Over the past month, the story of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and subsequent death inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, grabbed headlines around the world. Renowned journalists have paid tribute to Khashoggi and his work, and Amnesty International is calling on UN Secretary General António Guterres to set up an independent investigation so that we may know the truth of what took place. Canadians from coast to coast have rightfully expressed their outrage over this brutal act, which is only the latest in series of troublesome developments coming out of the Saudi kingdom. Think of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, a fine, a travel ban, and 1,000 lashes for exercising his freedom of expression. Think of Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan, and Aziza al-Yousef, three women’s rights activists who remain imprisoned without charge.
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Fewer have paid much attention to the war that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners are waging in Yemen. A recent UN report documented that over 6,000 were killed and over 10,000 were injured between March 2015 and June 2018, with the real figures likely to be significantly higher. Funerals and weddings were common targets for airstrikes. The report concluded that violations and crimes under international law have occurred and continue to be perpetrated in Yemen. A report by Amnesty International documented that parties to the conflict are obstructing the delivery of essential goods and humanitarian aid, in contravention of international law, which includes the Saudi coalition’s blockade of Yemen’s Red Sea ports. Unfortunately, although this war has been raging for over three years, it has largely escaped the international community’s attention.
In light of the Khashoggi affair, that is beginning to change. Last week, the New York Times published haunting images – many of them featuring children – which capture the devastating outcomes of this war (along with a detailed explanation for why the newspaper decided to publish them). Celebrated comedian Hasan Minaj even dedicated the second episode of his new Netflix series, Patriot Act, to the overall situation in Saudi Arabia, including the war in Yemen.
What has not yet changed is Canada’s position on the sale of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. Justifications for continuing with the arms transfer abound: “jobs are on the line,” “we must meet our contractual obligations,” “the cost is simply too high.” These are important implications, to be sure. But at the end of the day, Canadians must ask themselves: is a $15 billion-dollar arms deal – or the nebulous claims about a 1 billion-dollar penalty – worth complicity in the starvation, killing and maiming of Yemeni men, women and children? Worth complicity in the blockading of humanitarian supplies from reaching those in desperate need? Worth complicity in war crimes? For some, the answer is yes – a position that is defended on the idea that the deal advances “Canadian interests and prosperity” and hypothetical notions that if Canada is not prepared to sell to the Saudis, then others will. That may well be true, and it must be acknowledged that cancelling the Canadian LAV deal alone is unlikely to bring an end to the war in Yemen. What it will do is demonstrate to Saudi Arabia that Canada will not stand idly by while its trading partners violate international human rights and international humanitarian law, and will not risk complicity in those violations by providing the very tools that can be used commit those reprehensible acts. It will demonstrate to our allies – like Belgium, Finland, Germany, Norway, and Sweden, which have already suspended their own Saudi arms transfers – that Canada is prepared to back human rights rhetoric with concrete action.
Surely, those objectives in the highest interest of Canada and Canadians.
The good news is that the rhetoric of our political leaders is already exactly where it should be. After the now-famous tweet that kicked off the diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia, Foreign Affairs Minister Christya Freeland said that “Canada will always stand up for human rights around the world…even when we are told to mind our own business…and even when speaking up brings consequences.” If such basic principles can be invoked to defend a tweet, then surely, they equally apply to a multi-billion-dollar arms deal. Yemen’s civilians are counting on it.
This piece was originally prepared as an editorial, published appeared in the Hill Times