Many people in Southwestern Ontario cheered in February 2014 when General Dynamics Land Systems in London scored a multi-billion dollar contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia, creating and sustaining about 3,000 jobs in economically hard-hit London. While Prime Minister Trudeau has said he does not want to renege on the deal, which was negotiated by the previous Conservative government, Stéphane Dion, the Minister of Foreign Affairs told reporters at the United Nations in New York recently that Canada will strengthen rules on sales of weapons “to ensure that the equipment that we sell is not misused.” Now that the tidal wave of enthusiasm for the contract is subsiding, we should ask ourselves how to ethically link the sale of military armaments, like light-armoured vehicles (LAVs), to the human rights record of undemocratic regimes that are regularly cited as serious human rights abusers by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Saudi Arabia shocked the world in January by executing 47 people in a single day, including the Shi’a Muslim cleric Sheikhi Nimr al-Nimr. The recent arrest of prominent human rights defender Samar Badawi is just the latest example of Saudi Arabia’s contempt for its human rights obligations and provides further proof of the authorities’ ongoing campaign to suppress all signs of peaceful dissent. “The reality is that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is abysmal and anyone who risks highlighting flaws in the system is branded a criminal and tossed in a jail cell,” says Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
By executing prominent critics of the regime and locking up prominent human rights activists, Saudi Arabia is brazenly flouting its international obligations and displaying a flagrant disregard for rights to freedom of expression and association. Additionally, there are very serious concerns that Saudi forces have been responsible for human rights violations and breaches of international law in other countries, notably Bahrain and Yemen. John Polanyi, a Nobel laureate in chemistry at the University of Toronto, cites UN reports that Saudi Arabia is targeting civilians as it bombs Yemen and therefore we have a “moral and legal obligation to reconsider the sale of this large number of lethal armoured vehicles.”
Canada previously sold light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, with more than 1,000 delivered in the early 1990s and 700 in 2009. By now the Saudis have used our LAVs for 20 years, so tradition and familiarity are considerations when they are going to buy. Canada’s LAVs are some of the best multi-role wheeled vehicles in the world, and Saudi Arabia’s geography and road network is challenging, so the Saudis will get all the benefits of the vehicles’ low maintenance, high performance, and flexibility with fewer rollovers, stuck vehicles, and other terrain issues.
“This is an Olympic win for Canada and for Canadian manufacturers,” Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters president Jayson Myers said in a press release. “Like all victories, it has been the result of a team effort in which the government has played a crucial role. All Canadians should be proud of this record achievement.”
With this major contract, Canada beat out competition from France and Germany, so if we had not won the contract, presumably the Saudi government would have bought similar systems from the Europeans. But selling our equipment for Saudi cash does mean Canada is helping prop up the Saudi government until 2028—the end of this 14-year deal—which is a very long time to tolerate Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record.
Presumably the LAVs could be used in Bahrain and Yemen and in Saudi Arabia by the National Guard, which is separate from the rest of the military and acts as a political counterbalance. But the LAVs’ end use remains uncertain. It should be transparent. Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, says evidence from a UN panel indicates Saudi actions in Yemen are possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, and because the prohibition on targeting civilians in a widespread and systematic manner has the same legal weight as the prohibition on genocide, “The contract with Saudi Arabia is void.”
Notably, Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion now says the federal government “will not cancel” the contract but Canada will engage in a “very vigorous process” to ensure the LAVs are not misused.
In fact, exactly how many LAVs will be exported has not been revealed—only that the contract is worth $10 billion to $15 billion here in Ontario—and since Canadians will make the money and get the work, few questions were asked about the Saudi government’s abysmal human rights record until recently. At first the Conservatives, defence experts, and executives at General Dynamics effusively praised each other for their stalwart efforts to win the bid for Ontario’s manufacturing industry. In reality, millions of people in Saudi Arabia were suffering under the restrictions imposed by the undemocratic Saudi government.
Project Ploughshares has since established that at the time that the Saudi deal was announced in February 2014, the required export permits had not been issued. This is especially significant, as a key element of the export permits is a human rights assessment to determine that the deal in question does not contravene Canada’s export control policies. The government should have enforced, from the very beginning, the strict export regulations that guarantee our military equipment is not used against civilians, a few of whom may rise up in the future—perhaps as part of the ongoing Arab Spring—to oppose one of the most repressive governments in the Middle East. “Existing norms are already sufficiently clear, and there are no needs to go out of our way to be creative,” says Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares. “The purpose of these rules is precisely to ensure that Canadian-made goods are not misused.”
We can see every day on our television screens what other authoritarian governments, such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria can do to their civilian populations. More ethical questions needed to be asked from the outset, particularly as Canada’s arms industry turns to sell to more clients in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, like many others states in the Middle East, has an excessive accumulation of weapons because Saudi oil titans seem not to be able to think of anything better to buy with wads of oil cash. Linking our military sales to progress made on improving the Saudi regime’s human rights record is only one effective solution.
We must also take strong action to ensure that equipment built by workers here in Canada is not used to trample even more on the rights of people in the Middle East. Under the discriminatory Saudi guardianship system, women and girls are forbidden from driving and prevented from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. Very strict workforce and clothing requirements are enforced so governmental decrees regulate women’s work and impose strict sex segregation in the workplace, mandating that female workers not interact with men. Women are barred from certain professions and treated as second-class citizens. All Saudi women are required by law to obtain the permission of a male guardian before getting married, undertaking paid employment, or enrolling in higher education. Punishment for domestic violence is almost nonexistent. Such discriminatory rules mean that millions of women continue to be trapped in violent and abusive relationships or prevented from pursuing an education and career that would free them from government-imposed patriarchal oppression.
But women’s rights are not the only ones regularly violated under Saudi Arabian restrictions. Beheading, stoning, and flogging are all acceptable forms of criminal punishment. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging, imprisonment, and even death, as is drug use. Courts can impose sentences of flogging of 1,000 to 2,500 lashes, and thousands of people receive unfair trials and are subject to arbitrary detention. The country’s anti-terrorism regulations can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities, and dozens of human rights defenders and others are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or demanding political and human rights reforms.
Initially Prime Minister Stephen Harper, International Trade Minister Ed Fast, and former London Mayor Joe Fontana all touted the deal’s economic benefits for London, but little mention was made of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record until just before the federal election. In future, the government needs to carefully review any proposed arms exports before granting a permit in order to ensure that human rights considerations are seriously taken into account. We should not have to wait for another federal election in order to raise the issue.
Erika Simpson is a director and past vice-chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group on Science and World Affairs, vice-president of the Canadian Peace Research Association, associate professor of international relations at Western University, and recipient of the Shirley Farlinger award for peace writing.