Arms and forced displacement: Canada-Saudi arms deal

Sonal Marwah Conventional Weapons, Featured, Forced Displacement and Migration

The world is experiencing the highest level of forced displacement since World War II. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR 2016a), approximately 34,000 people are forcibly displaced daily by conflict and persecution. A trigger and driver of forced displacement is armed conflict, which is fueled, prolonged, and made deadlier by available, accessible weapons. And so weapons control, and particularly control of the international arms trade, becomes a key to the resolution and restriction of conflict and, thus, of displacement. Civil society and international humanitarian actors have been working tirelessly to encourage governments to adopt stricter and more robust arms export controls.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 2 Summer 2017 by Sonal Marwah

In 2014, Saudi Arabia and Canada signed an arms deal valued at $14.8-billion. This contract to provide the Saudis with weaponized armoured vehicles is still going ahead, even though there is ample damning evidence that Saudi Arabia violates the human rights of its own citizens and has committed serious violations of the laws of war in its involvement in the conflict in Yemen, which has caused widespread death and displacement.

Here we examine this arms deal through the lens of conflict-induced displacement.

When people are forced to flee

Armed conflict disproportionately affects civilians and their communities, disrupting and destroying livelihoods; denying access to clean drinking water, food supplies, and medicine; damaging vital infrastructure that provides energy and other basic services; preventing the education of children; denying everyone a sense of safety. Some civilians are forced to flee their homes and become refugees, but typically, many are either internally displaced or become trapped in zones of conflict, caught in the crossfire (OHCHR 1996-2017). According to the UNHCR (2016a), in 2015 there were an estimated 21.3-million refugees and 40.8-million internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Some of the worst human-rights violations in conflict zones affect refugees, IDPs, and civilians who are unable to move to safety. Displaced persons are always under threat. Immediately before and during the displacement event, armed violence escalates and civilians are threatened. Away from home, civilians can be directly and indirectly affected by violence, facing harassment or forced recruitment. And when they are either resettled or return home, they are easy targets for armed criminals.1 The fundamental rights and basic entitlements of forcibly displaced persons are threatened at each stage by, among other things, the availability of arms.

Interstate and intrastate conflicts most often occur in developing regions, but most of the arms in those conflicts are from developed countries. The United States is the world’s largest arms exporter and the largest exporter to developing states. Between 2008 and 2015, developing countries were the top arms purchasers globally, with Saudi Arabia and India taking the lead (Theohary 2016, Summary). In 2015, Canada was the second biggest arms exporter to the Middle East, after the United States (Chase 2016c).

As arms sales to the Middle East have grown, so have volatile conflicts in the region, creating widespread regional instability. Conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are triggering massive levels of displacement. By the end of 2015, the Middle East was hosting roughly 23-million displaced migrants (Connor 2016). Displacement surged in 2011 with the conflict in Syria; since then, the Middle East has become the region with the fastest growing population of forcibly displaced persons and international migrants.

In 2014, Canada agreed to sell an undisclosed number of General Dynamics Land Systems’ light-armoured combat vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the force that deals with internal threats to the ruling regime.

While the deal is the largest advanced military arms export contract in Canadian history (Balca 2016), Canada has a long history of exporting military equipment to Saudi Arabia and has continuously exported LAVs to Saudi Arabia since 1992. In 2012, Canada exported goods worth more than $400-million to the Kingdom. In 2014, Saudi Arabia was the top customer for Canadian military exports (28.2 per cent of total); in 2015, Saudi Arabia was the second-largest military export destination (14.1 per cent) (GAC 2016c). (These figures exclude data related to exports to the United States, which are exempt from reporting requirements, but have historically amounted to over half of all Canadian military exports in any given year.)

LAVs are versatile, useful in rural and urban areas, and amphibious. They are deemed effective for crowd control. How they are used depends on how they are equipped. Global Affairs Canada (GAC), which issues import and export licences, has provided no information about the lethality of the vehicles going to Saudi Arabia, but it is known that the export permit applications encompass not only the LAVs, but also their associated weapons systems (GAC 2016d, p. 3).

