Canada’s $15 billion military export deal to Saudi Arabia could help the Middle Eastern monarchy wage war in Yemen, according to Ottawa’s own legal arguments, heard in court this week.
This marks the first time that the Canadian government has admitted that the weaponry it is selling to Riyadh could be used in the fighting in Yemen, which has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians.
The Trudeau government is being sued by Universite de Montreal professor Daniel Turp, who is alleging that Canada is breaking domestic regulations and international law by selling heavily-armed vehicles to the autocratic nation.
Canada’s legal defense, filed in a federal courtroom in Montreal, contends that Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion has the authority to decide what does and doesn’t constitute a legal weapons sale — not the court. That principle stands, they contend, even if it means the Canadian-made Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) could be used to fight a war in Yemen that Ottawa has repeatedly condemned.
It marks yet another shift in the government’s rhetoric on the issue. The Globe & Mail forced the minister to admit that the contract — drafted by his predecessor, but signed by the Trudeau government — was not a “done deal,” as he had suggested.
VICE News, meanwhile, showed that it was the Canadian government, not defense contractor General Dynamics, who actually signed the deal, undercutting Dion’s assertion that it was a deal between a private company and a foreign government.
The legal defense cites a number of arguments — political, diplomatic, economic — but ultimately underscores that Riyadh is free to use the military vehicles to fight the war in Yemen.
“Saudi Arabia is a key partner for Canada and an important ally in the region, plagued with instability, terrorism, and conflict,” government lawyers told the court, citing internal government assessments. “More particularly, the fact that Saudi Arabia is not a threat, but moreso a key military ally who backs efforts of the international community to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the instability in Yemen. The acquisition of these next-generation vehicles will help in those efforts, which are compatible with Canadian defense interests.”
The “instability” in Yemen is more commonly referred to as a civil war by the international community, as the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi tries to end a year-long uprising by a rebel coalition.
The language in the court documents appears to contradict Dion’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, which the United Nations says has the hallmarks of war crimes.
Nevertheless, Canada remains sure that the Ontario-made vehicles, which can come outfitted with machine guns and anti-tank weaponry, won’t be used to abuse human rights.
“This decision was taken based on a variety of political and economic considerations based on international relations, foreign policy, Canada’s defense interests, and economic benefits coming from these exports,” the Canadian government’s legal arguments read.
“Before taking this decision, the minister also considered the situation in relation to human rights and international humanitarian law in Saudi Arabia, the conflict in Yemen, and more importantly, the question of whether the vehicles in question were at risk to be used to commit human rights violations. At the end of the end of the line, the minister decided that it was appropriate to permit these exports.”
In October, Dion condemned bombings in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its military partners, vowing that he would “ensure that arms sold by Canadian companies are used with respect for human rights.”
Just last week, asked point-blank whether Canada would consider limiting its arms sales to Riyadh based on the Saudi government’s actions in Yemen, Dion didn’t answer, except to say that Canada would “condemn all the attacks against the civilians in Yemen” and that Canada would ask “the Saudi coalition to be much more respectful and cautious about the equipment.”
Dion emphasized: “We are very, very rigorous.”
Earlier this month, he expounded by saying that Canada “does not export the same kind of weapons to Saudi Arabia as the United States did,” referring to American-made air-to-ground bombs that have been responsible for numerous civilian deaths. “These violations of international law and humanitarian law are tragic and unacceptable,” he concluded.
But in language from an internal government memorandum, filed with the court, the government admits that while “there has been no indications that equipment of Canadian origin, including LAVs, may have been used in acts contrary to international humanitarian law,” they are basing that assertion on evidence from the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen which, the memorandum notes, “faced challenges in compiling the report and were not able to visit Yemen to obtain first-hand information.”
Ultimately, Turp’s lawsuit stands little chance of succeeding, since, as the government argues, the guidelines relating to military exports “are not matters of law.”
“They are there to guide the exercise of discretionary power by the minister, but they do not have constraining power,” it adds.
The lawsuit may, however, dislodge additional information about the deal. Thus far, the government has remained tight-lipped about the military contracts, denying access to information requests and refusing to hand over un-redacted human rights assessments of the deal — despite insisting that they are going about it in an “open and transparent” manner.
The federal court will rule on the case in the new year.