Canadian-made armoured vehicles appear to be embroiled in Saudi Arabia's war against Yemeni-based Houthi rebels – caught up in cross-border hostilities that critics say should force Ottawa to reconsider a $15-billion deal to sell Riyadh more of these weapons.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis – who are aligned with Iran – has already been accused by a United Nations panel of major human-rights violations for what its report called "widespread and systematic" air-strike attacks on civilian targets. Along the Saudi-Yemen border, constant skirmishes pit Houthi fighters against Saudi ground forces such as the Saudi Arabian National Guard.
The Saudi Arabian National Guard, a buyer of many Canadian-made light armoured vehicles (LAVs) in the past decade, has published photos on its official Twitter account showing how in late 2015 it moved columns of combat vehicles to Najran, a southwestern Saudi town near the border with Yemen that is in the thick of the conflict.
A significant number of vehicles in the photos have the triangular front corners, the eight wheels and the headlamps fixed above these triangles that are familiar features in earlier LAV models made in Canada.
Neither the Liberal government nor LAV-maker General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont., would confirm these are Canadian machines.
But a retired Canadian general consulted by The Globe and Mail, who spoke on condition of anonymity, identified the LAVs being transported to Najran as fighting vehicles made by General Dynamics Land Systems. Stephen Priestley, a researcher with the Canadian American Strategic Review, a think tank that tracks defence spending, also identified the LAVs as Canadian-made.
Critics say having Canadian-made arms enmeshed in a conflict that has claimed more than 2,800 civilian lives should prompt Ottawa to rethink the recent $15-billion deal to sell hundreds or thousands more to the Saudis.
Canada's export control rules for weapons shipments are supposed to require Ottawa to restrict arms exports to countries such as Saudi Arabia, that have "poor human-rights records." Saudi Arabia, regularly ranked among the "worst of the worst" on human rights by Freedom House, qualifies for special scrutiny.
The same federal weapons export controls also say Canada should "closely control," or be very discriminating, about shipments to countries "that are involved in or under imminent threat of hostilities."
Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's department refused comment Monday when pressed on whether it is concerned about the armoured vehicle shipments, saying it's bound to secrecy on anything to do with arms sales to the Saudis.
"In regards to your request, please see our response: For reasons of commercial confidentiality, specific contractual details cannot be shared," Tania Assaly, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs said in a prepared statement.
The Trudeau Liberals keep trying to dissociate themselves from the increasingly controversial deal. Last week, Mr. Dion argued his government merely inherited the contract and that cancelling it would cost taxpayers huge penalties. Pressed on this, Mr. Dion's department refused to provide details to back up the Foreign Minister's assertion, citing the need to keep the commercial pact with Riyadh secret.
General Dynamics Land Systems Canada of London, Ont., which employs about 2,100 people, did not respond to a request for comment about whether it is concerned about the LAVs caught up in the Saudi-Yemen conflict.
Ken Epps with the anti-war group Project Ploughshares, which tracks arms sales, said the Liberal government should rethink the latest $15-billion contract with Saudi Arabia. Ottawa, not General Dynamics Land Systems, is the prime contractor in this deal, which was also brokered by the federal government.
The Trudeau government still has power over the deal. It can suspend exports of these combat vehicles.
"Given a UN report accused the Saudis of war crimes because of their bombing of civilians, then clearly our concern must be that since they are involved in war crimes there, it should give the Canadian government additional pause in shipping these kind of weapons to them," Mr. Epps said.
The $15-billion Saudi LAV deal will provide Riyadh with weaponized armoured vehicles in what is the largest manufacturing export contract in Canadian history – but one that doesn't garner significant public support. A recent Nanos Research poll found nearly six out of 10 Canadians surveyed feel it is more important to ensure arms exports go only to countries "that respect human rights" than it is to sustain some 3,000 jobs by selling combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
A new report says Saudi Arabia was the second-largest arms importer in the world between 2011 and 2015 after India as Mideast countries upped weapons purchases significantly. Shipments to Saudi Arabia rose 275 per cent in those years, by value, compared with the earlier 2006-10 period, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.
At least one wartime footage video posted on YouTube on the Houthi-Saudi conflict also shows what appears to be a disabled Canadian-made LAV, presumably abandoned by Saudi troops as their enemies approached.
Mr. Priestley said this December, 2015, video, purported to be shot near the southern Saudi town of Al Raboah, shows a National Guard LAV-AG model, made in London, Ont., being looted by combatants.