When Global Affairs Canada announced another aid package to war-torn Yemen in January, it boasted that Ottawa had given a total of $65 million to help ease what the United Nations has called “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.”
What Justin Trudeau’s government did not mention in its news release is that since 2015, Canada has also approved more than $284 million in exports of Canadian weapons and military goods to the countries bombing Yemen.
“It’s a bit like helping pay for somebody’s crutches after you’ve helped break their legs,” said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a research and advocacy organization that studies Canada’s arms trade.
Jaramillo calls Canada’s position “blatantly contradictory,” saying the government can’t claim to be a champion of human rights while arming the world’s worst offenders. “The problem is Canada also wants the sweet multibillion-dollar deals, so it cuts corners on human rights.”
The Canadian government is the seller in some of these transactions. In others, they broker and approve deals for Canadian companies. Government officials could not say whether weapons exported from Canada have been used in Yemen.
Cancelling these multibillion-dollar deals would mean losing jobs. A $14.8-billion sale of Canadian-made armoured combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia — negotiated by the Conservative government in 2014 but given final approval by the Liberals — will reportedly provide work for about 3,000 people for 14 years in southern Ontario, where manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems–Canada is a major employer.
Canada’s arms trade in the Middle East goes beyond the Saudi deal. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, which is now entering its fourth year, Canada has also made millions selling guided missiles to Bahrain, which has crushed political dissent at home while aiding Saudi efforts abroad, and has exported an assortment of weapons and military equipment to the United Arab Emirates, which human rights organizations have criticized for numerous abuses within its own borders and in Yemen.
“Canada remains deeply concerned by the conflict in Yemen,” a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote in a statement to the Star. He added the government pays “careful attention” to the potential for Canadian weapons to be used in the war, but he did not explain how or provide any specifics.
The reports cover only exports in the first two years of the Saudi-led bombardment, because last year’s exports will not be disclosed until this summer. The numbers are also incomplete. They do not include Canadian weapons diverted to the Middle East through another country.
The United States and United Kingdom are also arming Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, but they, and Canada, are increasingly isolated in their position. The European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in 2016 calling on all member states to enforce an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia for its role in Yemen. The Netherlands was first to take up the call. Finland and Norway have since stopped selling weapons to the United Arab Emirates. Earlier this year, Germany declared an end to arms sales to all parties involved in Yemen’s war.
Trudeau’s government has suggested no such ban, despite expressing “deep concern” over reports of Saudi abuses. Ottawa’s official position is that it will stop the export of military goods if there is a “reasonable risk” of human rights abuses. What that has meant, in practice, is that even when a country has a demonstrably poor record on human rights, unless there is definitive evidence Canadian weapons were used to commit human rights abuses, Canada is open to their business.
Neve questions why the government needs proof of a “smoking tank” before taking action.
“People think Canada is only on the hook, Canada is only responsible, if something bad has happened,” he said. “Arms control is all about preventing it happening in the first place.”
The true tally of Canada’s arms sales to the Middle East is possibly much higher than the export statistics suggest. Canada does not disclose any sales to its largest buyer of military goods, the U.S., which account for at least half of Canada’s weapons exports. The U.S., in turn, sells nearly half of its weapons to countries in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia. So it’s impossible to know how many Canadian weapons or weapon components, if any, the U.S. has sold or donated to the Saudi coalition. Meanwhile, an American army commander admitted last month to a U.S. Senate committee that they don’t know how their weapons are used in Yemen.
Anthony Fenton, an academic who follows Canada’s arms exports to the Middle East, uses local reports and photos posted to social media to track the use of Canadian weapons in Yemen. Many of the images come from the military itself — what Fenton calls “Saudi selfies” — and appear to show Canadian equipment being used by the Saudis or Emirates on Yemen’s border or within its towns. Though they are difficult to verify, the sheer number of sightings posted by civilians or players on all sides of the conflict provide a damning body of evidence, according to Fenton.
“There is not a shred of doubt Canadian equipment is being used in Yemen,” he said. “We track this on a daily basis and there hasn’t been a week since this war began that there hasn’t been some sighting of Canadian goods being used.”
A Canadian manufacturer that wants to sell weapons to a foreign country other than the U.S. requires an export permit from Global Affairs Canada, which says it “strives to ensure” Canadian exports of weapons and other military goods “do not undermine peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country.” Government bureaucrats assess permits on a case-by-case basis and are supposed to block sales to countries whose governments have a “persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”
Freeland’s spokesperson said if the government had evidence a Canadian-exported weapon was being deployed other than for its “authorized end use,” Freeland would cancel future export permits associated with the sale. But how does Ottawa monitor weapons once they’re in the hands of another country? Global Affairs did not answer.
Fenton said he didn’t think Canadian officials did “much of anything” to monitor Canadian weapons after they’re sold. “What could they do? They’d have to have personnel embedded with the military with a notepad. The point is they shouldn’t be sold in the first place,” he said.
