Arms length with tyrants
By Erika Simpson, Special to Postmedia Network
Friday, April 22, 2016 6:40:56 EDT PM
Beheading, stoning and flogging are all acceptable forms of criminal punishment in Saudi Arabia. Homosexual acts are punishable by flogging, imprisonment and even death, as is drug use. Courts can impose sentences of up to 2,500 lashes, and thousands of people have received unfair trials and been subject to arbitrary detention. The country’s anti-terrorism regulations are used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities, and dozens of human rights defenders are serving long prison sentences for criticizing authorities and demanding reform.
General Dynamics Land Systems Canada and its predecessor in London have sold light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia since the 1990s, with more than 1,000 delivered in the early 1990s and 700 in 2009. Its latest deal with the kingdom promises to sustain 2,100 jobs in London and 900 jobs spread over its Canadian supply chain.
The LAVs are some of the best multi-role wheeled military vehicles in the world, and Saudi Arabia’s geography and road network are challenging, so the Saudis will get all the benefits of the vehicles’ low maintenance, high performance and flexibility with fewer rollovers, stuck vehicles and other terrain issues.
With this major contract, announced in February 2014, Canada beat out competition from France and Germany — so if we had not won the contract, presumably the Saudi government would have bought similar systems from the Europeans.
But since then, in February of this year, the European Parliament voted by a large majority for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to the Saudi kingdom, citing the disastrous humanitarian situation as a result of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Saudia Arabia began bombing in Yemen in March 2015 to support the Yemeni president, who is under threat from forces aligned with Iran
According to Michael Byers, a professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, Saudi actions in Yemen are possible war crimes and crimes against humanity and, because the prohibition on targeting civilians in a widespread and systematic manner has the same legal weight as the prohibition on genocide, “the contract with Saudi Arabia is void.”
Selling Canadian equipment for Saudi cash means Canada will help prop up the Saudi government until 2028 — the end of this 14-year deal. It is a long time to stick-handle questions about Saudi Arabia’s terrible human rights record and foreign interventions. London Mayor Matt Brown and city manager Art Zuidema garnered front-page headlines in London this month when it was revealed they had directed 14 city councillors not to speak publicly about the arms deal. Councillors were told to refer media interview requests to a city hall spokesperson who would give a corporate response. The memo raises questions about muddied waters at the federal, provincial and local levels, as well as city councillors’ autonomy.
Originally approved under the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, the $10- to $13-billion deal had the official backing of the Liberals during the election campaign.
Despite insisting in public that their hands were tied over the controversial accord, it was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion who signed off on most of the export permits. A key element of the export permits is a human rights assessment to determine that a deal would not contravene Canada’s export control policies.
“Based on the information provided, we do not believe that the proposed exports would be used to violate human rights in Saudi Arabia,” says a recently leaked internal document. Such bald assertions have raised more questions than answers about whether the new Canadian government sets high standards for weapons exports in public and bends them in private.
Long cited as a very serious human rights abuser by organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia executed 158 people last year. The only country in the world to carry out the death penalty by beheading, Saudi Arabia shocked the world in January by executing 47 people in a single day, including a Shi’a Muslim cleric. The recent arrest of prominent human rights defender Samar Badawi is another example of Saudi Arabia’s flagrant contempt for its human rights obligations.
Even if Canada cancels the controversial sale, Saudi Arabia will continue to brazenly flout its international obligations and display a callous disregard for rights to freedom of expression and association.
Beyond human rights, Saudi Arabia also disappointed the entire international community this week and sent crude prices tumbling further when it scuttled a proposed oil production freeze. Due to its short-sighted battle with Iran to dominate global market share, western Canadians, Russians and Venezuelans continue to suffer unprecedented job losses.
To deal with their deteriorating relationship, U.S. President Barack Obama went to Riyadh Wednesday for meetings with King Salman and other Saudi officials. The Americans also must contend with a bombshell report in mid-April that Saudi Arabia is threatening to sell off up to US$750 billion of American assets if Congress passes a bill that would allow the Saudi government to be held responsible in American courts for any role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Soon more people and countries could be caught up in the shadowy underworld surrounding Saudi Arabia. While it is true some arms dealers sell their wares to shady customers for quick cash, reputable dealers soon realize it’s better business to avoid dishonourable customers.
Associate Prof. Erika Simpson of the department of political science at Western University is the vice-president of the Canadian Peace Research Association, and a director of the Canadian Pugwash Group, the national affiliate of the Pugwash Conferences of Science and Global Affairs. Longer variations of this column were published earlier this month by Peace Magazine http://peacemagazine.org/archive/v32n2p13.htm and MEC Journal http://mpc-journal.org/blog/2016/04/10/canadians-keep-asking-questions-about-saudi-arms-deal/.
The shorter op ed was published by Postmedia in Brantford Expositor, Chatham Daily News, London Free Press, Sarnia Observer on Saturday so if you have a subscription go to London Free Press: http://www.lfpress.com/2016/04/22/arms-length-with-tyrants