Where is Canada’s moral compass when it comes to the war in Yemen?

Despite arms treaty, Ottawa keeps supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia
Photo: Felton Davis
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It was a 45-second clip intended to go viral and elicit fear — and it did just that.

Posted on social media app Telegram, the video opens with ominous music laid over picturesque landmarks in Abu Dhabi, a tiny oil-rich city in the United Arab Emirates that is home to luxury resorts, human-made islands, and cool oases.

Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, then appears with a stark warning.

“From today all countries that have economic relations with the UAE and all countries that have significant investments with the UAE must not consider the UAE a safe country.”

The screen goes black, followed by quick shots of fighter jets flying low over oil refineries, city skyscrapers and naval ships appear. The screen goes black again, and the clip ends with a final message that brazenly references Abu Dhabi’s prized reputation as one of the safest cities in the world. “Abu Dhabi… Safe City” flashes across the screen. The words suddenly fizzle out and the slogan is replaced by “UAE is no longer safe.”

It was a startling omen for residents of this oil-rich capital — the vast majority of whom are expats that have never witnessed terrorist attacks in the emirate, despite their government’s involvement in Yemen’s seven-year civil war.

Almost a quarter of a million people have died since the start of the war, and more than three-quarters of people in Yemen need humanitarian aid. The Houthis have been fighting Yemen’s government since 2014, when they took control of the country’s capital, Sanaa. The civil war has become a regional conflict, as Saudi Arabia and other states have fought against the Houthis, while Iran has supported them.

Canada has continued to arm Saudi Arabia, despite evidence that Canadian weapons have been used in the Yemeni war.

Deepening tensions

On Jan. 17, a drone attack claimed by Houthi fighters blew up three petroleum tanker trucks near Abu Dhabi's port, killing three workers and sparking a fire at its international airport.

A Saudi-led, UAE-supported coalition, which has been battling the Houthi movement in Yemen, wasted no time in retaliating.

Hours later, two airstrikes struck a former top official in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Brig. Gen. Abdullah Qassem al-Junaid was killed instantly, along with over a dozen other immediate family members, employees and neighbours.

These latest attacks are playing out in predictable ways that only further deepen regional tensions and reveal the hypocrisy of the coalition’s allies.

When will Canadians start interrogating our government’s sanctimonious alliance with a regime that decapitates dissidents and drops bombs on Yemeni children sitting on a school bus?

Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthi’s chief negotiator, continues to justify retaliatory raids, stressing Yemen’s “full right to avenge[the sufferings of] the victims by every legitimate means.” The UAE is requesting a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the “terrorist attacks which were launched in complete disregard of international law.” (Because launching a military campaign in a country where half of its 26 million population were already malnourished clearly doesn’t constitute a breach of international law). And Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett offered security and intelligence support to UAE leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in a letter released on Jan. 18, also tweeting: “Israel stands with the UAE. I stand with Mohammed bin Zayed. The world should stand against terror.” (Except when it comes to aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip, of course).

The latest developments are also a thundering reminder of Washington and Ottawa’s ongoing shameful complicity in arming the richest country in the Arab region against the poorest.

Unfathomable suffering

The scale of human suffering in Yemen is unfathomable. An ongoing cholera epidemic in Yemen since 2016 has led to millions of infections and thousands of deaths, mass hunger, and an increase in child marriage and child soldiers. The UN reports that a child younger than five dies every 10 minutes from a preventable cause.

The response from the international community has been mortifying. Instead of calling for an end to hostilities, the U.S. Senate blocked a resolution last December that would have banned a $650-million sale of missiles and missile launchers to Saudi Arabia. U.S. President Joe Biden approved the sale in November, despite declaring in his first foreign policy speech last February “the war in Yemen must end.”

Canada is also still arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth, exporting tens of millions in light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia on a monthly basis as part of the $15-billion deal brokered by the Canadian government in 2014.

“Canada could deny further exports, which it should be doing”

These shipments continue despite Ottawa’s obligations to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), notes Kelsey Gallagher, one of the authors of a damning report released last summer by Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group based in Waterloo, Ontario, and Amnesty International. The report scrutinized Canada’s arms exports to Saudi in the context of the ATT, to which Canada formally acceded in 2019. It included pictorial evidence that armoured vehicles produced in Ontario by General Dynamics, are being used by coalition forces in Yemen and urged Ottawa to suspend all arms exports to Riyadh.

“Canada could deny further exports, which it should be doing,” says Gallagher. “When a state party to the ATT learns an end user is diverting weapons, it has an obligation to mitigate that risk, which includes up to denying further exports.”

But has Canada denied a permit application from Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it violates international human rights laws?

“I don’t know of a single case of that,” Gallagher says.

Clearly, war is good for the arms industry — and Saudi Arabia is the one of biggest consumers in the world of arms.

But Washington and Ottawa also need to heed the soft power efforts of the kingdom’s ruthless crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, to maintain a dominant narrative that demonizes the Houthis while portraying the Saudis as seeking peace.

A Guardian investigation last year, for instance, revealed how Saudi Arabia used incentives and threats as part of a lobbying campaign to shut down a UN investigation of human rights violations committed by all sides in the Yemen conflict. Political and diplomatic sources with inside knowledge of the lobbying effort described an orchestrated campaign to influence officials to guarantee defeat of the measure — Indonesia, for instance, was warned that its COVID-19 vaccination certificates could be considered invalid for travellers to Mecca, and the African nation of Togo was offered money to support antiterrorist activities. Both Indonesia and Togo voted against the measure.

So when are we going to start caring about Yemen? When will Canadians start interrogating our government’s sanctimonious alliance with a regime that decapitates dissidents and drops bombs on Yemeni children sitting on a school bus?

The UN investigation concluded that no single player in this war has clean hands. Yet Canadian taxpayers are directly arming one side.

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