Canada is joining the United States and Britain, two of the biggest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia, in calling publicly for the Mideast kingdom to strike a ceasefire in Yemen, where more than 3½ years of conflict have triggered what aid groups call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
This sharp increase in diplomatic pressure comes as relations between the West and the Saudi monarchy have cooled following Riyadh’s killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is calling for a cessation of hostilities in Yemen and says UN-led negotiations to end the civil war should begin next month.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-allied Houthi group. Iran has denied supplying weapons to the Houthis.
Mr. Pompeo was quickly backed by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who saw it as an opportunity for a humanitarian corridor to reach Yemenis suffering from the war and a famine exacerbated by a Saudi blockade of shipment routes into the country. “This is an extremely welcome announcement [from Mr. Pompeo] because we have been working toward the cessation of hostilities in Yemen for a long time,” Mr. Hunt told the BBC.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada also wants to see a suspension of hostilities.
“A ceasefire must be established to allow for the unimpeded access of humanitarian aid and to ensure the protection of the human rights of the people of Yemen,” spokesman Adam Austen said.
“Canada’s position on the conflict in Yemen is clear. We deplore the violence. We deplore the humanitarian disaster and demand immediate access for lifesaving food and aid.”
The Saudi coalition has conducted frequent air strikes targeting the Houthis and has often hit civilians. A UN panel has accused the coalition of major human-rights violations for these “widespread and systematic” air-strike attacks – although Riyadh denies intentionally aiming at civilians.
The conflict has left more than 6,800 civilians dead and more than 10,000 injured. Last week, the UN’s aid chief warned half the population of Yemen could soon be on the brink of famine.
Canada, which is in the midst of a massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, has publicly acknowledged these war machines would be used in the conflict with Houthi forces in Yemen.
The former Harper government struck the arms deal, originally valued at $15-billion, in 2014, but it was the Trudeau government in 2016 that made the crucial decision to approve export permits for these light-armoured vehicles (LAVs).
In a 2016 memo approving export permits for an $11-billion portion of the deal and signed by then-foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion, the Department of Global Affairs argued in favour of a green light for the shipments in part because the LAVs would help Riyadh in its efforts at “countering instability in Yemen” as well as fighting Islamic State threats.
“The acquisition of state-of-the-art armoured vehicles will assist Saudi Arabia in these goals,” the 2016 memo said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in recent days said Canada has been considering suspending the export permits that would allow continued shipments in the 14-year-LAV contract – as a means of censuring Riyadh on the Khashoggi slaying – but since last week, his government has provided no update on whether it would proceed with this measure.
Last week, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock warned the Security Council that half of Yemen’s population of 28 million could soon be completely reliant on humanitarian aid for survival.
“There is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing Yemen: much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives,” Mr. Lowcock said.
In the U.S. call for a ceasefire, Mr. Pompeo said missile and drone strikes by Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should stop, and the Saudi-led coalition must cease air strikes in all populated areas of Yemen.
The United States helps the coalition by refuelling its jets and providing training in targeting. Mr. Pompeo said last month he had certified to the U.S. Congress that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were working to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen.
Canada has faced repeated accusations that it is playing both sides of the conflict in Yemen, offering millions of dollars in aid money to sooth the suffering of Yemenis but also making money off the war.
In 2018, Canada gave $44-million in assistance to Yemen, making it the fifth-largest donor, according to Ottawa.
Canada played an important role in a UN motion mandating that the UN Human Rights Commissioner send investigators to Yemen to investigate crimes against humanity, said Mr. Austen, Ms. Freeland’s spokesman.
And he said that “Canada welcomes the appointment of the new UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths, and is supportive of efforts to resume efforts to a peaceful end to this conflict.” Mr. Griffiths said last month that the UN hoped to resume consultations between the warring sides by November.
Canadian-made armoured vehicles have been photographed and filmed being deployed by the Saudis in the fighting with Houthi rebels. These cross-border skirmishes feature the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a major customer of Canadian LAVs in the past decade. The Guard has even published photos on its official Twitter account showing the movement of Canadian-made vehicles to Najran, a southwestern Saudi town near the border with Yemen that is in the thick of the conflict.
Wartime videos posted on YouTube have included footage of what appears to be a disabled Canadian-made LAV, presumably abandoned by Saudi troops as their enemies approached.
Canada’s involvement in both aid to Yemen and armoured vehicle sales to Saudi Aradia illustrates a troubling lack of coherence in Canadian foreign policy, arms-control advocate Cesar Jaramillo said.
“All aid to Yemen is not only welcome but necessary. But this does not obscure the blatantly contradictory messages Canada is sending about its commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights internationally,” said Mr. Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group.
“If Ottawa is truly serious about increased rigour and transparency around the arms trade and about its human-rights commitments, it needs to make some tough decisions. And there is no more egregious test case than arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”
With a report from Reuters