Whatever the gun configuration, the LAVs themselves fall under Group 2 of the Export Control List, which includes military goods and technology that Canada considers to be “specially designed or modified for military use.” Other items in this group include weapons or armament with a calibre greater than 12.7 mm, torpedoes, rockets, vessels of war, and chemical or biological toxic agents (GAC 2016a, Group 2).

Under the policy guidelines of the Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA), Canada requires clear demonstration that “there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” (GAC 2016b, p. 3). Several observers, including Project Ploughshares, have raised questions about the extent to which this requirement can be met in the context of the LAV deal.
The current Liberal government has approved 70 per cent of the export permits (Chase 2016a)—the final green light before shipments can commence. But a portion of the export licences still await authorization.

Human costs of weapons sales

In the past, Saudis bought LAVs to defend against possible attacks by either the Islamic State or Riyadh’s Shia Muslim rival, Iran. But, given Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record, critics have warned that the LAVs could be used against Saudi citizens. At the beginning of last year, for example, 47 people convicted of terrorism-related offences, including Shia Muslim cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, were executed. Even the Government of Canada’s 2015 redacted review of human rights in Saudi Arabia acknowledges the strong hold of the monarchy; deterioration in regional security, including domestic threats; and specific human-rights challenges (Mas 2016).

In addition, there is evidence that the monarchy has made specific use of LAVs to suppress political opposition. According to Ali Adubisi of the Berlin-based European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, Saudi authorities deployed armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in Eastern Province more than 15 times between 2011 and mid-2016 (Chase 2016b). While the country of origin of these vehicles is not clear, these incidents demonstrate the monarchy’s willingness “to use such military assets against its own people” (Chase 2016b).

However, there is evidence that, in 2011, the Saudis did send Canadian-made LAVs into Bahrain to help quell democratic protests ( 2011). The Canadian government has not denied the incident, but suggested that the LAVs were “to protect key building and infrastructure, and did not engage in suppression of peaceful protests” (GAC 2016d).

Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of Arab states (Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, and Senegal) in armed conflict against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen, in an attempt to restore the ousted Yemeni government. The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia group from northern Yemen, also known as Ansar Allah, which took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. By the end of 2015, more than 2.5-million Yemeni civilians had been displaced (IDMC 2017) and 120,000 had sought asylum in other countries, including Djibouti and Somalia (UNHCR 2016b). Since the conflict began, more than 10,000 have died.

The scale of the destruction has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the poorest of the Gulf countries. Both sides in the conflict have been accused of intentionally targeting civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law (IHL). The Houthi combatants are positioned in residential areas, and coalition airstrikes on rebel strongholds have caused extensive damage to civilian property. A UN Panel of Experts2 found that the Saudi-led bombing campaign had involved “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets, including refugee and IDP camps, civilian gatherings, medical facilities, education centres, and food storage warehouses (MacAskill 2016). The coalition has targeted the cities of Sa’dah and Maran in their entirety, in violation of the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution in war (MacAskill 2016).

Where can political dissidents of the Saudi monarchy flee? What refuge is there for displaced Yemenis? The Middle East is already hosting a huge number of refugees and IDPs. And if refuge exists, how are those fleeing conflict to get there safely? In March, a boat off the coast of Yemen, carrying 145 refugees, was fired upon by an Apache helicopter. At least 32 were killed. Most of the boat’s occupants were Somalis who had first fled to Yemen and then were forced to flee the raging conflict in Yemen and were headed to Sudan. While no one claimed responsibility for the attack, only the Saudi-led coalition is believed to have U.S.-manufactured military aircraft (HRW 2017).

Tackling conflict-induced displacement

The leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, has called for an immediate inquiry into violation of the laws of war by the coalition and a suspension of UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, pending its outcome. The governments of the United Kingdom and the United States have been repeatedly warned by humanitarian organizations to halt arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members. The European Parliament has voted for an embargo on arms sales to the Saudi kingdom, citing the “disastrous humanitarian situation” resulting from the military intervention in Yemen (Rankin 2016). Organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are also condemning Iran, amid reports that Iran is stepping up its arms supplies to the Houthi rebels (Saul, Hafezi & Georgy 2017).

What can Canada do?

