Five urgent questions in light of an investigation into Saudi use of Canadian arms

As Global Affairs Canada looks into alleged Saudi abuses with Canadian arms exports, Cesar Jaramillo asks whether findings will lead to action, and points to other key factors to consider.

By: /
August 15, 2017
Saudiarms
A member of Saudi Special Forces walks next to unidentified armoured vehicle in the town of Awamiya following a security campaign against Shi'ite Muslim gunmen, in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia, August 9, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

Goaded by incontrovertible red flags and the heightened scrutiny of media and civil society, Global Affairs Canada has announced an investigation into recent reports of the use of Canadian-made military equipment to violently suppress protest in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. 

However welcome the move, the key threshold that should have guided the human rights assessment of the export permit authorization process has always been a reasonable risk that Canadian-made arms exports might be used against a civilian population. Such a risk has long been apparent. 

Remember: Canada is arming one of the very worst human rights violators on the planet; one recently accused by a UN panel of “widespread and systematic targeting of civilians” in neighbouring Yemen; one now reportedly employing Canadian goods to repress its own people.  

It is nonetheless critical that Ottawa’s investigation be thorough, detailed and transparently reliable. Then, if the evidence of human rights violations is verified, the government must be seen to deliver real consequences to the Saudis. The stakes at this point are so high that mere expressions of concern will not suffice. 

Here are five urgent questions to consider in this context: 

1. How effective is Canada’s capacity to monitor misuse of arms exports?

It is clear that Global Affairs Canada’s response to recent allegations of Saudi abuse in the country’s Eastern Province was prompted by media reports. But it would serve the public interest to know whether Ottawa only learned of the situation through such reporting or whether it independently, and effectively, monitors the use of Canadian-made military exports. Does the government have the capacity on the ground to conduct an adequate inquiry into every serious allegation?

This is not a minor concern. It speaks to the realistic ability of the government to ensure that Canadian arms exports are not contributing to the exacerbation of armed conflict, do not sustain autocratic regimes and do not enable the violation of human rights.

It just so happens that the geographic regions where many such abuses reportedly take place are often secluded, with very limited press freedom and foreign media presence. Getting such information would take serious resources.

Or does Ottawa simply take the Saudis’ word that Canadian-made equipment will not be used against civilians?

2. Has prior misuse of Canadian arms exports gone unreported?

Have there been previous, unreported instances when Canadian-made equipment has been involved in the violent repression of the civilian population? When differing reports emerge of Saudi sieges on civilian targets, is Canada taking the Kingdom’s standard explanation of ‘anti-terrorism operations’ at face value, every time? 

Did either the Harper Conservatives or the Trudeau Liberals in fact seek and receive specific assurances that Canadian-made weapons would not be used against civilians? The government has never made this clear. 

If this is a case of wishfully thinking that abuses with Canadian-made arms exports will not happen (and are not happening, and have not happened), such thinking has undoubtedly become increasingly suspect.

3. Have implications of Saudi Arabia’s impending transition of power been considered?

Longstanding expectations of a smooth and predictable transition of power upon the death of King Salman, now 81, were upended earlier this year. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was once publicly recognized as the heir-apparent, was stripped of his vast powers as interior minister. King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, was declared to be the successor to his throne. 

The new heir was already powerful. As deputy prime minister and minister of defence, he has been a key architect of the Saudi-led intervention in neighbouring Yemen, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and possible war crimes. He is described as “aggressive” and a “hawk” on matters ranging from rapprochement with Iran to the war in Yemen. 

The controversial $15-billion Canadian arms export deal with Saudi Arabia is still in the early stages of implementation and is expected to take at least a decade to complete. Who will be governing Saudi Arabia during this period? With what sort of an agenda?

The House of Saud has been entrenched in power for over eight decades. Is it farfetched to think that democratic pressures will erupt sooner or later, as they have in other countries in the region — as they have in Venezuela? If they do, what is the likely use of Canadian-made equipment, whose primary user is the Saudi Arabian National Guard, which is specifically tasked with protecting the regime? 

4. Will investigation findings lead to credible action?

When the grim news broke that Saudi Arabia had summarily executed nearly 50 dissidents on Jan. 2, 2016, then Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion issued a statement decrying the executions. He also confirmed that Canada would proceed with the deal.    

When damming footage emerged in early May last year showing armoured vehicles reportedly being used against the civilian population, Justin Trudeau said, “We need to make sure we are respected on the world stage by keeping our word,” and stuck with the deal. 

Dion traveled to Saudi Arabia soon after the footage emerged to meet members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. There, he said, he reiterated the government’s “human rights concerns.” But the deal was still on.

The most recent media reports, which appear to show Canadian military vehicles being used in a military siege in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, have now prompted Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to express her own “deep concern” at home and to “register” this concern with Saudi authorities. 

As the song asks, “Is that all there is?” Not good enough, say we.

5. What precedent will be set?

The implications of the government’s handling of this file, including its eventual response to the ongoing investigation, go far beyond one deal with one country. The standard for the human rights assessment of arms export authorizations is reasonable risk of misuse — as is appropriate for an arms controls regime that the Canadian government often calls “among the strongest in the world.” 

Put another way, to clearly establish reasonable risk of misuse, there need not be evidence of misuse actually occurring. The fact that this higher threshold has now apparently been reached should not obscure the fact that a standard of reasonable risk of misuse has long been the one established by relevant export controls.

To insist on a standard of evidence would set a troubling precedent, whereby future arms deals would be judged on a basis that is blatantly incongruous with domestic export regulations and the spirit and obligations of the international Arms Trade Treaty that Canada will soon join. 

No one ever said that sticking to principles — and regulations — was without cost. It is clear that other factors are at play, including local jobs and strategic international alliances. Yet this much is certain: per domestic and international arms controls, an objective risk assessment should be the key driver of export permit decisions. 

And if Ottawa is considering a range of responses, up to and including the suspension or cancelation of contracts, it would do well to also consider a domestic political and economic fallout plan to ease the shock of a painful but necessary change in direction.