Canada is violating international law by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, according to a new report by rights groups Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares, which are urging Ottawa to suspend all arms exports to Riyadh.
Released on Wednesday, the report, titled ‘No Credible Evidence’: Canada’s Flawed Analysis of Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia, accuses Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government of violating the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an international agreement that Canada became a party to in 2019.
Canadian weapons transfers to the Gulf kingdom could be used to commit or facilitate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, the rights groups found, particularly in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.
“It has been established through investigations and expert reports that Canadian weapons exports to [Saudi Arabia] are contrary to Canada’s legal obligations under the ATT,” the report reads.
The war in Yemen broke out in late 2014 when Houthi rebels seized large swaths of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. The conflict escalated in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates assembled a military coalition in an attempt to restore the government of Riyadh-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The ongoing war has pushed millions to the brink of famine in what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and at least 233,000 people have died, according to a recent UN estimate.
“There is persuasive evidence that weapons exported from Canada to KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], including LAVs [light-armoured vehicles] and sniper rifles, have been diverted for use in the war in Yemen,” Wednesday’s report found.
“Given the overriding risk posed by Canadian weapons exports to KSA, Canada must immediately revoke existing arms export permits to KSA and suspend the issuance of new ones.”
A spokeswoman for Canada’s foreign affairs department, Global Affairs Canada, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday that the government “is committed to a rigorous arms export system”.
“Canada has one of the strongest export controls systems in the world, and respect for human rights is enshrined in our export controls legislation,” Lama Khodr said in an emailed statement.
“After a thorough review by officials, the Government announced last year that permits to KSA are now being reviewed on a case-by-case basis. These permits are not issued automatically and each of them are carefully scrutinized. Any permit application where there is a substantial risk of human rights violations will be denied,” she said.
But for years, Canadian civil society groups have urged the federal government to cancel existing weapons contracts with Saudi Arabia and suspend all future permits, arguing that the arms could be used in rights violations both inside the Gulf nation and in Yemen.
In particular, rights groups have urged Canada to cancel a $12bn ($15bn Canadian) weapons contract to ship Canadian-made LAVs to the Saudi government.
That deal was reached under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but Trudeau’s government gave it the final green light. Early into his tenure as prime minister, Trudeau had defended the exports, saying they were consistent with the country’s human rights obligations and foreign policy.
The conflict in Yemen has pushed millions to the brink of famine in what the United Nations has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis [File: Ali Owidha/Reuters]
But in the aftermath of the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, he said his government was looking for a way out of the deal – and Ottawa ordered a review of weapons exports to Riyadh.
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was assassinated by a Saudi hit squad in October 2018 at the country’s consulate in Istanbul. International experts and more recently, United States intelligence agencies, concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader, approved the operation. The Saudi government has denied that allegation.
Despite global pressure after the killing, in April 2020 the Canadian government lifted its freeze on weapons export permits to Saudi Arabia after a review, saying it had a robust system in place to ensure such permits meet Canada’s requirements under domestic law and the ATT.
In a report following that review, Canada said “there is no substantial risk” that military goods, including LAVs, “would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of [international humanitarian law] in Yemen”.
Canadian weapons exports to Saudi Arabia totalled $1.05bn ($1.31bn Canadian) in 2020, according to government figures. That was second only to the US and accounted for 67 percent of Canada’s total non-US arms exports.