In the run-up to Canada’s 2015 federal election, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised voters a renewed vision of Canadian foreign policy, including hikes in foreign aid, deployments of Canadian UN peacekeepers, and the use of a feminist perspective. Under Trudeau, Canada was supposed to be a broker of peace and a beacon of progressive values.
However, during Trudeau’s time as prime minister, Canada has exported more weapons abroad than at any point in its history. Some of these arms sales have been directed to the most repressive regimes in the world.
Canada’s top customer for arms, apart from the United States, is Saudi Arabia, a regime that is guilty of human rights abuses at home and war crimes abroad. The Saudi Kingdom is the leader of a coalition that has committed well-documented international humanitarian law violations — including the indiscriminate targeting of civilians — in Yemen’s civil war. By approving the export of arms to the Saudi regime, Trudeau’s government is complicit in such atrocities.
In 2014, Canada’s Conservative government brokered the sale of hundreds of light armored vehicles (LAVs), manufactured by the company General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C), for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Worth $14 billion, this arms contract was the largest in Canadian history.
While the Conservative government may have orchestrated the deal, it was the Liberals who actually greenlighted the arms shipments. Government documents published in April 2016 show that Trudeau’s minister of foreign affairs, Stéphane Dion, formally approved the export of the LAVs more than four months after the Liberals took power. The memo describes Saudi Arabia, a state that uses mass executions as a means of political repression, as a “key partner for Canada” and a “regional leader promoting regional security and stability.”
Following the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October 2018, Canada did freeze arms exports to Saudi Arabia. However, this pause affected only new export permits. It did not prevent any of the LAVs that had already received permit approvals from leaving Canadian soil. In fact, exports even increased by 111 percent over this period of roughly a year and a half.
During this time, Canada acceded to the Arms Trade Treaty, the first internationally binding framework to control the trade and transfer of conventional weapons. As a result, Canada’s arming of states that might misuse Canadian weapons became a breach of international law (although doing so was already a violation of Canadian law).
But nothing changed in practice. An investigation ordered by the Canadian government in the wake of the Khashoggi killing determined that the exported arms posed “no substantial risk” of being used in violation of international humanitarian law, facilitating gender-based violence, or being subject to diversion — the illicit transfer of a weapon system from its specified end use or end user. Despite clear evidence to contradict these politically convenient findings, exports to the Saudis continued.
Saudi Arabia supplied written guarantees that Canadian LAVs would be used only for internal security purposes. But there are numerous photographs and videos of these LAVs being diverted to the Yemen conflict. Diversion is illegal under Canadian and international law, and awareness of diversion requires Canadian officials to revoke any further export approvals to the offending party.
Canada has also sold other weapons to the Saudis, including thousands of Winnipeg-made sniper rifles. They, too, have been illicitly diverted, in this case to the military forces of the Saudi-aligned Yemeni government.
New Tune in Washington
Saudi Arabia has long had a voracious appetite for Western weaponry. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 2015–19, it was the world’s largest importer of weapons, with the United States serving as its largest supplier.
Since the beginning of the war in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi, a number of European states — including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Belgium, and the Netherlands — have either reduced or revoked their arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a Saudi coalition ally in Yemen.
The new US administration has now joined them. Secretary of state Antony Blinken, at his first press briefing on January 27, announced a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE worth tens of billions of dollars.
This arms freeze constitutes a welcome reversal of the policy of the Trump administration. The policy change has come about largely due to years of lobbying by arms control advocates and grassroots organizations, with support from the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
Two days after Blinken’s announcement, Italy ended its export of smart bombs to the Saudi-led coalition. In early February, the European Parliament reiterated its call for member states to endorse an EU-wide ban on weapons to members of the coalition.
But we cannot be sure that the winds of change will have a lasting effect. Any long-term freeze on US arms exports to Saudi Arabia seems unlikely at this point. The current suspension — as part of a “review” — is implicitly temporary.
Moreover, the freeze doesn’t appear to include arms that have already received approval but have not yet left the United States. These weapons could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and they are still likely to make their way to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It is also worth noting that the freeze applies only to an undefined category of “relevant” arms. This appears to cover only matériel that facilitate air strikes, and not many other American weapons that have flooded into Yemen.
In June 2020, Canada was unsuccessful in its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Many commentators saw Canada’s booming weapons sales to Saudi Arabia as a clear reason for this failure.
In September 2020, the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen — the same panel that identified American weapons as directly fueling the war — accused Canada of “helping to perpetuate the conflict” through the provision of arms to the Saudis. Only four other countries have earned this “distinction.”
December 2020 was the first time a Canadian Liberal member of Parliament has deviated from the party line and called for an end to arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Citing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, MP Adam Vaughan condemned the provision of all arms to the region.
In early February this year, the leader of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, once again called on the Canadian government to stop LAV exports to Saudi Arabia: “There is a time when the clear human rights violations perpetrated by a country make it so we cannot sell them arms.” To preserve the jobs of GDLS-C workers, Singh urged the government to purchase LAVs for the Canadian Armed Forces.
Canadian weapons sales are nothing new — the country has sold arms for decades. What is new is the dizzying volume of such exports, and the outsize role they’re playing in some of today’s deadliest conflicts. The Trudeau government has exported more weapons to states accused of war crimes than any other Canadian government on public record.
If even the United States, where the term “military industrial complex” was coined, is willing to curtail its arms exports on human rights grounds, its northern neighbor should be willing to do the same. Until it does, Canada’s self-presentation as a peace broker and beacon of progressive values will be a comforting fantasy, dismissed out of hand by the rest of the world.