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Germany joins growing list of nations rethinking arms sales to Saudi Arabia

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: Khashoggi killing triggers rethinking of weapons deals; researchers find worrisome things about Canada's alpine glaciers; illegal international trade in wildlife is increasing

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon in Washington in March. The Saudis are the world's third-largest military spenders, with a $69.5 billion US defence budget. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Germany has joined the growing list of countries that are rethinking weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
  • Scientific surveys of Yukon's St. Elias icefields indicate some worrisome things about the state of Canada's largest alpine glaciers.
  • The illegal international trade in wildlife is increasing despite the efforts of teams like the U.K. Border Force.​
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

A farewell to Saudi arms?

Germany has joined the growing list of countries that are rethinking weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the ongoing war in Yemen.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, suggested yesterday that future arms exports will be put on hold until there is full transparency about who sanctioned the killing of the dissident journalist inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate earlier this month.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement after a meeting at the CDU headquarters in Berlin on Sunday. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

"I agree with all those who say that the, albeit already limited, arms exports can't take place in the current circumstances," Merkel told reporters.

But what that actually means is harder to say.

The coalition deal that allows Merkel to govern already prohibits direct weapons transfers to any country involved in the almost four-year-long conflict in Yemen. Yet, Germany remains the fourth-largest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, behind the United States, Britain and France, thanks to grandfathered deals and "end use" loopholes. Multinational arms makers like Eurofighter have also be exempted from the ban, while some German firms have simply set up manufacturing subsidiaries inside the fundamentalist kingdom.

Last month, the Spanish government cancelled a deal that would seen 400 laser-guided bombs delivered to Riyadh, over concerns that they would be used against civilians in Yemen. It refunded a $10.7 million US deposit.

There are also court challenges being mounted against British and French arms exports to the kingdom.

Protesters march outside the White House Friday in the wake of the disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

And both Norway and Finland have blocked arms sales to the United Arab Emirates — part of the Saudi coalition taking on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

The reality, however, is that the Saudis — the world's third-largest military spenders with a $69.5 billion US defence budget — are having little trouble finding people to take their money.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank that tracks global arms sales, ranked the Saudis as the world's No. 1 arms importers in 2017, after placing second behind India in 2016. And its detailed breakdowns show deals with everyone from Bulgaria (15 second-hand armoured personnel carriers) to Switzerland (55 trainer aircraft) to Turkey (a $350 million US deal to rebuild 350 armoured vehicles.)

Canada, of course, has its own arms deal with the Saudis, a 15-year, $15 billion Cdn agreement that will see London, Ont.-based General Dynamics Land Systems Canada eventually supply around 740 light armoured vehicles.

A Canadian LAV (light armoured vehicle) at a forward operating base near Panjwaii, Afghanistan, in November 2006. Canada has a deal to supply Saudi Arabia with around 740 LAVs. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Just how many have actually been shipped since the contract was signed in 2014 is a closely guarded secret, but the federal government has repeatedly said that it intends to honour the terms of the contract.

But given recent developments, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is urging the Liberals to cancel the sale. And last night, during an appearance on Radio Canada's Tout Le Monde En Parle talk show, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounded a little less certain about the future of the agreement.

"In this contract, there are clauses that must be followed in relation to the use of what is sold to them," the prime minister said, making reference to stipulations that the vehicles can't be used in operations against civilian populations. "If they do not follow these clauses, we will definitely cancel the contract."

For the time being, however, it is business as usual.

Much the same approach as Donald Trump, who continues to say that the Saudis are too big an arms customer to turn away.

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

The American president's numbers are suspect — no one is quite sure where his oft-referenced $110 billion US in weapons deals is coming from, given that the Saudis have negotiated- or pending-agreements to buy only $19 billion.

But Saudi Arabia remains the No. 1 foreign buyer for American weapons, and U.S. defence contractors are lobbying hard to keep it that way.

Even if the true price of such sales can be counted in Yemen's mounting civilian death toll.

'Barometers of climate change'

On a trip deep into the Yukon's St. Elias icefields with a scientific team, reporter Susan Ormiston learned some worrisome things about Canada's largest alpine glaciers.

Our story on Canada's glaciers and the warming climate falls into the category of amazing facts you likely don't know about Canadian ice:

  • About one-third of the world's glaciers and ice caps are in Canada.
  • Outside of Greenland and Antarctica, Canada contains part of the largest contiguous mass of ice in the world.
  • Canada's largest icefield is in the St. Elias Mountains in southwestern Yukon, six times the size of those in the Rockies.

"Glaciers are fantastic barometers of climate change," glaciologist Gwenn Flowers told us, traversing one of Yukon's great glaciers — the Kaskawulsh — a massive highway of ice which stretches 70 kilometres long and 5 km wide.

