What’s the price of human dignity?
That’s the question that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau must ask himself as his government maintains a twisted economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, which boasts one of the world’s worst human-rights records.
As the Trudeau government pledges a feminist economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and vows to fight systemic discrimination, Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia are inflaming the war in Yemen, according to a recent report published by the UN Human Rights Council. That five-year conflict, which is effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is systematically brutalizing women and children.
Marked by widespread child starvation and endemic sexual violence, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has become so gruesome that the independent experts who penned that UN report are urging the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions.
Yet, for unfathomable reasons, Canada continues to do billions of dollars worth of military business with Saudi Arabia’s repressive regime. That blood money is casting Canada as an international sellout on human rights and emboldening Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
MBS’s repressive behaviour inside and outside the kingdom has plumbed new depths since the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two years ago. So, why is Ottawa maintaining such tainted financial ties?
Although Canada imposed a temporary ban on new military export permits after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, that moratorium was lifted this past April.
“That sends absolutely the wrong message,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), a Washington-based non-partisan, non-profit organization that supports democratic reform in the Middle East.
“There has been no progress on any human rights issues in Saudi Arabia since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi … Unfortunately, the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia have only proceeded to get worse.”
Much of the controversy over Canada’s military exports to Saudi Arabia have centred on Ottawa’s decision to honour a $14-billion contract to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) built in London, Ont., by a subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor General Dynamics Corp.
When lifting the permit moratorium in April, Canadian officials claimed their military export review had produced no evidence the Saudis were using Canadian-made machinery to commit human-rights violations.
Perhaps they weren’t looking hard enough.
Even before the recent UN Human Rights Council report named and shamed Canada for fuelling the war in Yemen with arms exports to Saudi Arabia, there were already videos of Canadian-made military vehicles being used in that conflict.
Separately, the Crown corporation that brokered the LAV deal was slammed by the Auditor-General’s office in July for failing to scrutinize export contracts for human-rights risks.
Human-rights groups are putting pressure on Canada to cancel the LAV deal, but Ottawa is reticent. Government officials have previously warned of hefty financial penalties and the loss of Canadian jobs.
In an effort to assuage Canadians last April, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the terms of the LAV contract had been amended. Ottawa’s financial risk would be eliminated in cases “where future export permits are delayed or denied" should it be proved the kingdom is using the LAVs for non-defensive purposes.
Clearly, our federal officials need remedial lessons on mastering the art of the deal.
Make no mistake, Canada is already paying a steep price for being willfully blind to Saudi Arabia’s transgressions. As Ottawa bends over backward to fulfill the ill-conceived LAV contract, MBS is making a mockery of Canadian sovereignty.
Not only did he allegedly send a hit squad to Canada in a foiled attempt to assassinate former Saudi intelligence officer Saad Aljabri about two years ago, Mr. Aljabri is facing a new murder threat by MBS’s agents, The Globe and Mail reported in August. The very idea a Khashoggi-type killing could potentially transpire on Canadian soil is horrific.
To make matters worse, Canada is shoring up the kingdom’s flagging financial fortunes by importing billions of dollars in Saudi oil – more than $3-billion worth last year alone – even though the kingdom’s crude oil price war with Russia earlier this year made collateral damage of our energy industry.
In order to preserve what’s left of Canada’s credibility, Ottawa needs to slap a tariff on Saudi oil imports and ban military exports to the kingdom until it substantially improves its human-rights record.
Canada should also boycott next month’s virtual Group of 20 leaders summit, which will be chaired by MBS’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Under no circumstances should Canada give Saudi Arabia cover at that international gathering.
Doing business with a repressive regime is no doubt profitable for Canada, but that quid pro quo comes at a cost: the loss of human life. The world expects better of us.
“Up until now Canada has had a reputation of being a country that does adhere to its principles and values and does respect human rights," Mr. McInerney said. “These kinds of moves do legitimately threaten and erode that positive reputation.”
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