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The federal government last year approved a deal with Canadian business connections for the sale of nearly $74-million of weapons to Saudi Arabia, even as there were calls for Canada to stop arms transactions with the Saudis, one of the main combatants fuelling the war in Yemen.

Global Affairs said in a report that Ottawa issued a brokering permit to a Canadian, or Canadian company, that sold $73.9-million worth of explosives to Saudi Arabia. The arms originated in France, according to the recently released 2020 Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada.

In 2018, Parliament passed legislation giving Ottawa authority to regulate brokering of the sale or transfer of weapons or other restricted technology between two or more foreign countries when Canadians or Canadian companies are involved in the transaction. This means foreign weapons deals brokered by Canadians or Canadian companies located outside of the country require a brokering permit from Ottawa.

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Ottawa discloses little about these transactions. It keeps the identities of weapons brokers and suppliers secret in the name of commercial confidentiality. It also doesn’t reveal the precise nature of the goods sold, only saying in this case that they belong to Export Control List category 2.4, which includes “bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, other explosive devices and charges and related equipment and accessories.”

Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a war in neighbouring Yemen since 2015 as the leader of a coalition of Mideast and African countries supporting a Yemeni government against Houthi rebels backed by Iran. Human-rights groups and Western political leaders – including the European Parliament – have urged a freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that tracks arms exports, said it’s puzzling why Canada would greenlight a brokering permit for selling explosives to Saudi Arabia, which has been carrying out air strikes in Yemen for six years.

“The concern here is that Canada could be facilitating the transfer of military explosives to a country that frequently breaches international humanitarian law,” he said.

Mr. Gallagher noted that a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen has said “the provision of weapons to any of the conflict parties in Yemen is facilitating the conflict itself and potential war crimes.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau’s department declined to answer questions regarding why it approved the $74-million brokered deal, instead providing a summary of published rules governing permits.

Global Affairs spokesman Grantly Franklin said in an e-mailed statement that under Canadian law, a permit would not be issued if the government believes “there is a substantial risk that the items to be brokered could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human-rights law or international humanitarian law or serious acts of gender-based violence or violence against women and children.”

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NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said the government has a record of taking a “very narrow” view of what constitutes risk from arms exports, pointing to successive reports by Global Affairs that determined billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia were not a problem.

“It’s part of an ongoing pattern, particularly with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Harris said. “There is an ongoing failure by this government when it comes to following through on its stated commitment to human rights.”

According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, almost a quarter of a million people have died in the Yemen war. The conflict has led to an estimated 233,000 deaths since 2014 – including 131,000 from indirect causes such as lack of food, health services and infrastructure. It’s also led to what the UN body has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Last fall, Canada was for the first time publicly named as one of the countries helping fuel the war in Yemen by a panel of independent experts monitoring the conflict for the UN and investigating possible war crimes by the combatants, including Saudi Arabia.

Other named countries included France and the United States. Saudi Arabia remains the top export destination for Canadian-made military goods after the United States, in large part owing to a $15-billion deal to sell armoured vehicles, many equipped with guns or cannons, to Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human-rights records in the world. Rights group Amnesty International’s 2020 report said ”repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly intensified.”

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Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted or jailed “were government critics, women’s-rights activists, human-rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shia minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” By the end of 2020, “virtually all known Saudi Arabian human-rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year.”

Western countries have been reluctant to heed calls to scale back arms sales. Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, noted that while U.S. President Joe Biden is not chummy with Saudi Arabia as his predecessor Donald Trump was, weapons deals continue.

“The tone has changed but the substance of the relationship continues,” Prof. Juneau said.

He said he believes the U.S. is reluctant to end weapons sales to Riyadh because it would handicap Saudi Arabia’s fight in Yemen “and then the Houthis win. … And that is not good, both strategically and because the Houthis are horrible from a human-rights perspective.”

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