Under Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Abetting Saudi Arabia’s War Crimes in Yemen

Canada has long brandished its image as an honest international broker and champion of human rights. Its massive arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes, paint a very different picture.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Canadian troops at Fort York Armoury on February 24, 2023, in Toronto, Canada. (Katherine KY Cheng / Getty Images)

Earlier this month, a report from Human Rights Watch detailed a series of brutal killings carried out by Saudi Arabian guards on the country’s border with Yemen. Hundreds — many of them seeking asylum from the humanitarian crises created by Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen — have been killed since March 2022, with survivors recounting live-fire attacks. It’s ultimately just one snapshot of a war being that has reportedly killed hundreds of thousands of people, carried out by one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Meanwhile, in June 2023 alone, Canada exported some $247 million worth of armored vehicles to the Saudis — a less-than-negligible figure, but also just a small snapshot in a much larger pattern. In recent years, Canada has emerged as a leading supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, and the Canadian government’s own reporting shows that the value of shipments totaled $1.15 billion in 2022. Saudi Arabia, in fact, now accounts for a whopping 49 percent of all Canadian arms shipments, with the next biggest recipient (the United Arab Emirates) a distant second at just 17 percent.

While Canada has provided other equipment to the Saudi military, including thousands of rifles, the lion’s share of such exports have been light armored vehicles (LAVs) sold as part of a monster $15 billion arms contract brokered by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2014. The following year, having savaged the deal while in opposition, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept into office promising a more humane and multilateral foreign policy.

Despite the shimmering progressive image that quickly coalesced around Trudeau, his government quietly pushed the deal forward by signing the export permits. Since the details of the deal became public, his government has been compelled to make a series of increasingly strained defenses — canceling the agreement would elicit unspecified but costly penalties, reneging would hurt Canada’s global reputation, the LAVs are “just jeeps.”

As the Maple’s Alex Cosh noted earlier this year, the government’s posture has been that of a reluctant bystander forced by circumstances beyond its control to follow through on an unsavory deal negotiated by its predecessor. After the state-sponsored killing and dismembering of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018, Trudeau and his ministers paid lip service to the possibility of scrapping the agreement but, unlike Germany and Sweden — who both canceled arms deals with Saudi Arabia in response to Kashoggi’s murder — did not ultimately follow through.

Considering the Liberal government’s proactive role in pursuing other arms deals with other autocratic regimes throughout the region, its spin narrative quickly collapses under basic scrutiny, as does the oft-invoked claim that the weapons are being sold for purely defensive purposes. A 2021 report copublished by Amnesty International and the peace organization Project Ploughshares documented numerous instances of Canadian-made weapons appearing in combat situations, and the report was absolutely unequivocal in concluding that “there is persuasive evidence that weapons exported from Canada to [Saudi Arabia], including [light armored vehicles] and sniper rifles, have been diverted for use in the war in Yemen.” No less than an independent panel of the United Nations concurred, publicly naming Canada as one of several countries responsible for fueling the ongoing war in Yemen through arms sales.

The relationship, though one-sided, apparently goes both ways. As the Breach reported earlier this month, Canada’s ministry of defense has just purchased $150 million worth of military aircraft from a company controlled by the Saudi Royal family.

“As autocratic regimes threaten the rules-based international order,” remarked Defense Minister Anita Anand in commenting on the sale, “there is a pressing need to modernize the capabilities of the Royal Canadian Air Force.” Neither Anand nor the government’s official press release, amusingly, made any mention of the autocratic regime where the aircraft actually originated.

Canada has long traded on its image as a global champion of peacekeeping and human rights — an image most would agree is incompatible with massive arms shipments to one of the world’s worst human rights abusers during a time of armed conflict. One obvious explanation for the Liberal government’s doublespeak around the Saudi deal and weapons industry in general is the simple fact of its economic value. A 2018 study of the defense sector puts its net contribution to Canadian GDP at a staggering $6.2 billion and suggested that it may be tied to as many as 60,000 jobs, some of them unionized.

As Sam Gindin argues, however, such concerns may ultimately be less important than geopolitics in determining Canada’s policy vis-a-vis Saudi arms shipments: “The US supports Saudi Arabia as a trusted partner in superintending developments in the Middle East. Canada, as a subordinate ally of the US, follows suit in arming Saudi Arabia.” Either way, Canada is actively abetting Saudi war crimes in Yemen — whatever the smiling liberal face its leader has shown the world suggests to the contrary.