Already the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen has seen its economy collapse under the Saudi coalition’s near-daily air raids, which have crippled the food supply and destroyed basic infrastructure. Starvation and disease are rampant, while hospitals have been targeted and most medical services are delivered by volunteers.
Tawakkol Karman, like many Yemenis, feels abandoned by the rest of the world. Karman, the first Arab woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was once feted by the international community for her leadership during the Arab Spring protests, which forced out Yemen’s autocratic ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, after three decades in power.
“If I’m angry about something, or sad about something, it’s about the silence of the international community and their complicity,” Karman said in a phone interview. “Canada is giving from its right hand the humanitarian aid, and from the other, missiles.”
Yemen’s conflict is a domestic power struggle — between supporters of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s exiled government and the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group — though it has also turned into an ugly proxy war for the region’s superpowers, pitting the Iranian-backed rebels against the Saudi coalition.
The United Nations and human rights groups have documented abuses and potential war crimes on both sides of the conflict, including the deliberate targeting of civilians. The UN has not updated its death toll since 2016, when it reported that 10,000 people had been killed in the war, more than half of them civilians.
The World Health Organization declared Yemen’s cholera epidemic the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history. Saudi Arabia’s naval blockade has devastated the country, leading to the starvation of many, mostly children.
“It’s a crisis, but it’s happening in slow motion,” said Stephen Anderson, Yemen’s country director for the United Nations World Food Programme. He has witnessed “horrifying” scenes of Yemeni children suffering from advanced malnutrition, reduced to skin and bones. “It’s worse almost to see their families who stand there helpless. They’re struggling to try to keep their dignity, to keep their culture. There’s such a sadness and a resignation because they’re powerless to stop the conflict.”
The Canadian government has cancelled or reviewed some arms sales because of human rights concerns. Earlier this year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a human rights pariah, cancelled a $300-million deal to buy 16 Canadian helicopters after Ottawa announced it was reviewing the deal. Global Affairs itself cancelled two arms exports to Thailand in 2016 over human rights concerns, according to its annual report. Details of the cancelled deals were not disclosed.
Arms exports to Saudi Arabia were temporarily put on hold for several months last year, following reports in the Globe and Mail about footage that appeared to show Canadian-made combat vehicles used by Saudi government forces to suppress civilian demonstrations. In February, Freeland said an internal investigation found “no conclusive evidence” that Canadian-made vehicles were used. The government has not disclosed the report.
Another deal considered problematic by arms control experts is Canada’s $2.2-million sale of 27 Maverick air-to-surface missiles to Bahrain, completed in 2016. (Canada also sold $1.3 million worth of military software to Bahrain that same year, but it’s unclear if the sales are related.)
Canada agreed to sell Bahrain the missiles, declared surplus by the Canadian military, in 2014 when Stephen Harper was prime minister. The war in Yemen had yet to begin, but Bahrain’s dismal human rights record at home — particularly in the years following the Arab Spring — was well documented by rights groups. The missiles weren’t shipped until 2016, when Trudeau’s government signed off on the export permit. By that point, Bahrain’s air force was heavily involved in the Saudi-led air raids in Yemen.
Ken Epps, a longtime arms trade researcher for Project Ploughshares, said Canada’s existing export controls should have prevented the deal because of the “high risk” they could be used to commit human rights violations. But a Global Affairs spokesperson told the Star a risk assessment conducted prior to the sale and shipment of the missiles raised “no such concerns.” The spokesperson did not answer if the Canadian government knows whether or not the missiles have been used.
Freeland’s spokesperson said Bahrain is an ally in fighting terrorism in the region: “Canada and Bahrain collaborate closely to stop terrorism and piracy in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.”
Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei, a human rights activist who was imprisoned and tortured by Bahraini authorities following the government’s crackdown during the Arab Spring, said there is no justification for selling weapons to Bahrain.
“It sends the message that Canada is OK with human rights abuses,” said AlWadaei, who moved to the U.K. in 2012 and now works for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. He added that any country that sells arms to Bahrain is complicit in its abuses. “It’s a very simple equation: you either support a dictatorship with a terrible human rights record, or you stand up against them.”
Bahrain’s U.S. Embassy, which is also responsible for Canada, did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story. Global Affairs Canada refused to disclose the criteria it used in its risk assessment of the Bahrain missile sale.
Freeland has said Canada can “do better” with regard to how it controls arms exports. She introduced legislation last year to make Canada a party to the Arms Trade Treaty, a United Nations initiative to better regulate the international arms trade. Under the proposed legislation, the government would be legally obligated to block exports where there is a “substantial risk” they could be used to commit human rights violations. Currently the risk assessments are only a consideration.
But Canada will continue to keep secret its trade to the U.S., and critics say that loophole means the government will continue to have virtually no control over where Canadian weapons end up. It’s also unclear how the new law, if passed, would change how Canada assesses risk. When asked, for instance, if Canada would have sold missiles to Bahrain if it had already been a party to the Arms Trade Treaty, Freeland’s spokesperson did not answer the question.