Canada's review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia runs into a bit of a snag: Neil Macdonald

Global Affairs says it is struggling to find "conclusive evidence" of the use of Canadian-made vehicles in Saudi human rights abuses. The Saudis have cleverly ensured that by banning diplomats and journalists from the area.

Global Affairs is struggling to find "conclusive evidence" that Canadian-made vehicles were used in abuses

A still image taken from a video posted on Twitter appears to show 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)

It's hard to report this with a straight face, but Global Affairs tells me that its urgent and serious review of Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia is running into a bit of a snag.

Apparently, despite images of Saudi troops using Gurkha combat machines, manufactured by Ontario-based Terradyne Armored Vehicles, in their campaign to crush rebellious Shia subjects in the eastern Qatif region of the kingdom, "conclusive evidence" that Canadian-made vehicles are involved remains elusive.

The Saudis have cleverly ensured that by banning diplomats and journalists from the area. For their own protection, no doubt, because as the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa has explained, the Shia rebels in Qatif are a bunch of "terrorists" who must be exterminated to protect the civilian population.

'Fighting terrorism'

What the kingdom's troops are doing in the city of Al Awamiyeh, explained the embassy, is really no different than what Canadian authorities did when that lone gunman showed up on Parliament Hill nearly three years ago.

"Fighting terrorism and protecting innocent civilians are not human-rights violations."

It's a bit rich, comparing a disturbed homeless man from Quebec to the men and women standing up to deep and systematic oppression by a medieval theocracy that considers Shia Muslims something just short of apostates.

"It was ridiculous and offensive," a Global Affairs officer told me, referring to the Saudi Embassy's pathetic bit of PR referring to the Ottawa shooter.

We can be pretty confident that Canadian vehicles have been deployed to pulverize the rebellious and mainly Shia Houthis in Yemen. (Sahat-al-Balad/Twitter)

Saudi Arabia has carried out waves of executions in Qatif, including that of Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric, who of course was described by the Saudis as a nefarious terrorist.

Saudi Arabia is in fact determined to crush any efforts at Shia emancipation anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula, which the Saudis consider entirely theirs.

When, during the Arab Spring in 2011, Shia in Bahrain began demanding better treatment, Saudi Arabia sent its army across the causeway to the emirate, enthusiastically assisting a blood-soaked crackdown. Thousands were jailed, beaten, tortured and murdered.

That's probably still happening; despite pleas for attention from Bahraini activists, the world media got bored quickly, media access was restricted, and the United States, which parks its Fifth Fleet in Manama, had no interest in delivering human rights lectures to its gracious hosts.

It's a safe bet Canadian-made war vehicles were used in that lethal intervention, although, you know, there's no conclusive proof they were used against civilians.

We can also be pretty confident that Canadian vehicles have been deployed to pulverize the rebellious and mainly Shia Houthis in Yemen, who have been struggling against their Sunni masters for more than a decade.

Human rights organizations report widespread civilian deaths, largely at the hands of Saudi troops using American ordnance and, evidently, weaponized Canadian vehicles.

Trouble is, no conclusive proof again. I asked Global Affairs last year, when images emerged from Yemen of what appeared to be Canadian-made war vehicles, these ones manufactured by General Dynamics, of London, Ont., what the government was doing.

I was assured Ottawa was vigorously investigating. When I asked if that meant Ottawa had personnel on the ground in Yemen, the answer was no, the investigation was being done by our diplomatic sleuths in Riyadh, which is a long way from Yemen.

In the end, it turned out there was, sadly, just no conclusive proof.

Actually, one suspects that if time-coded pictures with embedded GPS metadata showed Saudi troops in a Canadian warfighting machine knocking down a Shia home and then skinning the occupants alive from the end of the vehicle's heavy machine gun barrel, someone at Global Affairs, with our arms manufacturers (and their union officials) behind them, would protest that really, do we know for sure that this wasn't all taken out of context? Are the images really conclusive?

Because business is, after all, business, and Canada is now an arms dealer, bigly.

Rationalizing arms deals

The Harper government used the familiar death-merchant rationalization: if we don't sell it, someone else will. Trudeau then said he had to keep Harper's promise.

So the government drapes arms deals with a thick cloak of official secrecy, generally refusing to even identify companies exporting weapons. It's also quietly watered down the restrictions on foreign arms sales, including Canada's "national economic interest" as a criterion.

In the case of the Terradyne Gurkha review, which, let's face it, wouldn't be happening were it not for revelations in the Globe and Mail and the CBC, Global Affairs is not saying much, other than how concerned the minister is.

I've been given strong indications that Terradyne's export permits have been suspended pending the investigation's outcome, but it's hard to imagine the company won't be back to business as usual soon. Conclusive evidence and all that.

(In fact, in the extremely unlikely case that Global Affairs does cancel the Terradyne export permits permanently, which one official warned me would carry significant legal liability, the government will not even confirm the cancellation. Arms deals can be unsavoury, and clients like the Saudis demand secrecy, and governments toe the line. Canada is hardly alone in this.)

The government drapes arms deals with a thick cloak of official secrecy, generally refusing to even identify companies exporting weapons. (Handout)

I wrote Terradyne president Durward Smith asking questions about the contract, and he replied that Terradyne does not reply to reporters, but he did helpfully correct my spelling of "Gurkha." So there's that.

In any case, Canada is always looking for new arms markets, and Global Affairs has officers to help our arms manufacturers find them. (I'm told there's a bitter split at Global Affairs between diplomats who help sell arms and diplomats who are appalled that we're selling the Saudis anything.)

Anyway, I wonder whether the government has considered teaming up with the Canadian sword industry.

Saudi militants love swords, and they use them to publicly hack the heads off people all the time — people like imported wives who become bothersome, or foreign-worker maids who do things like foolishly getting raped by their employers, or apostates, or people who practise witchcraft, or people who terroristically criticize the royal family or the vicious clerical class.

Of course, if it appeared that Canadian swords were being used in these atrocious executions, the government would have to immediately launch an urgent and serious inquiry, but really, would it turn up any conclusive evidence?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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