No evidence Canadian vehicles involved in Saudi crackdown on civilians, says federal report

An investigation by Global Affairs cast doubt on suggestions that civilians were deliberately targeted by Saudi Arabian forces using Canadian armoured vehicles when the Saudi interior ministry cracked down on a rebellious enclave last summer, a newly-released document reveals.

Anti-war NGO says the Foreign Affairs briefing note missed the point

A still image taken from a video posted on Twitter shows a Canadian-made Terradyne Gurkha armoured personnel carrier (APC) on the streets of Awamiya in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The APC is produced by Terradyne Armored Vehicles Inc. in Newmarket, Ont. (Sahat-al-Balad/Twitter)

An investigation by Global Affairs cast doubt on suggestions that civilians were deliberately targeted by Saudi Arabian forces using Canadian armoured vehicles when the Saudi interior ministry cracked down on a rebellious enclave last summer, a newly-released document reveals.

A briefing note, drafted on Oct. 10, 2017 for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, was released Monday by her staff.

The review was ordered last year after videos surfaced online which showed armoured trucks known as Gurkhas, built by Terradyne of Newmarket, Ont., were apparently involved in the fighting in the village of Al-Awamiyah, in the Shia majority eastern region of Qatif.

Another video, which surfaced at the same time last July, purportedly showed Canadian-made light armoured vehicles (LAVs), manufactured separately by General Dynamic Land Systems of London, Ont., fighting in the same area.

Appearing before House of Commons foreign affairs committee in February, Freeland said the investigation by Canadian officials "found no conclusive evidence that Canadian-made vehicles were used in human rights violations."

She called the review "independent" and "objective."

Human rights groups — notably Project Ploughshares — challenged Freeland to release the full investigation.

'No credible information'

Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo told CBC News in March that the Liberal government owed it to Canadians to explain how it came to the conclusion that no abuses took place in eastern Saudi Arabia involving Canadian vehicles.

"There is no credible information that Saudi Ministry of Interior forces committed serious human rights violations in the conduct of that operation, with Gurkhas or otherwise," says the briefing note. "We also assess that the Saudi Ministry of Interior forces made efforts to minimize civilian casualties, that the use of force remained proportionate and appropriate given the level of threat in the area."

The briefing note describes itself as having been based on "wide range of diplomatic, security and other contacts" in the Kingdom.

Jaramillo said, for him, the briefing note just raises more questions.

"Some of the sources of this supposed validation are suspect at best," he told CBC News on Monday.

The briefing note does not appear to have been compiled using first-hand accounts from the region or interviews with officials at Human Rights Watch, which levelled most of the allegations.

"Information gathered to date by the Department does not substantiate allegations that civilians were deliberately targeted by Ministry of Interior forces in the conduct of the operation, and a number of sources confirm that most of the population of Al-Awamiyah was evacuated," it says.

Officials said they couldn't even determine from the video whether the Terradyne vehicle seen in it was even firing, or why.

"It is not possible to confirm either the target or the tactical situation, including whether the vehicle crews were returning fire after having been fired upon," says the briefing note.

Missing the point

Jaramillo said officials writing the briefing note missed a key point about arms-control law.

The question under international law for countries like Canada engaging in the arms trade, he said, isn't whether an action took place, but whether the weapons being exported run the "risk" of being used to violate human rights.

"In order to cast doubt, they paint a picture of where shots may have been fired and coming from, when that is not the point," he said.

The briefing note also attempts to debunk the notion that more heavily-armed and lethal Canadian-made LAVs were involved separately in fighting, saying only one Saudi national guard unit, which uses the vehicles, was put on standby.

It shows the government suspended Terradyne's two export permits to Saudi Arabia almost immediately after the videos surfaced.

They were later reinstated.

The briefing note told Freeland that Terradyne had received an additional order from the Saudi Kingdom and those vehicles were in various states of assembly at the time of the permit suspension.

It warned the company would be unable to sell them to another customer because they were custom-built.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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