Let's not kid ourselves, Canada is in the war business: Neil Macdonald

The Canadian government hasn't been critical of Saudi Arabia for its brutal attacks in Yemen, which the UN says have killed and wounded hundreds of children. The reason, Neil Macdonald writes, is all about business.

Why the Canadian government hasn't criticized Saudi Arabia for its brutal attacks in Yemen

A man who lost his relatives in a Saudi-led airstrike cries in Yemen's capital Sanaa on Sept. 21, 2015. Canada has sold Saudi Arabia billions of dollars' worth of light-armoured vehicles and has had little to say about its customer's attacks in Yemen, which the UN says have killed and wounded hundreds of children. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

​For the record, Stéphane Dion's office says he has so far been unable to find any evidence that the Saudi military is using lethal Canadian weapons platforms to slaughter civilians.

Hence, billions of dollars' worth of weaponized armoured vehicles manufactured in Ontario are flowing as planned to the Saudis, despite Dion's stern warning in April that:

"Should I become aware of credible information of violations related to this equipment, I will suspend or revoke the permits" that he had just signed.

"We are watching this closely," he said, "and will continue to do so."
The office of Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion says he's so far been unable to find any evidence the Saudi military has used Canadian-made weapons to target civilians in Yemen. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Asked this week how Dion's monitoring has been carried out, his press secretary, Chantal Gagnon, replied: "Several ways. On the ground, you know, we have people. An embassy in Saudi Arabia."

Well, there's that, then.

Call the UN

But perhaps Dion should put in a call to the United Nations, where Canada is lobbying so strenuously to become a more influential player.

If he did, he would find there's evidence to suggest the Saudis are carrying out war crimes in neighbouring Yemen, never mind using their security forces to crush internal dissent.
Smoke rises from the community hall where Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, on Oct. 9. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

Such is the extent of the Saudis' ferocity that even its keenest sponsor, the United States, is worrying about being complicit in war crimes.

This past summer, the UN's human rights office reported that the Saudi-led coalition attacks, ostensibly against Houthi rebels in Yemen, have killed at least 3,800 Yemeni civilians.

A UN annual report on children and armed conflict said the coalition was responsible for 60 per cent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year, killing 510 and wounding 667. Attacks on schools and hospitals accounted for most of that.
A girl lies on a hospital bed in Saada after she survived a Saudi-led airstrike last week, which medical sources said killed six of her family members. (Naif Rahma/Reuters)

The UN in fact blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition as a result, which includes United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan, at least until the Saudis used crude defunding threats to cow Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

At about the same time, we now learn from Reuters, the Obama administration was warned by its own State Department officials that its support for the Saudi campaign — aerial refuelling of Saudi bombers, provision of armaments, military advisers — could make it a "co-belligerent," a finding that would oblige Washington under international law to determine whether it is liable for war crimes.

According to Reuters, U.S. government lawyers decided not to take a conclusive view on that nasty question, and, despite significant bipartisan efforts in Congress to block it, the latest U.S. sale of $1.2 billion in weaponry to Riyadh has gone ahead.
The Obama administration was reportedly warned by State Department officials that its support for the Saudi military campaign against Yemen could make it a 'co-belligerent,' a finding that would oblige Washington under international law to determine whether it is liable for war crimes. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

But it is at least clear that U.S. legislators on both sides of the aisle are increasingly uncomfortable being allied to a fundamentalist, totalitarian regime that tramples human rights, sponsors jihadist preaching and wages war with little or no regard for civilian life.

In Canada, mostly silence

Meanwhile, in Canada, there is both official and political silence.

All three national political parties were on record during last year's election as supporting the sale of the Canadian armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, if for no other reason than the jobs the project provides in southern Ontario. Since then, the NDP has spoken up about Saudi human rights violations, and the party now says the deal should be suspended so it can be reassessed.

And so enthusiastic is the Liberal government about its wealthy Arabian partner that the Canadian military is allowing General Dynamics to use a military base to test the vehicles Canada is shipping, which come equipped with heavy guns and cannon.

(Actually, the Department of National Defence gave its permission in the summer of 2015, while Stephen Harper was in power and months before Dion signed the final approvals for the deal. The testing, however, has been delayed.)
The engineering tests will be conducted on the mammoth LAV VI, an updated and more lethal version of the LAV III, pictured here, which was the Canadian Army's principal fighting vehicle during the Afghan war. (Mark Spowart/Canadian Press)

Did Canada ever share the U.S. State Department's concerns about complicity in atrocities in Yemen? We don't know. The Canadian government is far more secretive than the Americans about such matters.

We do know that Canadian-made vehicles were used in the bloody repression of Bahrain's Shia population a few years ago. Whether they are deployed in Yemen is unclear, and it's a safe bet the Canadian government isn't terribly interested in finding out.

We also know that last summer, Canada quietly rewrote the rules governing the export of arms to other countries. No longer do such exports hinge on whether the recipient nation is a human rights abuser.

Instead, the Canadian rules now strive to "balance the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business" with this country's "national interest."

In other words, we've stopped pretending.

"The wording was changed to reflect the reality of how these things have always worked," says Thomas Juneau, a former DND strategic analyst who now teaches international affairs at the University of Ottawa. "We pretend that we're boy scouts, but a lot of what we do is not different from what other countries do. If that sounds like a definition of hypocrisy, well, there you are."

In fact, says Juneau, "you'd be hard-pressed to find any significant Canadian statements about the war in Yemen. Canada doesn't want to be seen to be criticizing an ally and good customer, and at the same time doesn't want to be seen as closely associated with it. The middle ground, then, is silence."
Thomas Juneau, a former strategic analyst for the Defence Department, says you'd be 'hard-pressed' to find any significant statements about the war in Yemen from Justin Trudeau's government. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Well, maybe not total silence.

After the Saudis blasted a Yemeni funeral home to smithereens on Oct. 8, killing 140 civilians and injuring more than 500, Dion issued a sort-of terse sort-of rebuke.

Calling on "all parties in Yemen" not to let things escalate, Canada demanded that the "Saudi-led coalition move forward on its commitment to investigate."

That must have scorched a few royal behinds in Riyadh.

The fact is, war is business. And Canada is now fully open for it. Even if, somehow, we "become aware of credible information of violations."


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.