The Liberal government has stated that it is prepared to freeze the Saudi arms deal if it’s found that the Canadian-made armored vehicles are being misused; however, the Globe and Mail reported in July 2017 that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was ‘deeply concerned’ about videos that appeared to show Saudi forces using Canadian-made armored vehicles against Saudi citizens in a security operation.

Although the vehicles in question were not built by General Dynamics but by another Canadian company called Terradyne Armored Vehicles, it just goes to show that Canada’s arms industry is unchecked by the government.

Where are the investigations and the follow-up to Canadian-made arms exports to a government that continually violates international human rights standards? While the Liberal government rightfully continues voice concern over possible war crimes in Yemen, human rights violations against Saudi citizens, and the horrendous murder of  journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there is still no serious commitment to ending this arms deal.

The Liberal government has estimated that ending the $15 billion contract will cost Canadians $1 billion (US $750 million), but what is the price tag on ensuring international human rights standards are upheld?

Richard S. Matthews, a Canadian and Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Bond University, said in a recent Facebook post: “A deal can be broken. There are always costs, of course. Trudeau has just warned against leaving Canadians with a billion dollar price tag for walking away from the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Those weapons are used, among others, in the massacres currently being inflicted in Yemen. A conservative estimate says that 8 million people are under threat. More liberal estimates put the number at 13 million of so. Let’s do some numbers. 1 billion divided by 8 million gives you $125 dollars per person threatened. 1 billion divided by 12 million gives you $76.92 per person threatened. That is roughly how much Canada values the lives of those harmed by its portion of the sale of means of violence to that government.”

He further commented, “To do that properly I would have needed a statistician and then to include all of the different players and the money they extract. The point about commodification and the price on human life holds nonetheless, but the actual figures may be quite different.”

As Canadians don’t we thrive on the fact that we promote human rights here at home and abroad?

Matthews explains that how “what a state actor or a state actually believes is reflected in what they do, not in what they say” is one piece of evidence of the Trudeau-Liberal government’s restrictive notion of human rights.

He elaborates: “Although they know that the arms are used for torture and massacre, and they know that thereby they contribute to all of those deaths, nonetheless they value the profit making involved in the arms sales (and the geo-political allegiances associated with them) far more highly than they do the lives of those killed by the arms we make. On the models of human rights that I believe in, it is morally impermissible to commodify and thereby devalue human life in the way in which such arms sales proceed.”

Shouldn’t we be holding our government accountable for possible violations of the international Arms Trade Treaty, which is an attempt to regulate the global trade of weapons for the purpose of contributing to international peace? Although the Canadian government has voted in favour of the treaty, parliament still has yet to ratify it. According to Amnesty International Canada, the current form of Bill C-47 – introduced in Parliament in April 2017 to prepare Canada to ratify the ATT – fails to meet critical obligations of the treaty and proposed amendments fail to apply to to the majority of Canada’s arms exports.

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its human rights violations, so why are we allowing the hypocrisy to continue? Matthews concludes, “Human rights, as a result, ends up a decision of the privileged, and applying only to privileged populations and those they believe necessary to apply them to. Anyone else.…. sale is on.”

While the Trudeau government continues to delay the call to end the $15 billion contract, Germany has led the way in showing the moral example.

In January 2016, Germany began to review its arms exports to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns in Yemen. During the same time the Liberal government stood by the deal despite human rights concerns over Saudi executions. In January 2017, Germany halted exports to Saudis due to the escalating war in Yemen. During this same time the Canadian government’s discourse was only on the possibility of Canadian-made armored vehicles being used by the Saudi government in domestic human rights violations.

Just recently Germany announced it will end arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the killing of Khashoggi, and banned 18 Saudis who are suspected of involvement in the journalist’s murder. The export ban binds all 26 members of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen zone to prevent the 18 Saudis from entering the zone. Germany is clearly using its influence to push for a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia.

Last month Finland said it would not not issue new arms export authorizations to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates due to concerns over the humanitarian situation in Yemen, following Denmark’s similar suspension of arms sales to Riyadh.

On November 9, Norway said it would freeze all defense material export licenses to Saudi Arabia, including those for dual-use items.

The Liberal government cannot scapegoat the former Harper-Conservative government for this deal, or claim that it is ‘too difficult’ to suspend or cancel it. As a nation that perceives itself to be a leader in human rights, we need to end this deal despite the monetary cost that comes with it; morally and ethically it is the right thing to do.

The Liberal and Conservative parties ought to join Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s call to cancel the sale; Canada ought to become a stronger leader on the international stage in promoting and defending human rights at home and aboard by ratifying the ATT; and the Trudeau-Liberal government ought to follow the steps of Germany and take concrete and direct action in holding the Saudi government accountable for their human rights violations, as well as holding their own Canadian arms industry to a higher ethical standard.

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