The Sunday Magazine

'Do we stand by our principles, or are we happy being double-faced?': Canada's contradictory position on Yemen

The Canadian government provides aid to Yemen, which faces the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. But it also sells arms to Saudi Arabia — even though airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi rebels have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
Children play amid the rubble of a house destroyed by a Saudi-led airstrike in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 8, 2015. (Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press)

Canada has committed millions of dollars of aid to Yemen, which is gripped by a brutal civil war and what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet. 

But the Canadian government also continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia — even though airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition waging war against Houthi rebels have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. 

"I came across a reference to what an old Canadian diplomat said, that Canada is very good at holding principles but also finding ways around them, and that sort of crystallizes this," said Kamal Al-Solaylee, a journalism professor at Ryerson University.

"This is a conversation we should be having — not just Yemeni-Canadians, but all Canadians. It's about, what kind of country are we? Do we stand by our principles, or are we happy being double-faced?" he told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. 

Most of Al-Solaylee's family is still in Yemen. When he spoke recently to his niece about what she wants Canadians to know about the war, she replied, "Stop getting rich off our misery."

There is a need to shift to a peace-based economy instead of a war-based economy.- Rasha Jarhum, Yemeni human rights activist 

In 2016, The Globe and Mail reported that Saudi Arabia appeared to be using Canadian-made armoured vehicles in the war in Yemen — a claim the Canadian government has been unable to confirm or definitively deny. 

In a statement e-mailed to The Sunday Edition, Adam Austen, a spokesperson for foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland said, "With respect to Canada's arms exports, we expect that they are not used to violate human rights and are not diverted for use in the conflict in Yemen. As the Prime Minister and Minister Freeland have said, we are currently reviewing all of our arms export permits to Saudi Arabia. While that review is on-going no new permits will be issued. The Minister has the power to suspend and even cancel these permits, and she has done so before."

Austen said the government "deplores the ongoing violence in Yemen" and is "actively engaged in diplomatic efforts to resolve this crisis, including at the UN Human Rights Council where we led on a push for an investigation into possible crimes against humanity."

'I don't think that region needs any more weapons'

"There is a need to shift to a peace-based economy instead of a war-based economy," said Rasha Jarhum, a Yemeni human rights activist and founder of the Peace Track Initiative. 

"This is my message to every country, whether Canada, U.S. or European countries who still at transfer arms into the region. I don't think that region needs any more weapons. If anything, they need a lot of disarmament programs and technical support in that."

The Saudi army fires shells towards Yemen from a post close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, in southwestern Saudi Arabia, on April 13, 2015. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Jarhum, who is now based at the University of Ottawa's Human Rights Research and Education Centre, noted that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are the top donors to humanitarian relief efforts in Yemen.

"When the countries involved in the war are the countries contributing to the aid, then they're not imposing enough conditions on the humanitarian organizations to do a better job," she said. 

In a recent address to the UN Security Council, she pointed out the need for a gender audit of humanitarian programs.

"They haven't been listening to women ... Women, especially displaced women, talk about income and livelihood. And the humanitarian response focuses more on giving food aid — so short-sighted remedies instead of more sustainable remedies such as income-generation activities," she told Enright.

The fate of Yemeni refugees 

The crisis has thus far not prompted Canada to open its doors to Yemeni refugees the same way it did for Syrian refugees. 

Until President Trump issued the travel ban, the U.S. was the preferred destination for Yemeni refugees — but when Prime Minister Trudeau tweeted "Welcome to Canada" in response to the travel ban, there was an immediate shift, said Al-Solaylee. 

"The expectations [among Yemeni refugees] were so high that Canada is literally that country that opens its doors to refugees," he said. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Syrian refugees at Pearson airport in Toronto in December 2015. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

While there are more private sponsorships of Yemeni refugees now than there were a year ago, Al-Solaylee is saddened that there hasn't been the same response by the government.

"I haven't seen any sort of organized effort from the Canadian government to help settle a number which is close to quarter of a million internationally displaced Yemenis around the world and two million internally," he said. 

Jarhum​ said some Yemenis displaced abroad have been scared to register with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which assists with resettlement. 

"In the host countries [where] they are afraid to do so, those countries had problems with Syrian refugees. They don't want to have another crisis of Yemeni refugees," she said. 

In a wide-ranging interview, Jarhum and Al-Solaylee also spoke to Michael Enright about the origins of the war and the famine, life for women in Yemen, and the peace process. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.