Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist and a journalism lecturer at Humber College in Toronto.
How many more harrowing photos and videos do we need to see before Ottawa decides to stop arming a terrorist state?
Will the death of a three-year-old boy fired at by Saudi police – whereby a bullet penetrated his waist and exited his body – be the deal breaker? What about the fact that 30 other unarmed civilians including women and children were also injured that same day?
There's been a wearying cycle of pressure and empty promises between the government, the courts and the media when it comes to that pesky thorn in the Liberal government's side: Ottawa's $15-billion armoured-vehicle deal with Riyadh.
The pattern goes like this: Canada signs off on the lucrative arms sale in April, 2016, promising to cancel the deal if any Canadian-made equipment is used to commit human-rights abuses. Shortly after, videos surface in Canadian media of the Saudis using armoured vehicles against – gasp – civilians. They're not Canadian-made, but it becomes clear to all except Ottawa (or so they say) that the Saudis wouldn't think twice about using weapons against their own people. A flood of angry opinion pieces and letters are published in the media. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government remains silent, if not quietly defiant.
In the months after, a University of Montreal law professor, Daniel Turp, tries to file a legal bid at the Federal Court to block exports to the oil-rich state. It gets rejected on the grounds that the courts cannot rule on the "morality of the exports."
Last month, as The Globe and Mail first reported, more videos surfaced showing Saudi forces fighting with civilians, this time accompanied by Canadian-made vehicles in the southern city of Awamiya.
This time, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland jumps in to issue some stern words. Ottawa is reviewing the situation on the ground, she says, and "action" will be taken if "Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights." But is she speaking to the Saudi government – or to Canadian news reporters in an effort to appease news coverage?
It's easy to forget amid all the political wrangling that real people are being impacted by Ottawa's callousness. Three-year-old Sajaad Mohamed Abu Abdallah died on Wednesday after spending two months in hospital after he was shot on June 12. Eyewitnesses said there were no clashes in the Awamiya area when an armoured vehicle shot live ammunition at his family's car in Saudi Arabia's eastern province. Also injured was Mohamed al-Nimr, the brother of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – the prominent Shia cleric executed by the Saudi regime last year after being convicted of terrorism offences. Mohamed's 21-year-old son, Ali, faces the same fate. He is currently on death row after being sentenced to death by crucifixion and beheading. His crime, our allies in Riyadh say, was to publicly demand an end to discrimination against minority Shia citizens.
None of these victims are Canadian. The armoured vehicle that shot them was not made in Canada. But does that even matter any more? Will Ms. Freeland only feel compelled to speak again when the next child dies – this time from an Ontario-made Terradyne armoured vehicle?
It's no wonder people in the Arab world are so cynical of Western powers who claim to fight against terrorism. As one journalist in Bahrain told me in reference to the $15-billion deal: "They won't pull the plug on anything. When Saudi entered Bahrain in 2011 [to quell Arab Spring-inspired protests] they used the same Canadian trucks. The Canadians said something about not using them against civilians and then continued business as usual. They do that for the media. Behind closed doors they might be telling them: 'See – our stuff works – buy more.'"