O Canada: A call for equal opportunity outrage over weapons sales to human rights abusers

O Canada: A call for equal opportunity outrage over weapons sales to human rights abusers

By Hadani Ditmar, The New Arab, August 16, 2017

Canadian politicians have rightly raised concerns over arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in light of new evidence that combat machines made by Terradyne Armored Vehicles, based in Newmarket, Ontario, have been used to quell a Shia uprising in the Saudi Arabia's volatile Eastern province. 

Experts have identified the vehicles featuring armour cladding and weapons turrets as Terradyne Gurkha RPVs. "We shouldn’t be selling any more arms to Saudi Arabia," an outraged Irwin Cotler, who served as justice minister under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, told The Globe and Mail last week. "I don't think we should be [undertaking] arms sales with a country that is engaged in major human rights violations," he added.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, in the Philippines for the ASEAN-Canada ministerial meeting, said she had instructed her officials to "urgently" investigate the matter and that she was "deeply concerned" over the reports of Canadian weapons being used against Saudi citizens.

Freeland also said she had raised the matter with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini while in Manila.

And well-meaning activists here have been holding up the Swedish example - they tore up lucrative arms contracts with Saudi Arabia a few years ago ostensibly over human rights concerns, and are considering an outright ban by 2018 - as something to which Canada should aspire.

But if you look beneath the surface of this apparent outrage at Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia, there are so many elephants in the room that this international weapons circus is too crowded for one big top.

First of all, as per usual, no one has mentioned any of the other perpetrators of human rights abuses we enthusiastically sell arms to, including Israel.

Canada's weapons export-control rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens". In theory, if there's risk that the client state could use the weapons against their own population, exports are supposed to be blocked. 

In March of this year Canada announced an investment of $13 million to further strengthen the country's export control regime, promising to implement new brokering controls and to improve transparency.


So current outrage directed exclusively at Saudi Arabia would seem to fly in the face of human rights abuses perpetrated by other Canadian arms clients. Some human rights abusers, it would seem, are more equal than others.

At stake is Canada's national mythology as a peace loving nation (not to mention "progressive" Sweden's - a major player in global arms exporting), but also any notion of Justin Trudeau's foreign policy - especially in terms of the Middle East - being any different than that of his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

While the myth of Canada as a neutral broker in terms of Israel and Palestine is belied by a long history of Canadian Christian Zionism, Canadian Prime Minister Lester B Pearson's important role in UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land, the millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations used to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service ties to Mossad, Harper's policies were nakedly pro-Likud.

In 2009, the then-prime minister cut funding to KAIROS, a well-regarded NGO deemed too "pro-Palestinian", and in 2012 refused - alone among G8 leaders - to embrace President Obama's peace plan based on pre-1967 borders, before voting against a Palestinian bid for statehood, contrary to the wishes of a majority of Canadians, according to polls.

Ammunition sales to Israel spiked from 2010-2013 according to Industry Canada reports, as did (according to Foreign Affairs) bombs, grenades, torpedoes, mines, and military software and technology exports. This enthusiastic arming of the Israeli state occurred just in time for 2014's "Shock and Awe" campaign visited upon trapped civilians in Gaza - in a year where Israel killed some 2,300 Palestinians and injured 17,000 - more than any other year since 1967.

Then in January 2015, the Conservative government amended its military export law to permit Canadian shipments to Israel and Kuwait of prohibited weapons such as handguns and automatic weapons.

And while Trudeau has recently paid lip service to establishing a more even-handed foreign policy on Palestine, it would seem to be business as usual. Canada has continued to vote consistently against numerous UN resolutions supporting Palestinian rights and in May of this year on the Nakba anniversary, Trudeau pledged to fight the growing BDS movement in Canada: "Today, while we celebrate Israel's independence, we also reaffirm our commitment to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism."

