Halting Military Sales to Saudi Arabia

A while ago, the Canadian social media world made a shocking discovery. A video of what were identified as Canadian tanks were pictured demolishing Yemeni villages. I think this is a fitting example that illustrates how severe the lack of engagement in global politics by ordinary citizens is today, but it also served as a wake-up call to the effects that Canadians can have on the lives of others halfway around the world.

Since March of 2015, conflict in Yemen has left an estimated 2.2 million people without resources, without family, without a place to call home, making Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. Despite being a champion of human rights globally, Canada continues to fuel Saudi’s horrific atrocities against human rights through arms deals, which is both deeply damaging and hypocritical. To be respected as a human rights leader globally and to preserve the foundations of basic moral decency, it’s imperative that Canada stop giving arms to Saudi Arabia.

Let’s start off with something simple: what exactly does Canada contribute to the Saudi military?

The most significant contribution is the recent fifteen billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia and Canada. The deal included 649 million dollars worth of tanks, light armoured vehicles and machine guns, millions of dollars of computer components and advanced military technology, and big barrel guns equipped with missiles. Scary stuff. 

It’s important to note that the goal of stopping the arms deal wouldn’t necessarily be to affect Saudi Arabia’s behaviour to a large degree, or to transform them into a feminist, super democratic, bastion of civil and socioeconomic human rights and secularization, but rather the goal is to align foreign policy goals with Canadian values as well as global ideals of peace.

With that in mind, what exactly is the problem with Saudi Arabia’s military behaviour (not to mention internal human rights issues)?

For several years, a Saudi-led military coalition has been brutalizing civilians all across Yemen. They claim to be targeting the Houthi, a rebel organization, because of potential involvement with Iran. Even if there were some kind of legitimate military objective to attacking Yemen as a means of combating terrorism, they’ve repeatedly taken military action that results in the death and serious injury of innocent civilians, including an astoundingly large amount of children. It’s unclear how this can be excused under the guise of stopping terrorism. For example, last October, an airstrike killed fifty-one civilians in a small village, including forty children. There is no evidence that any terrorist groups were located near the area.

But what is even more problematic than the airstrikes is the blocking of humanitarian aid: Saudi Arabia has been blocking Yemeni ports for over a year, which stops all access resources such as food, water, and medicine for the people in Yemen. It’s estimated that 85,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 have starved to death as a result of the conflicts in Yemen, and many more suffer from severe malnourishment and rampant diseases such as cholera.

How specifically does Canada enable these kinds of actions?

While we are in no way Saudi Arabia’s largest trade partner, we are still one of many countries who sell them billions of dollars worth of military equipment. In the latest arms deal, worth 15 billion dollars, we’re planning to sell them “light armoured vehicles” and tanks, which is notably exactly what they use to violently intervene in Yemen. Moreover, because of our reputation as a champion of human rights, when we support them, we basically endorse their egregious activities. It’s easy to think of trade and human rights as two separate things, but the reality is that our arms deals actively fuel their atrocities against human rights

In terms of the actual effect of this policy, we contribute to a global movement of boycotting Saudi Arabia. In fact, the global movement has already begun: In September, Spain halted the sale of 450 laser-guided bombs to SA, which was harmful to Saudi Arabia’s military forces. Many other European Union nations are considering a similar halt of the sales of weapons to SA. But in order for this global movement to occur, each individual nation has to do their part to be a part of it. In other words, Canada may not be the one who’s changing the outcome nor can we alone significantly alter their behaviour, but when many countries do it together, real change happens. Secondly, Canada does have influence as a protector of human rights. We are one of the top contributors to United Nations peacekeeping forces, and internally, human rights are usually quite good. Our influence in the sphere of human rights could help us influence other nations. Moreover, we solidify this reputation when we continue to support human rights abroad: it gives us more credibility to make changes in other areas when we’ve shown our support for change in this region.

In the best case scenario, the hope would be to alter the U.S.’s policy on Saudi Arabia. We can influence the U.S. Canada and U.S. have a very robust trade relationship that has lasted for most of the last century. We provide them with many valuable resources including wood and oil, and they export many goods to us as well. Given that this is the case, it is possible that the U.S. considers either imposing harsher restrictions on their trade with Saudi Arabia or stops altogether, which is really important because the U.S. is one of the main exporters of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

But at the end of the day, even if none of these outcomes of gradual improvement, nor weakening as a regional hegemon, actually occur, on a principle level it is unacceptable for Canada to be involved in the vicious onslaught against Yemeni civilians and children. Let’s take a stand against global injustice.


March 3, 2019

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