Accede to the Arms Trade Treaty

Canada is currently the only member of the G7 group of industrialized nations and of the 28-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has neither signed nor ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional arms, from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft, and warships—including the type of LAVs at the centre of the Saudi arms deal. The ATT seeks to directly and indirectly reduce human suffering by targeting the unregulated and irresponsible trade in conventional weapons that fuels armed conflict, enables human-rights violations, and sustains autocratic regimes. The ATT entered into force in December 2014 and the treaty forms part of the body of international law.

On April 13, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs tabled legislation that will enable Canada to become a State Party to the ATT.

Canada’s decision to accede to the ATT is a step in the right direction and is to be commended. But it’s not enough. And it’s not enough for Canada to claim, as it does, that it has some of the strictest arms control regulations on the books. Needed are more robust and transparent regulations that will entail close adherence to ATT criteria and meet its legal requirements.

Canada must start requiring export permit authorizations for all arms exports to the United States, as it does for all other states. Under current bilateral arrangements, not only is the United States exempt from export licensing requirements, but there is no reporting provided on Canadian military exports to that country—even though it is the largest recipient of Canadian military goods. There is no indication that this will change following accession to the ATT. However, the ATT does not provide for such regulatory exemptions. Moreover, accurate estimations of the value of Canadian military exports would require the same type of reporting on military exports to the United States as for other countries.

Stricter adherence to the ECL’s guidelines for granting licences to arms deals is needed. As well, there should be greater transparency around how government decisions to grant export licences are made. And Canada must develop an effective means to monitor Saudi use of Canadian-manufactured LAVs, inside and outside its borders.

In practical terms, joining the ATT should make it a lot more difficult for Canada to make arms deals with countries with poor human rights records and autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Algeria. In 2015, these two countries were on the list of the top seven destinations for Canadian military goods (GAC 2016c, p. 12).

Canada is sending mixed messages by acceding to the ATT while proceeding with the Saudi arms deal. The Memorandum for Action, labelled “secret,” which presented the analysis consulted by the Foreign Affairs Minister before authorizing the export licence, clearly highlights concern for human rights in Saudi Arabia and the airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen (GAC 2016d). This report was released by the Justice Department only after a lawsuit filed in federal court challenged the arms sale. It is worth noting that the release of the memorandum is the first-ever release of such a document by GAC. In the future, there needs to be greater transparency and access to such information.

It is also important to note that the contract was concluded at a time when there were growing calls for arms-exporting countries to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to have the Saudi government account for events in Yemen and for serious human-rights violations at home. Canada’s proceeding with the arms deal raises unsettling questions about its commitment to human rights and its regulatory regime for arms exports.

Canada needs to uphold the spirit of the ATT to build a more transparent global arms trade and build a norm that strengthens responsible arms transfers. The flow of new weapons to states involved in the conflict will only worsen the humanitarian situation (ACA 2017).

Support the Sustainable Development Goals

In the post-2015 development agenda, there are 17 Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) with 169 Targets. SDG 16 links development to peace and security and Target 16.4 focuses on the effects of illicit arms flows to sustainable peace, security, and development. The government of Canada has expressed its commitment to support the SDGs. To implement Goal 16, Canada must halt arms sales and transfers to human-rights violators, even if such action impinges upon profitable deals for arms manufacturers at home.

“By creating job dependency and profit on supplying weapons to an intolerant regime, the government is linking basic employment needs in Canada to the suppression of basic rights elsewhere” (Epps 2014).

Support for ending impunity

Canada should support the call for an independent and credible investigation of claims of war crimes in Yemen by all parties to the conflict.



1. This paragraph draws from the work of Dr. Robert Muggah, who is an expert on arms control and armed violence prevention.
2. It must be noted that the Panel members were not able to visit Yemen and did face challenges in compiling accurate and complete information
for the report.


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—–. 2016b. Saudis use armoured vehicles to suppress internal dissent, videos show. The Globe and Mail, May 11.
—–. 2016c. Canada now the second biggest arms exporter to Middle East, data show. The Globe and Mail, June 14.
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—–. 2013. Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada 2007-2009.
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—–. 2016b. UNHCR Yemen Factsheet – February 2016.

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