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A variant of the Light Armoured Vehicles, similar to the ones ordered by the Canadian Armed Forces, sits inside the General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada factory in London, Ont. on Aug. 16, 2019. The green coloured LAV are sold to Canadian military but the sand coloured are sold to Saudi Arabia.Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s watch is flouting international law by refusing to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a new report by two watchdog groups says.

Amnesty International and Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo, Ont.-based disarmament group, say in a study, “No Credible Evidence”: Canada’s Flawed Analysis of Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia, the federal government’s 2020 review of Canada’s military-goods exports to the desert kingdom is “fundamentally flawed” as it misinterprets, or ignores, key pillars of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Saudi Arabia remains the largest customer of Canadian military goods aside from the United States in large part because of a massive deal worth nearly $15-billion brokered by the Canadian government to sell armoured vehicles equipped with weapons to Riyadh.

Last year, then-foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne lifted a moratorium on reviewing new applications for arms exports to Saudi Arabia after the department of Global Affairs issued a report saying there was “no substantial risk” that these transfer of military goods were “used to commit or facilitate violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, or gender-based violence.”

And so Canada exported more than $1.3-billion in military goods to Saudi Arabia in 2020, a country where, as Amnesty International reported, “repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly intensified” last year. The rights watchdog notes that a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes for their role in a long-running war in neighbouring Yemen where both sides “commit violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses with impunity.”

Canadian-made light armoured vehicles operated by Saudi soldiers have been filmed in skirmishes across the Saudi Arabian-Yemeni border. And Canadian-made sniper rifles have been photographed in possession of Yemeni government soldiers or their proxy forces – weapons that arms-trade monitors believe were supplied by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a war in 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. 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 a lack of food, health services and infrastructure. It’s also led to what the UN body has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

In the Global Affairs review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Canadian government in part justifies the legality of weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia by pointing to a 2019 report by a panel of independent experts appointed by the United Nations to monitor the conflict in Yemen. It notes that the expert panel does not identify Canada as one of the countries contributing to the conflict through arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “The Group of Eminent Experts explicitly questioned the legality of arms transfers by France, the United Kingdom and the United States,” Canada pointed out. “Notably, however, the [experts’] report did not question the legality of Canadian arms transfers” to Saudi Arabia.

But months after the Global Affairs report was released – and used to justify green-lighting the resumption of approval of arms export permits – the same expert panel on Yemen explicitly named Canada as helping fuel the Yemeni conflict.

In a report for the period ending in June, 2020, the panel included Canada on a list of countries selling arms to those waging the conflict in Yemen: a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and Houthi rebels backed by Iran. These countries “continued their support of parties to the conflict including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict,” the report said.

Amnesty and Ploughshares note that Canada did not reverse its opinion on the safety of arms exports to Saudi Arabia after this.

“What Canada wants to see before they would stop exports is a video of a Canadian product killing a civilian,” Ploughshares researcher Kelsey Gallagher said. “You’re never going to get that.”

The global Arms Trade Treaty says that signatory countries must assess the potential that exported military goods would “undermine peace and security,” or be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian or human-rights law.” If a country determines there is an “overriding risk” these negative consequences may occur, and this risk cannot be mitigated, it is legally obliged to prevent the export, the treaty says. Canada acceded to the treaty in 2019.

But Amnesty and Project Ploughshares say Canadian government has narrowly defined “overriding risk,” as a “direct, present and foreseeable risk” that a specific good or technology would lead to negative consequences.

“Contrary to what the federal government has said, Canada continues to ignore its international obligations to the Arms Trade Treaty,” said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares. He said Global Affairs’ 2020 review of Saudi arms sales “cherry-picks through evidence to paint a picture of a weapons deal that is fully compliant with international law.”

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