The Canadian BDS movement is actively lobbying for a total military embargo on Israel, in light of their war crimes in Gaza, while Canadian activists including Richard Sanders of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade have compiled damning data on Canadian military components used in Israel's wars against Lebanon - as well as "Canada's largest pension funds and their $5.8 billion dollar investments in 66 firms supporting Israel's military-police-surveillance-prison-industrial complex."

In fact, Foreign Affairs records show that Canadian military exports to Israel in 2016 were valued at more than $9.7 million (and almost $4 million to Turkey and, intriguingly, almost $11 million to Sweden) up from $7.8 million in 2015.

And in the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) list of top arms exporters from 2011-2015, Israel, Sweden, Canada were respectively 11, 12 and 13.

How did the definition of a Canadian go from Pierre Berton's famous aphorism - "someone who can make love in a canoe" - to "being a citizen of a country that sells weapons to human rights abusers"?

Canada - whose arms industry enjoyed a significant growth spurt in the early 1990s when the Liberal Party was in power - although parties across the political spectrum continue to receive millions of dollars in donations from war industries - certainly has no monopoly on failure to live up to its national mythology as a peace-loving nation. 

And its military exports to Israel and Saudi Arabia are dwarfed by its neighbour to the south - although claiming the moral higher ground against the Americans remains our other national sport.

While Sweden has been praised for its seemingly principled stance on Saudi weapon sales, some critics claim that their real motivation is more bottom line - a desire to stop Saudi Arabia from developing its own capacity for manufacturing weapons.

It was long an open secret that Norway - the nation where the Nobel Peace prize initiated by Swedish industrialist and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel is awarded each year - sold arms to both sides, even as it was negotiating the ill-fated Oslo Accords.

But if Canadians - whose special forces, tripled in Iraq since the sanctimonious 2015 withdrawal of fighter jets from the US-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State group, took part in the murderous US-led "liberation" of Mosul - want to get outraged about selling weapons to human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, it should be equal opportunity outrage.

After all, Saudi Arabia and Israel may have more in common than not - and are currently united in their stand against "rabble-rousing" Al Jazeera. Why play favourites? Wouldn't it be the Canadian thing to do to include Israel in the international pariah club? Or at the very least to stop sending them parts for fighter jets that kill Palestinian and Lebanese children?

Related news:
Confidential U.N. Report Accuses Saudi Coalition of Killing Hundreds of Yemeni Kids

A Saudi-led military coalition conducting airstrikes in Yemen committed “grave violations” of human rights against children last year, killing 502, injuring 838, according to a draft report by the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

“The killing and maiming of children remained the most prevalent violation” of children’s rights in Yemen, according to the 41-page draft report obtained by Foreign Policy. “In the reporting period, attacks carried out by air were the cause of over half of all child casualties, with at least 349 children killed and 333 children injured.”

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been trying since March 2015, with U.S. backing, to force Houthi rebels out of power in Yemen. But the coalition’s air strikes have been heavily criticized for killing civilians, hobbling infrastructure, and destroying the country’s architectural heritage.

The chief author of the confidential draft report, Virginia Gamba, the U.N. chief’s special representative for children abused in war time, informed top U.N. officials Monday, that she intends to recommend the Saudi-led coalition be added to a list a countries and entities that kill and maim children, according to a well-placed source. The decision will have to be taken by Guterres, who will make the final report public later this month.

The Saudi-led air coalition was responsible for inflicting the largest  number of child casualties, 683, with Houthi rebels killing or injuring 414. In contrast, the Islamic State was responsible for six child casualties and Al Qaeda one.

Coalition aircraft also destroyed 28 schools.

The Saudi-led coalition is the only force in Yemen with warplanes and helicopter gunships, making it the likely perpetrator of such acts.

The findings were included in a draft copy of the U.N.’s annual report of Children and Armed Conflict, which documented human rights violations of at least 15,500 children last year by government forces, terrorists and armed opposition groups in more than a dozen conflicts around the world. Four thousand documented abuses of children were attributed to governments, with the vast majority of remaining atrocities, 11,500, committed by terrorist organizations or insurgents.

