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Canada’s Continued Complicity in the Yemen Crisis

For six years, Yemen has been devastated by a civil war between Saudi-led coalitions and Houthi rebel fighters with devastating humanitarian consequences. The EU has called it the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ while the UN stated it was ‘entirely man-made.’ 

In short: Canada’s recent renewal of a $15 billion combat vehicle contract with Saudi Arabia raises questions over its complicity in the Yemen humanitarian crisis. 

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History of the Conflict:

The civil war in Yemen has its roots in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. A failed leadership transition and territorial gains by the Houthi rebel movement sparked a civil war.

  • The conflict escalated in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition of nine countries began airstrikes in Yemen.
  • The coalition received strategic backing from the US, the United Kingdom and France.
  • Parties to the conflict have been beset by infighting and the conflict has reached a stalemate. In the meantime, the humanitarian situation in Yemen has worsened.

Yemen: The worst humanitarian crisis in the world

  • The country has the fourth-highest number of displaced people in the world.
  • 10 million Yemeni are at risk of famine and 80% of the population need humanitarian aid.
  • This year it experienced a flash flood that devastated communities and propagated diseases such as cholera, malaria, dengue fever and diphtheria.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to decimate the Yemeni population.

Human Rights Abuses: The humanitarian disaster in Yemen is aggravated by rampant human rights abuses. 

  • A UNHRC report documented the indiscriminate use of weapons, international crimes, and human rights abuses perpetrated by parties to the conflict.
  • Saudi Arabia has been accused of arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and targeted attacks on civilians in Yemen. 
  • The UN verified the deaths of at least 7,500 civilians by September 2019. Most were caused by Saudi-led coalition air strikes.

Millions in Aid, Billions in Arms Money: It has expressed humanitarian concerns for Yemeni civilians while simultaneously supplying weapons to the conflict. 

  • A January 2019 statement on the escalation of violence in Yemen urged the need for political dialogue and de-escalation of hostilities to “halt the tragic loss of life.”
  • In 2018, the country announced it had provided $130 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen since 2015. Earlier this month, Canada’s International Development Minister pledged another $40 million. 
  • In the same year it pledged $40 million in aid, Canada earned CAD $3 billion in revenues from weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, the leader of the intervention coalition in Yemen responsible for human rights abuses.

The Saudi Arms Deal: In 2014, Canada concluded a deal with Saudi Arabia for the purchase of $15 billion worth of military equipment, including 928 light armoured vehicles.

  • The new Trudeau government gave final approval for the deal following the 2015 election. This received criticism from the press and opposition parties who feared the arms would be used on Yemeni civilians.
  • In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that Canada “was looking for a way out” of the Saudi arms deal following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Despite this, a Global Affairs Canada report showed record sales of military hardware in 2019, despite a moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia in response to Kashoggi’s murder.

  • In April 2020, the Canadian government lifted its suspension on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, forging ahead with a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to export more than 700 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) produced by General Dynamics.
  • Global Affairs denied links between Saudi arms sales and human rights violations, but battle footage appears to show Canadian LAVs and sniper rifles on Yemen soil.
  • A declassified memo states that Canadian vehicle exports are in part intended to help Saudi Arabia “[counter] instability in Yemen.”

Canada justified its refusal to cancel the LAV contract by citing billions of dollars in damages and job losses.

  • The prioritization of financial gain at the expense of human rights is a consistent behaviour of this Canadian government. For instance, it remains engaged in conflicts over environmental destruction and indigenous sovereignty in numerous pipeline construction projects. 
  • A UN report by The Group of Experts observes “that the continued supply of weapons to parties involved in the conflict in Yemen perpetuates the conflict and the suffering of the population.”
  • By selling weapons to a country accused of arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and targeted attacks on civilians in Yemen, Canada has solidified its complicity in one of the most shameful humanitarian failures of the 21st century.

The bottom line: Canada’s renegotiated deal to supply the Saudis with arms poses questions about its complicity in the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It has been accused of hypocrisy by donating millions in aid to Yemen while drawing billions in revenues from weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. While the current government was presented with multiple opportunities to exit these agreements, it prioritized financial gain over ending human rights abuses.