Should Canada scrap military deals with Saudi Arabia over war in Yemen?

After Germany announced it will stop providing arms to Saudi Arabia and other countries involved in the war in Yemen, Canada is under mounting pressure to do the same.
Houthi militants take part in a parade held to mark 1,000 days of the Saudi-led military intervention in the Yemeni conflict, in Sanaa, Yemen, Dec. 19, 2017. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
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For Nada Abu Taleb, every day is filled with worry after nearly three years of living through war in Yemen.

"That's the thing about war, you never know where they hit — it just happens," she said.

The war in Yemen started in 2015, pitting a Saudi Arabian-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — and leaving Yemen's citizens stuck in the middle. More than 10,000 people have been killed; two million have been displaced; and millions more are on the brink of famine.

If they can just see what these weapons are doing to people's lives and the amount of life that it takes with one strike.- Yemen resident Abu Taleb

Abu Taleb lives with her parents and six younger sisters in the capital of Sanaa. She is an artist and architect, but currently works for the international aid organization ADRA, helping internally displaced people.

This means that she has a job while many in the country don't — at a time where prices for basic goods have risen steeply.

Smoke rises as people inspect damage at the site of air strikes in the city of Saada, Yemen, on Jan. 6, 2018. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

But it also means that during the day — when she's at work and her sisters are at various schools —  an airstrike can hit and it's hard to track down everyone, every time, to make sure they're alright.

With the chaos and struggle of daily life, at age 30 she's had to put her plans to get a master's degree in animation aside.

"We never build any further plans because we never know if we're going to make it to the next day," said Abu Taleb.

Canada is not part of the Saudi-led coalition — but has sold Saudi Arabia $15 billion in military equipment in the form of military vehicles.

Houthis look for bodies of people killed by air strikes on a Houthi-run detention centre in Sanaa, Yemen, Dec. 13, 2017. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Last week Germany announced it was going to stop arming Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries involved in the war in Yemen. The Canadian government recently revealed that in the summer, it had stopped approving new permits for arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and was investigating allegations that the Saudi government had used Canadian-made weaponized armoured vehicles against its own citizens.

But there are growing calls for Canada to completely scrap all its military support to Saudi Arabia.

Abu Taleb wants those selling arms to think about people like her.

"If they can just see what these weapons are doing to people's lives and the amount of life that it takes with one strike, the amount of houses it destroys to the ground, the amount of children they leave orphaned, the amount of women left widowed, I think they would reconsider doing this and being part of it," she said.

Few people may have suffered more in 2017 than children living in the world's conflict zones. In a new report, UNICEF describes the level of attacks against children this year as shocking. The United Nations children's agency says they've suffered brutal violence in their homes, schools, and playgrounds. Children are now frontline targets. One country singled out in the report: Yemen. Raffy Boudjikanian now on why it's especially grim for children there 1:49

A push to prevent sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia

Daniel Turp, a law professor at University of Montreal, has mounted a legal challenge to prevent the $15-billion sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The deal was made under the Harper government, but the Trudeau government has allowed it to go ahead.

Turp lost his first case on this question because the judge did not agree that there was a reasonable risk that the vehicles would cause a breach of human rights in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Turp is appealing the decision.

More dialogue is needed between the two countries rather than political posturing and a lot of negative attention.- Omar Allam, former diplomat and CEO of Allam Advisory Group

He launched a second case in the fall, because he said he has new evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia used the vehicles against its own civilians, which is against Canadian policy. He also argues that Canada has to ensure that Saudi Arabia respects the Geneva Conventions.

"It's an issue of law and of the respect of law and the rule of law," Turp, a former politician with the Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois, told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

The need for transparency

Former Canadian diplomat Omar Allam said that Canada needs to be very careful to verify the facts when connecting the vehicles with possible human rights abuses.

"There needs to be real transparency and an objective way of presenting the facts," he said.

"I think right now what we're seeing is on social media, various reports, images, we can't really verify the accuracy of where the images or the sources or the information are coming from."

​Allam said now is not the time to step back from trade with Saudi Arabia, if we want to keep building on our 40-year relationship, which he said includes talking about human rights and corporate social responsibility.

"More dialogue is needed between the two countries rather than political posturing and a lot of negative attention, and really a cloud that's hanging over the Canadian government's head with the light-armoured vehicle sale," said Allam.

"This is just one piece of the trade and investment relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia and there are a lot of great things that we need to expose and build off of."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Also included in the audio is a conversation with associate professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism Kamal Al-Solaylee, who argues Canada should stop arming Saudi Arabia out of principle.


This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.