Saudi officials have privately urged the U.N. to engage in further high level discussions before publishing the report. And they have enlisted the support of the United States, which has urged the U.N. not to list the Saudi-led coalition, saying it’s unfair to implicate all coalition members, even those who have not engaged in atrocities, according to two well-placed sources.In addition to Saudi Arabia, the coalition includes Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

Instead, Washington has pressed the UN to list only those  individual states directly responsible for atrocities, according to those sources. But identifying specific states is complicated by the fact that the coalition does not release information on which coalition members are engaged in specific operations, according to officials.

An official at the U.S. mission to the U.N. challenged that account, saying “we have not pursued such an argument [with] anyone at the U.N.”

The publication of the report, which is expected to be issued later this month, presents Guterres with a tough dilemma: if he shames the Saudi coalition he runs the risk of provoking a break with the U.N.’s most influential Arab governments. But if he doesn’t act, he is likely to face charges of undermining the U.N.’s commitment to human rights.

In February, Guterres sought a middle way, suggesting to his top advisors that the U.N. delay the report’s release by three to six months to allow the coalition incentive to improve its conduct. But the office of the U.N. advocate for children feared a delay would subject them to criticism. Guterres, who is expected to receive the final report later this week, has not indicated what he will do.

The current standoff has its roots in the 2001 adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1379, which mandated a senior U.N. official to produce a report each year documenting attacks against children in armed conflicts, including an annex that serves as a blacklist of governments, terrorists and armed groups that kill and maim kids. But it has proven highly controversial among states, who resent being publicly singled out and placed on a list that includes some of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State.

The latest draft report reflects a drop in the overall number of documented casualties in Yemen. Gamba’s draft attributed the fall to a temporary ebb in fighting that followed the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement in April 2016. But she also suggested the actual casualty count could be higher, noting that “the documentation of violations against children was constrained by access restrictions and insecurity.”

Gamba told FP that the contents of the final report, which is still being discussed with various U.N. offices, have “not been finalized,” and that for the time being there is no final decision on which countries would be included in the blacklist. She also said she was unaware of attempts by the United States to oppose the listing of the Saudi-led coalition. “None of what you indicate has reached me,” she said. And she would not confirm whether she had recommended the Saudi coalition be included on the list or nor.

Stephane Dujarric, the U.N. chief’s top spokesman, declined to comment on Gamba’s finding but he noted that the draft report obtained by FP “is not the final report.”

Last year, Saudi Arabia was included on the list on the grounds that the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for more than half of the 1,953 child casualties in the Yemen conflict.

In response, Saudi Arabia threatened to stage a walk-out by Arab countries from the U.N. and slash hundreds of millions in aid to the international body’s anti-poverty programs unless the coalition was removed from a U.N. rogues list. Then U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reluctantly agreed to temporarily delist the coalition, citing concerns that the loss of Persian Gulf money could imperil the lives of millions of needy children from South Sudan to Yemen.

But he insisted that the coalition would be put back on the list unless a joint U.N.-Saudi review of the coalition’s conduct demonstrated the allegations were unjustified or that attacks on children stopped. But the Saudis were never put back on the list, and the attacks never stopped.

About 600 children were killed and 1,150 injured in Yemen between March 2016 and March 2017, according to UNICEF.

The Saudi mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. But Saudi officials have privately contended in talks with the U.N. that they have taken steps to avoid child casualties, and that the documented number of deaths and injuries has fallen significantly since last year.

Outside groups say the drop is due less to the coalition’s restraint than to the fact that outside observers, including researchers from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have been prohibited from entering Yemen on U.N. relief planes. In July, the Saudi-led coalition barred the U.N. from delivering aid to the Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa because three BBC reporters were traveling on the relief plan.

“Despite all the promises to show restraint that the Saudis have made to the U.N., the U.S. and the U.K., there haven’t really been any improvements in the lives of Yemeni children to brag about,” said Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. “Schools are still being attacked, bombs are still being dropped, and children are still being killed.”

Posted August 18, 2017