Arms export win is human rights loss

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons, Defence & Human Security

Kenneth Epps

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 1 Spring 2014

A $10-billion deal announced by Ottawa will supply weapons-equipped vehicles to Saudi armed forces

An enormous order of armoured vehicles from Saudi Arabia, announced by Minister for International Trade Ed Fast on February 14, may become the conflicted poster child for Canada’s efforts to boost military exports. The largest Canadian military export sale in living memory—and likely ever—is seen as a victory for the “jobs and growth” economic strategy of the current government, even if a similar victory occurred at the same plant decades before, with a different government in charge. And as it did then, supplying weapons-equipped vehicles to Saudi armed forces raises fundamental concerns about Canada’s commitment to human rights and other international humanitarian standards.

A timely deal

In keeping with the clandestine nature of much of the arms trade, not all details about the announced sale are available. But it appears that the Saudi order was the result of a coordinated and aggressive bid by Canadian government, military, and industry officials in competition with other supplier states, including Germany and France. 

A Canadian military industry spokesman credited the success to a recent “shift in attitude” that has delivered more government support for defence sales, and noted that the initiative “is coming direct from the office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper” (Pugliese 2014). Two years of concerted Canadian government effort included trade missions led by Fast to Saudi Arabia in 2012 and 2013, lobbying efforts by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in 2012, and the close involvement of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the crown-owned agency that arranged and contracted the deal.

Worth at least $10-billion, the size of the recent Saudi order is unprecedented, even if the contract is not. Since 1991 manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems Canada (GDLS-C), has exported over 1,800 armoured vehicles, worth more than $2-billion, to Saudi armed forces. Due to these vehicle exports, Saudi Arabia was the largest recipient of Canadian military equipment after the United States during the 20-year period ending in 2008. Beginning in 2016 GDLS-C will ship updated versions of its vehicles to Saudi Arabia in as yet unknown numbers that will certainly dwarf previous shipments.

The new order represents the latest component of a repeated production cycle that began almost four decades ago. In the late 1970s then General Motors of Canada (GMC) began manufacturing armoured vehicles in London, Ontario to supply the Canadian Army. In the early 1980s, with this contract winding down, the company won its first order from the U.S. Pentagon.

In 1991 the U.S. contract was completed and rumours of plant closure were in the air. Then GMC won its largest contract to that point—an order from the Saudi Arabian National Guard for more than 1,100 vehicles. This order sustained the plant and its union jobs until new orders came in from the Canadian Army and the Pentagon. These included a major contract in 2000 for “Stryker” armoured vehicles that provided the backbone for U.S. Army operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With shipments to Canadian and U.S. forces again winding down, the second cycle of vehicle production has now been completed with the latest Saudi order. A persistent argument throughout this production history has been that, to maintain needed military industrial capacity in Canada—a capacity that is also considered an important part of the North American Defence Industrial Base—the manufacturer must have access to export customers.

Ottawa’s support for the Saudi contract and the arms industry in general is stronger but not new. The Canadian government has a history of assisting Canada’s military contractors to win export orders. Thirty years ago annual “Hi-Tech” events in Ottawa brought trade commissioners from Canadian missions around the world to meet with industry representatives. The intention was for trade officials to better promote Canadian military goods when they returned to their posts abroad.

Recent directives have increased the breadth and frequency of government promotion, and have coincided with a decline in export control standards (Epps 2013). A government “Global Markets Action Plan” now targets Saudi Arabia and 19 other nations, including Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Israel, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. According to an industry official, a new “culture of engagement” has seen senior officers from the Department of National Defence actively promoting Canadian equipment “not just in the Middle East but also in Latin America” (Pugliese 2014).

 Canadian jobs—but at what cost?

In the two-page government press release announcing the latest Saudi sale, the word “jobs” appears six times. Human rights is not mentioned. Yet its poor human rights climate is a defining feature of Saudi Arabia. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2013 documents how the Saudi government “stepped up arrests and trials of peaceful dissidents, and responded with force to demonstrations by citizens.” 

According to the report, authorities suppress or fail to protect the rights of Saudi women and girls as well as foreign workers. Every year thousands of people are subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture, ill treatment in detention, and unfair trials. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to thousands of lashes. The government does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam, a situation that should be of interest to Canada’s new Office of Religious Freedom. Just 11 days before the announcement of the GDLS-C contract, Amnesty International (2014) reported that “a new counter-terrorism law in Saudi Arabia will entrench existing patterns of human rights violations and serve as a further tool to suppress peaceful political dissent.”

According to Canada’s export control policy guidelines, Canada “closely controls” the export of military goods to countries such as Saudi Arabia, “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” (FATDC 2014). The guidelines do not prohibit arms exports to such governments but call for a “case-by-case” risk assessment to determine “that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”

Although Canadian officials reviewed and authorized the latest sale, it is hard to fathom how there is “no reasonable risk” that armoured vehicles will be used against the Saudi civilian population. The Saudi-regime is autocratic, corrupt, and actively suppressing basic human rights and freedoms. The many variants of Canadian-built vehicles, which include troop carriers, communications vehicles, and tanks with large cannons, as well as their operability in both urban and rural settings, virtually guarantee that the vehicles will be front-line equipment to suppress civilian opposition if an “Arab Spring” arises in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, there is video evidence that Canadian-built armoured vehicles supplied to Saudi Arabia were used in 2011 to support the repression of peaceful civilian demonstrations by Bahrain security forces.

The sale also adds to dire challenges to regional and global security. Decades of weapons imports have made the Middle East arguably the globe’s most heavily armed region. In Libya, Egypt, and now in Syria, the world has witnessed with horror the human devastation that occurs when over-armed governments turn their weapons on their own people. Well-equipped wars have created widespread regional instability—including record numbers of displaced persons—with long-term repercussions that extend far beyond the region. And the constant addition of costly and increasingly sophisticated weapons not only consumes regional resources that could alleviate poverty, but ensures a future of armed conflict.

The multi-year sale of possibly thousands of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia is not the national success that Minister Fast and others would claim. Rather it is a triumph of expediency over principle. By creating job dependency on supplying weapons to an intolerant regime, the government is linking basic employment needs in Canada to the suppression of basic rights elsewhere. The sale illustrates ongoing Canadian divergence from the emerging international standards of the recent Arms Trade Treaty, a key purpose of which is “reducing human suffering.”

It is time for a reset of Canada’s strategy to promote arms exports.


Amnesty International. 2014. Saudi Arabia: New terrorism law is latest tool to crush peaceful expression. February 3.
Epps, Kenneth. 2013. Canada’s push into new arms markets. The Ploughshares Monitor, Autumn, pp. 3-7.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2014. Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada, 2010-2011
Human Rights Watch. 2013. World Report 2013
Pugliese, David. 2014. Top Gov’t Officials Join Canada’s Export Push., February 22.
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