A scientific team sets up a time-lapse camera on a surging glacier in the Yukon's St. Elias Mountains. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

"They average out the signals over time, so they tell us what's happening on a long time scale."

And what they're telling us is not pretty.

Think of the sweltering heat this summer in many parts of the world, including Yukon, which had extreme heat warnings in July.

Average temperatures have risen two degrees Celsius in the past 50 years in the Yukon, which translates into glacial thinning and retreat. At a worrisome rate.

A glacier in the Yukon's St. Elias Mountain region, often referred to as a 'highway of ice.' (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The melt from Yukon and Alaska glaciers in this region contributed 20 per cent of observed sea-level rise from glacier and ice caps (outside of Greenland/Antarctica) from 2003-2009, according to Flowers.

We travelled deep into the icefields with Gwenn Flowers and her scientific team by helicopter, dropping down onto these magnificent ancient glaciers to observe the markers of climate change.

Flowers and other scientists are imploring Canadians to pay attention to these sentinels of change.

"Given our responsibility to be stewards of this ice, I think we should be doing better. I think understanding our terrestrial and marine ice should be a national priority."

- Susan Ormiston

  • WATCH: Susan Ormiston's story about glaciers tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

Glacier flyover

2 years ago
A CBC News crew hitches a ride on a helicopter doing a low-altitude flight over a 'surging glacier' in the Yukon's St. Elias mountains. 0:31

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Horrors of the 'dead shed'

The illegal international trade in wildlife is increasing despite the efforts of teams like the U.K. Border Force, writes London bureau reporter Margaret Evans.

So what's the connection between a cute bear cub named Kyra chewing on the end of a tree at the Chester Zoo just outside Liverpool, and a grim room known as the "Dead Shed" at London's Heathrow Airport?  

Well, bear bile for one thing.

It can be found in small vials confiscated by U.K. Border Force Agents at Heathrow airport, who are working to interrupt the trade in illegal wildlife.  

Kyra the sun bear cub was born at the Chester Zoo near Liverpool, U.K. Its parents were transferred there after being rescued from poachers. Classified as a vulnerable species, this is one of the types of bear commonly harvested for its bile in parts of Asia. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Evidence of the disturbing trade was just one of many on display at the Dead Shed when we got a tour of the room used to train customs agents in what to look for.  

Sun bears native to South East Asia are among those often captured and then farmed in inhumane conditions for their bile. It is a digestive fluid stored in the gallbladder. Traders "tap" it, selling it to traditional medicine practitioners who claim it has special properties.  

Sun bears, the world's smallest and made distinctive by the golden disc on their chests, are offered protection under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  

But CITES protection for sun bears and other animals hasn't stopped the illegal international trade in wildlife. In fact, it's growing. The number of seizures by the U.K. Border Force in 2017 was more than 1,300 — up from just 174 in 2011.

It's now the fourth-most lucrative in the world for criminal gangs, after drugs, weapons and people smuggling, worth as much as $23 billion US annually. ​

Trying to stop the lucrative poaching market

The National

2 years ago
The illegal wildlife trade is one of the most lucrative forms of organized crime in the world, worth up to $23 billion US a year. 2:27

A few words on ...

Finishing a job that ended in tragedy.

Quote of the moment

"Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements. Is it really that hard to understand that rejecting these agreements is, as the people say, not the work of a great mind?"

- Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reacts to Donald Trump's intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev attends the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Liberal government writes off $1.1 billion US loan to Chrysler, plus interest (CBC)
  • In Khashoggi case, phone calls to crown prince and 'body double' after killing (CBC)
  • Merkel puts hold on German arms sales to Saudi Arabia (Deutsche Welle)
  • Cases of rare, polio-like paralysis in kids appear in Canada (CBC)
  • Australian PM delivers national apology to sex abuse victims (BBC)
  • Iqaluit student sits out national anthem in protest over residential school curriculum (CBC)
  • Brazil's Bolsonaro threatens purge of leftwing 'outlaws' (Guardian)
  • Unclaimed burial urns pile up in Japan amid fraying social ties (Reuters)

Today in history

Oct. 22, 1958: Rona Jaffe on career girls and "heartless professional bachelors"

Pierre Berton and Robertson Davies gang up on American author Rona Jaffe and her Best of Everything vision of young, independent working women in 1950s New York. "Is it square to be good?," asks Berton, taking issue with Jaffe's focus on premarital sex. Davies agrees that she's been "a little rough" on men in her book. But Jaffe explains the challenges that women face from all those "senile delinquents" and "heartless professional bachelors" out there.

Rona Jaffe on career girls and "heartless professional bachelors"

Digital Archives

2 years ago
The author of The Best of Everything discusses her book with Pierre Berton and Robertson Davies in 1958. 10:14

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.