Now in the midst of a crisis, Canada will lift its embargo and sell armored vehicles to the Saudi military, which is engaged in brutal repression inside the country and the ongoing war in Yemen.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown.
The Canadian decision to stop shipping arms to Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi lasted for less than two years. In a recent announcement, Canadian ministers for foreign affairs and for the economy said that Canada will sell light armored vehicles, LAVs, or armored personnel carriers, APCs, to Saudi Arabia. The two ministers said the deal is just too important for creating jobs in Canada, and bringing in a total of 14 billion Canadian dollars.
Is this worth the lives of the victims of Saudi security forces which will use these weapons in the war in Yemen and in repression within Saudi Arabia itself? Well, joining us today we have Yves Engler. Yves is a Canadian commentator, also an author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy, and previously he published The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, and Canada in Haiti: Waging War on a Poor Majority. Eve joins us today from Montreal. Yves, thank you so much for being here.
Yves Engler: Thank you guys for having me.
Kim Brown: So, Yves, when Justin Trudeau announced in 2018 that Canada is looking for a way out of the deal to deliver arms to Saudi Arabia, in your opinion, was that a genuine attempt to keep his hands clean from the atrocities committed by Saudi police and the military forces?
Yves Engler: Nope. No, it was a public relations. Justin Trudeau is very good at putting forward high minded, moralistic statements while continuing pro-war, pro-corporate policies, and they have made a big thing about their commitment to a feminist foreign policy. And, clearly, arming Saudi Arabia should be viewed as going against any sort of sensible idea of a feminist foreign policy. And Justin Trudeau wants to present himself as trying to get out of this arms deal, but in fact, it was their government that, in the first place in 2016, agreed to these export permits to sell the biggest arms export deal in Canadian history. And the Trudeau government, even though there’s been a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia going back a year and a half now, has tried to do everything it can to restart relations with Saudi Arabia.
Even during this period when there’s been a freeze in new export permits of weapons to Saudi Arabia, Canadian weapons have been delivered to Saudi Arabia during all that time. In fact, 2018, 2019, those were record years in Canadian weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia, both in terms of armored vehicles, but also in terms of rifles. Keep finding examples of Canadian made rifles appearing in Yemen, being used to fuel the war in Yemen. We have examples of Canadian light armored vehicles, a previous light armored vehicle deal than the big one we’re talking about to recent announcement, being used by the Saudis to repress the Shia population in the east of the country.
So Justin Trudeau is quite clearly trying to have it both ways, to try to frame himself as this principled political actor, but while continuing this huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia for a mix of corporate reasons, and because Saudi Arabia is viewed as a geopolitical ally in the region.
Kim Brown: It seems like a negotiating ploy citing human rights concerns in order to get better price on the APCs. What do you think about that?
Yves Engler: I think that’s possible. I think it’s more likely that it’s just public relations. They’ve tried to frame it as an agreement that is between a private corporation, General Dynamics and their factory in London, Ontario, that is producing the light armored vehicles, but this is, in fact, a deal between the Canadian Commercial Corporation, which is the Crown Corporation, which is run by the Canadian government and Saudi Arabia. So it’s a government to government agreement.
There’s actually some indication that Saudi Arabia has been behind on its payments for the deal, but I think that what this is at a big picture level is that the Canadian government of Justin Trudeau has continued the previous government’s policies of aligning with the monarchies in the region. So it’s not just Saudi Arabia, but also aligning with the monarchy in UAE, in Kuwait. Canada has troops in Kuwait, and has been selling lots of weaponry to UAE and obviously to Saudi Arabia. So the Trudeau government is aligned with those countries, but additionally, the Trudeau government is very much into selling weapons. And every year, at the big arms bazaar, arms conference in Abu Dhabi, the IDEX conference, there is dozens of Canadian government officials from trade commissioner service to Department of National Defense to foreign affairs that are helping, in 2019, 50 Canadian arms companies that were trying to sell their weapons in the region.
And so the Canadian government is very much behind pushing more and more arms sales to these countries that have a willingness to purchase weapons, and this is the Trudeau government continuing this policy of geopolitical alignment in the region, and supporting Canadian arms firms.
