Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly approved the export permits required to close the largest arms deal in Canadian history this month, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is waging an underreported war that could be embarrassing to Canada and other allied countries.
Documents released to the Canadian Press last Tuesday showed that Dion’s office gave London, Ont.-based defence contractor General Dynamics the green light to manufacture and export LAV-3 armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The permits approved by Dion cover $11 billion worth of vehicles, out of a total order of $15 billion.
The Canadian Press reports the documents “indicate that Dion approved the export of the [LAV-3 armoured vehicles] after government officials advised him that they were satisfied the Saudis would not use the combat vehicles against their own people, but instead would use them to defend Canada’s common security interests with the desert kingdom.”
Steven Chase, writing in the Globe and Mail, notes “the permits cover light armoured vehicles, spare parts and associated weapon systems.” In an interview during last summer’s electoral campaign, Prime Minister Trudeau casually dismissed the heavily armed infantry fighting vehicles, equipped with automatic turret-mounted cannons and heavy machine guns, as “jeeps.”
War crimes and a growing call to boycott
Saudi Arabia has long been suspected of committing war crimes.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transaction database shows that, historically, most vehicles sold by Canada to Saudi Arabia have been delivered to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Since the 1990s, they have received approximately 1,000 armoured vehicles from Canada. In 2011, the 150,000-man elite fighting unit helped neighbouring Bahrain crush pro-democracy revolts in the wake of the Arab Spring.
According to Jane’s, a leading publication specializing in geopolitics and military affairs, the Saudi Arabian National Guard have been deployed to the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border to fight Shia, Iran-backed Houthi rebels currently at war with the Sunni, Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
The kingdom leads a coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and mercenaries from U.S. private military company Academi, formerly known as Blackwater. Citing a report from the official Saudi Press Agency, the publication mentions that “the SANG forces being deployed included a mechanised infantry brigade as well as artillery, air defence, reconnaissance, engineering, logistics, and anti-armour units.”
While no human rights agency has reported war crimes committed by the Saudi Arabian National Guard thus far in this particular conflict, a report from Human Rights Watch published on April 7 accuses Saudi Arabia of deliberately killing civilians, a war crime under the Rome Statute, the legal basis for the International Criminal Court.
“On March 15 at about noon, two aerial bombs hit the market in Mastaba, in the northern Hajja governorate, approximately 45 kilometers from the Saudi border,” the report states.
“The first bomb landed directly in front of a complex of shops and a restaurant. The second struck beside a covered area near the entrance to the market, killing and wounding people escaping, as well as others trying to help the wounded. Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 witnesses to the airstrikes, as well as medical workers at two area hospitals that received the wounded.”
Saudi officials claimed that they were hitting a “militia gathering.” While no Canadian-made weapons seem to have been used during the bombing, it provides a demonstration of Saudi Arabia’s willingness to use tactics that are prohibited by international laws of armed conflict. Saudi Arabia never signed the Rome Statute, but Yemen is a signatory party that has yet to ratify the treaty.
Human Rights Watch has also called for a global arms sales boycott to Saudi Arabia. This March, the European Parliament called for European Union lawmakers to impose an embargo on all arms sales to the kingdom. In March of 2015, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced his country would cease military relations with Saudi Arabia, citing human rights issues.
A “key ally”
Last year, the Saudi theocratic judicial system supervised the execution of over 150 people for crimes including apostasy and adultery, a number closely matching that of the Islamic State in the same time frame. (In fact, Gerald Butts, a key advisor and now principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tweeted an infographic comparing ISIS and the Saudi regime last year while criticizing the Harper government’s lack of transparency on the Saudi arms deal.)
Canada and most Western countries officially support the Saudi royal family’s regime and consider the oil-rich, dictatorial kingdom to be a key ally in the Middle East and a strategic partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
An official Canadian government fact sheet states that “bilateral relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia include common interests on many peace and security issues, including energy security, humanitarian affairs (including refugees), and counter-terrorism. The Saudi government plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.”