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Workers search through debris at a warehouse, after it was reportedly hit in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on July 2, 2020.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Cesar Jaramillo is executive director of Project Ploughshares. Justin Mohammed is a human-rights law and policy campaigner at Amnesty International Canada. Allison Pytlak is program manager at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Six years into the devastating armed conflict in Yemen, an increasingly clear picture is emerging of the key factors that have fuelled hostilities in the embattled country, now facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Lines of accountability are being drawn. And Canada finds itself on the side of the culprits.

Last week, the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, as mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, issued a report focused on the human-rights situation relating to the Yemen conflict. It confirmed not only the pattern of human-rights abuses by all parties to the conflict, but also the role that Canada and other arms exporters to the warring parties have played to perpetuate the crisis.

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The fighting in Yemen has placed more than 80 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance; more than 10 million Yemenis are at a high risk of famine; at least 17,000 civilians have been killed or injured, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the multifaceted impact of the armed conflict. The situation is indeed so troubling that the report calls on the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

The Trudeau government – which prides itself on a foreign policy based on respect for the rules-based international order, human-rights protection and feminism – cannot ignore Canada’s shameful inclusion in this report. To start, it must immediately halt weapons exports worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia, the chief instigator of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The Yemen conflict has been sustained by fresh weapons and ammunition sold to all parties involved. Britain and the United States, for instance, have equipped the Saudi-led coalition with the military jets and bombs being used in deadly airstrikes.

The misuse of Canadian arms exports by the Saudi regime within its borders has been well documented. Now, not only have such exports surfaced in the context of the Yemen conflict, but the recent UN report has made it clear that providing arms to any warring party has served to prolong the conflict.

Despite this, arms exports have been a crown jewel of the Canada-Saudi relationship for successive Canadian governments. While the most recent deal for light armoured vehicles – valued at up to $15-billion – was negotiated under the Harper Conservatives in 2014, the Trudeau Liberals issued the requisite export permits, and have been steadfast in its defence and fulfilment.

The UN report calls on Canada and other states to refrain “from providing arms and military support to the parties.” Yet in 2019, the same year that Canada acceded to the Arms Trade Treaty – a global agreement meant to prevent weapons from flowing into contexts of armed violence and human-rights abuse – its arms exports to Saudi Arabia more than doubled from the previous year, increasing from almost $1.3-billion in 2018 to almost $2.9-billion.

That this government steadfastly defends the deal raises serious ethical, legal, human-rights and humanitarian concerns.

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This year, the Trudeau government intends to publish a white paper on a feminist foreign policy to complement its existing feminist foreign-assistance policy and work to advance gender equality. The Saudi arms deal sorely undermines these efforts and is fundamentally incompatible with a feminist foreign policy. Women and other vulnerable or minority groups are systemically oppressed in Saudi Arabia and are disproportionately affected by the conflict in Yemen. Such direct support of militarism and oppression is the exact opposite of a feminist approach to foreign policy.

Ottawa has argued that scrapping the deal would lead to significant job loss. This need not be the case. The conversion of arms manufacturing to socially useful production provides possibilities for innovative solutions to the climate crisis. For example, as part of a Green New Deal, the federal government could work with trade unions representing workers in the arms industry to develop a plan that secures the livelihoods of those who would be affected by the end of these exports.

The Trudeau government must immediately end arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Yemen can’t wait. Neither can Canada.

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