Kim Brown: It’s been less than two years since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I’m curious about your thoughts regarding the timing of this decision from the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance to go back on what they had previously stated about not selling arms to Saudi Arabia. This has been less than two years. What do you think about the timing and why they have reneged on their earlier decision so soon?
Yves Engler: Well, I think the timing was partly … They announced it on Thursday just before the long weekend. Obviously, amidst the pandemic, so they hoped to have less media attention devoted to the ending of the suspension of arms export permits to Saudi Arabia. So that was part of the timing.
I think there’s another element. Global Affairs Canada did a review. The government announced they would do this review on the arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and that review that was leaked back in November, the government was claiming that there was no link between Canadian weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and human rights violations. They put it “no credible link.” So since that review was done, the government was basically waiting for a moment to make this announcement public, that they were going to go back on this freeze of arms export permits.
In that review, it stated that there was already 48 arms exports permits sitting on the foreign affairs minister’s table to be signed whenever they ended the suspension of arms export permits to Saudi Arabia. So it was clearly they were waiting for the opportune moment to make this decision, and I think, again, this is the Canadian government. Officially, there is a fight at the diplomatic level between Riyadh and Ottawa, but if you look more closely, the Canadian government has been consistently trying to overcome that diplomatic spat. Has been trying quietly to reach out to the Saudi officials, trying to get back to business as usual. Some relations between Canadian military and Saudi military. So they’ve been trying quite hard to overcome this diplomatic spat, and I think this is just one other step in this process.
The other thing that the announcement, I think, was tied to was the Canadian government the next day announced that it was supporting the UN Secretary General’s call for a suspension of conflicts around the world. But now this is another example of the Trudeau government’s two-faced policy. So on one hand, we’re going to fuel the Saudis in their conflict in Yemen, but on the next day, we’re going to announce that we support a suspension of all conflicts around the world in the context of the global pandemic, and so I think that the government was also trying to lessen the criticism of the arms export deal by trying to do this other high minded commitment. And they announced that the next day.
So I think, again, the timing of this in large part is public relations from the government’s perspective.
Kim Brown: Do you think the Canadian government is using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cut corners around implementing Canada’s human rights regulations in regards to arms sales? And as a result of the pandemic, obviously, people can’t gather to protest in public at least about these latest moves from the Canadian government. So are they expecting no protests, any protests, or any pushback from the public?
Yves Engler: I think they’re definitely hoping there’s going to be no pushback, and, in fact, it’s obviously not realistic to be doing in-person protests. I know at a personal level, I’ve been involved in disrupting some of the government ministers’ press conferences, partly on this issue of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Obviously, when there is no public press conferences, it’s more difficult to ask tough questions or to disrupt those press conferences. But they’re definitely using the media focus on the pandemic.
There’s also some element of trying to make a claim that because of the economic downturn that’s happened because of the pandemic, that therefore we need to commit to these deals that we already have, and this is going to lead to a lot of jobs and money and whatnot. So I think there’s something there, but additionally, it should be pointed out that the government, amidst the pandemic, they maintained the arms industry as an essential service. So the criteria, alongside food for people to eat, continuing to make arms is viewed as an essential service. So I think the pandemic is not stopping at least their commitment to the arms export industry.
Kim Brown: So what can you tell us about the role of these Canadian armored vehicles in the hands of the Saudi military? Because a lot people look at these vehicles as a defensive measure for soldiers to protect them against stones being thrown at them, or from gunshots. If that’s the case, then what is the problem, or is there an issue with Canada selling these vehicles to Saudi Arabia?
Yves Engler: Canada’s been selling light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia in significant quantities since the early 1990s. In 2011, when Saudi troops went into Bahrain, there were Canadian light armored vehicles that were used in that deployment of Saudi troops, and that, of course, was a deployment that was designed to repress the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain amidst the Arab Spring.
Additionally, a few years later east of Saudi Arabia, when they destroyed towns in regular repression of the Shia population, there was other examples of Canadian light armored vehicles that were being used in that process. So these are vehicles that are 28 tons, I believe. They are equipped with machine guns. They’re essentially tanks,. And maybe in the context of what one would consider a just war, these could be useful vehicles or entities, but in the context of a regime in Saudi Arabia that, of course, is incredibly repressive domestically and one that is involved in violence most obviously in Yemen, but also has contributed to conflicts in Syria, in repressing the democracy movement in Sudan … This is a very belligerent government regime in the region, and so I think that arming the Saudis in this context is … One, it’s giving an okay. It’s saying we’re okay with your policy of aggressiveness in Yemen. Two, it’s literally giving them the tools to advance those policies.
