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Politics Human-rights advocate calls for guarantees about Saudi use of combat vehicles

A Yemeni family stands outside their house which was damaged several months ago in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition at a slum in the capital Sanaa, on March 12, 2016.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia is arming Yemeni forces led by a controversial military commander accused of using child soldiers, a leading human-rights researcher is warning Parliamentarians. Ottawa must suspend sales of Canadian-made combat vehicles to Riyadh if it fails to obtain guarantees that they won't be become embroiled in this, she told a Senate committee.

Belkis Wille, of Human Rights Watch, said Ottawa must ensure made-in-Canada light armoured vehicles are not being used by the forces of General Ali Mohsen.

"He is a long-standing member within Yemen's military and, over many years, Human Rights Watch has documented him committing very serious abuses, including the occupation of schools with his troops and the use of child soldiers," Ms. Wille said, raising her concerns about Canada's $15-billion sale of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

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She warned the Senate Human Rights Committee on Wednesday that the Saudis are funding and equipping reconstituted pro-government Yemeni forces inside Saudi Arabia who are then dispatched to fight in Yemen.

"These troops are being armed by the Saudis. They are using vehicles provided by the Saudis," she said. "So the question is what steps are in place to make sure these Yemeni forces are not the ones to receive some of these Canadian light armoured vehicles?"

Ms. Wille has worked on the ground in Yemen and documented the impact of the air strikes there since 2015 by a Saudi-led Arab coalition that considers insurgent Houthi rebels a proxy for Iran and a threat to Saudi Arabia.

The work of Ms. Wille and Human Rights Watch on the impact of cluster bombs on civilians in Yemen – where a United Nations panel has accused the Saudi-led coalition of violating human-rights law – was considered instrumental in convincing the White House to recently ban cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Policy magazine story that broke this news May 27 cited Human Rights Watch reports.

The Saudi-led air-strike campaign in Yemen has drawn widespread condemnation over the past 14 months, including from United Nations monitors, about allegedly indiscriminate bombardment that has killed thousands of civilians.

A shaky ceasefire in region has been regularly violated and the aerial bombing has yielded to an increasing ground campaign backed by Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog, has for years chronicled laws-of-war violations under Gen. Mohsen. Ms. Wille said that during earlier wars against Houthi rebels from 2004 to 2009, Human Rights Watch documented numerous violations under his watch "including indiscriminate attacks, killing civilians as well as arbitrary detention and forced disappearances," she said, referring to abductions.

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"The idea that this man is leading a force armed by the Saudis and crossing into Yemen is of extreme concern to any country that is arming the Saudis given the fact this force will be needing more and more equipment."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both called for countries including Canada to suspend arms sales to Yemen until the Saudi coalition ceases air strikes that would be considered unlawful under international law.

The Canadian government, under Justin Trudeau, however, has signalled it expects the Canadian-made vehicles could be used by the Saudis to wage their military intervention in Yemen.

The office of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion referred questions about transfers of Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Yemeni forces to the Department of Global Affairs. The department did not immediately respond.

Global Affairs, when it recommended Mr. Dion approve the arms export this spring, wrote that light armoured vehicles could help Riyadh in its efforts at "countering instability in Yemen" as well as fighting Islamic State threats. "The acquisition of state-of-the-art armoured vehicles will assist Saudi Arabia in these goals," Global Affairs said in a memo from March, 2016.

As The Globe and Mail reported in February, videos and photographs on social media show older Canadian-made armoured vehicles already appear to be embroiled in Saudi Arabia's war against Yemeni-based Houthi rebels. Canada has shipped more than 1,700 vehicles to Saudi Arabia over the last 25 years.

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The only defence the Canadian government has offered is to say that it has not come across any use of made-in-Canada equipment being used to perpetrate human-rights violations. "There has been no indication that equipment of Canadian origin, including light armoured vehicles, may have been used in acts contrary to international humanitarian law," Global Affairs wrote in March about Yemen.

In January, Mr. Dion told The Globe that Saudi Arabia had committed to Canada that it would not use the armoured vehicles against civilian populations. "In this contract, one must ensure that there are commitments made that the use of weapons will not be directed against civilian populations," he said in January. "There is a very rigorous process that is followed to ensure that is the case."

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