And I should state also that the Canadian government has been very quiet in terms of its criticism of the Saudi war in Yemen. The Canadian government has been willing to criticize a little bit of Saudi policy domestically in terms of repression, in terms of its anti-feminist, anti-woman policy domestically, but it’s been very unwilling to criticize its policies in Yemen or its policies in Libya or Sudan, and its anti-democratic policies elsewhere in the region. So these arms are just giving more strength to a regime that’s really, I think, out of control.
Kim Brown: Well, after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Canada pretty much stood alone in its criticism of Saudi Arabia, at least from voices from the west. The US, Russia, Germany all wanted to continue to sell arms. They didn’t condemn Saudi Arabia vehemently after this horrific murder took place, but now the government is making a u-turn in resuming the deal. Journalists are saying that they’re legitimizing the Saudi regime, and now the floodgates will open with arms shipments from other countries. So does this mean that it is better to turn a blind eye and just to keep the arms flowing, or instead making a stand for human rights, even if it is for a short time?
Yves Engler: The Canadian government reaction to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, there was a diplomatic spat between … There was a tweet put out by the Canadian foreign ministry and taken out by the Canadian embassy in Riyadh that led to Saudi Arabia taking all kinds of very harsh measures. This was a couple months before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. And so there was this conflict and a freezing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada that was instigated by the Saudis because of this, in my opinion, very minimal criticism by the Canadian government.
After Khashoggi’s killing, the Trudeau government was a little bit hesitant initially in its criticism of the killing, and then eventually it did, as the global condemnation increased, there was a bit more criticism, and then there was this suspension of arms exports.
I think what’s necessary here from the Canadian government’s perspective is a certain degree of coherence. Now, they should never have agreed to this light armored vehicle sale. They should never have given the export permit. It was an agreement that began with a previous government, but the Trudeau government had the ability to say no. The foreign minister was the one who signed the export permit, so the Canadian government should have, in my opinion, said “no” to that deal for a number of reasons, most obviously because, at this point, Saudis were already involved in this violent war in Yemen, not to mention that it’s a repressive domestically, not to mention its policy during the Arab Spring of repressing the pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the region. They should’ve said no.
Now, once they agreed to this $14 billion light armored vehicle sale, they were in a position where there was going to be some costs to Canada for getting out of the agreement. It’s not exactly clear how big those costs are. The government’s been always a little bit unclear on what the contract said on that front, but I think then the Canadian government should’ve basically taken those costs of breaking the light armored vehicle sale because, at some point, you do have to say to yourself what are we willing to support? If we’re willing to provide weapons, rifles, what are essentially tanks to the Saudis right now, at what point will we say no, that human rights violations are too extreme, that the government is too repressive for us to say no to? So in this context of if Saudi Arabia doesn’t hit the threshold of being to belligerent and too repressive to stop selling weapons to, then what country will reach that threshold?
So, basically, it goes back to, I think, maybe a more general question of are we willing to lose some money to stand up for what’s right? But, in fact, the Canadian government, it’s very far from that, and the kingdom has been happy to arm the Saudis and other governments that are involved in violent conflicts, and basically maybe make some minimal criticisms, put out some tweets or some statements that say they defend women’s rights, or they don’t agree with banning women from being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, or provide safe haven for a young Saudi woman who escapes a terrible situation, and then continue with the thrust of the policy. That’s been what the Trudeau government has done, and I think that, from the get-go, they should’ve stood up for human rights and said “no” to this $14 billion armored vehicle sale that is only strengthening the Saudi’s violent capacities.
Kim Brown: We’ve been speaking today with Yves Engler. Yves is a Canadian commentator and author. You need to check out his latest book. It’s called House of Mirrors: Justin Trudeau’s Foreign Policy. Yves has been joining us today from Montreal. Thank you.
Yves Engler: Thanks for having me.
Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
Yves Engler is a Canadian commentator and author. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian - Stephen Harper's Foreign Policy, and previously he published The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy and Canada in Haiti: Waging War on The Poor Majority