by Josh Lalonde

On January 25, over 200 organizations around the world will participate in a “World Says No to War on Yemen” day of action. This will include groups from Canada — a nation whose reputation for niceness is contradicted by its robust arms trade, which helps fuel conflict around the globe.

Just a few months ago, the United Nations’ Group of Eminent Experts (GEE) on Yemen released a report naming Canada as one of the countries fuelling the ongoing war in Yemen by its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, one of the main parties to the conflict. And, as we’ve touched on in previous Leveller coverage of this issue, Canada is the second-biggest supplier of arms to the Middle East region, after the United States.

To follow up on this coverage, The Leveller spoke with several organizations in Canada working to end Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries with poor human rights records, some of which are involved in the January 25 day of action. 

Call for international day of action on Yemen on Monday 25th January 2021. Source: Stop the War Coalition

How Canada is “helping to perpetuate the conflict” in Yemen

Although there has been on-and-off fighting in the country since at least 2004, the current war in Yemen began in 2014. This is when the forces of Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthi movement) gained control of the capital Sana’a, forcing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to resign and flee the country. A few months later in early 2015, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia intervened militarily to restore Hadi’s government and regain control of Sana’a.

Since then, the coalition has carried out a devastating campaign of airstrikes, often hitting civilian targets such as hospitals and schools. They have had logistical and intelligence support from Western countries, in particular the U.S. and U.K. The coalition has also imposed a blockade on the country, leading to severe famine and outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever. Researchers estimate that over 100,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and a similar number have died due to famine and disease.

Although Canada has not been involved in the airstrikes or the blockade, Canadian arms manufacturers have sold billions of dollars worth of armoured vehicles, warplane components, and rifles to Saudi Arabia — and other coalition members, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has provided export permits for each of these manufacturers. The Canadian Commercial Corporation, a Crown corporation, negotiated the largest of these deals: a $15 billion contract for General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C) to supply and maintain hundreds of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) for Saudi Arabia. 

The Canadian government’s position has been that the equipment is sold to Saudi Arabia and its allies to serve their defence needs. Yet Canadian-made equipment has, on multiple occasions, been documented being used in Yemen and for internal repression in Saudi Arabia. GAC has twice suspended certain export permits for military equipment destined for Saudi Arabia after some of these incidents became publicly known — only to reinstate them a few months later, once the story dies down. 

The export permits for Saudi Arabia were granted despite GAC’s own reports documenting the kingdom’s horrendous human rights record. The permits have been maintained even though Saudi-Canadian relations have suffered following a GAC tweet commenting on human rights in Saudi Arabia — and then worsened as a result of the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi by Saudi intelligence operatives in Istanbul.

When asked by The Leveller about the GEE report naming Canada as one of the countries fuelling the conflict through its arms sales, GAC replied with a statement saying that “Canada has one of the strongest export controls systems in the world.” It added that they “will take appropriate action should credible evidence be found regarding the misuse of any controlled Canadian good or technology, including to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.”

Critics, however, have argued that such evidence is publicly available, and that GAC has chosen to ignore it.

“Without workers producing and shipping arms, there are no wars”

Labour Against the Arms Trade (LAAT) describes itself as a “coalition of peace and labour activists working to end Canada’s participation in the international arms trade.” They advocate in particular for an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and for a “just transition” away from the arms industry. So it should come as no surprise that they are also one of the signatories to the open letter for the January 25 day of action. 

The Leveller spoke with Simon Black, assistant professor of labour studies at Brock University and lead organizer for LAAT.

In the last year, LAAT has been involved in two Canada-wide days of action, on June 11 and September 21, calling on the government to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia. During these days of action, protesters demonstrated outside MPs’ offices across the country. They also held actions outside the GDLS-C factory in London, Ontario, where LAVs sold to Saudi Arabia are made, and at the company’s headquarters in Ottawa.

The September 21 actions were connected with an open letter released a few days earlier by 39 civil society organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario, and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). These groups collectively represent millions of workers across Canada. The letter commemorated the first anniversary of Canada officially joining the Arms Trade Treaty and called on the Canadian government to live up to its obligations under the treaty by ending Canadian arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It also called on the government to fund a just transition for workers in the arms industry, to ensure that their livelihoods would not be affected by the suspension of exports.

LAAT has “received messages of support from rank and file union members across the country,” Black told The Leveller. “The CLC’s endorsement of the two [days of action] reflects the Canadian labour movement’s opposition to arms exports to Saudia Arabia, one of the worst countries in the world for workers’ rights, and support for a just transition for arms industry workers.” 

Black argues that even workers in the arms industry would benefit from such a transition. “Ask any workers [if they would] rather produce things we need to build a greener, more peaceful world, than weapons of war, and you will find very few workers who say ‘No, I’d rather use my skills to produce weapons of war.’”

Black emphasized that “without workers producing and shipping arms, there [are] no wars.” Workers therefore have the power — and the responsibility — to take action against war and the arms industry. He pointed to actions like those of Italian dockworkers who refused to load a Saudi ship suspected of carrying weapons to Yemen and International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) members refusing to cross a picket line to load LAVs in St. John, New Brunswick. 

“Workers therefore have the power — and the responsibility — to take action against war and the arms industry.” Illustration: Crystal Yung

“It sounds simple, even utopian,” Black said, “but when workers down tools and refuse to cooperate in the manufacture and shipment of arms, they can have a powerful impact.” 

When asked why there have not been more actions like this, he pointed to “unjust labour laws that favour capital,” which can impose “heavy penalties [on workers] for engaging in ‘unlawful’ industrial action.” In order to promote more action by workers against the arms trade, LAAT “need to continue to build relationships in the labour movement and foster solidarity.”

“Weapons exports are a choice”

Another organization that participated in the days of action and the open letter is Project Ploughshares. Project Ploughshares was founded in the 1970s by two young activists as a “working group on militarism and underdevelopment,” and soon found an institutional home at the Canadian Council of Churches. Its initial goals were to draw attention to how the procurement of weapons in the developing world was taking funds, energy, and attention away from socially beneficial programs, and how the proliferation of weapons acts as an accelerant of conflict. It continues to work today to advance policies and actions that prevent war and build peace. 

The Leveller spoke with Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Ploughshares working on Canadian exports of military goods. 

In September 2020, Project Ploughshares published Gallagher’s report “Killer Optics: Exports of WESCAM sensors to Turkey — a litmus test of Canada’s compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty.” The report detailed the use of optical sensors manufactured in Canada by L3Harris WESCAM on Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones and documented Turkey’s use of these drones in conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Sending Canadian-made military equipment to these foreign conflicts almost certainly violated the terms of the export permits granted for the WESCAM optics. The report also documented likely violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war committed by Turkey using drones carrying the sensors.

Following Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019, Canada suspended military export permits to Turkey. But several months later, an exemption to this suspension was quietly granted to WESCAM optics, under still-obscure circumstances. Suggestively, though, this came after the personal intervention of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and an intense campaign by lobbyists with ties to the Liberal party.

The WESCAM optics, and Gallagher’s report on them, came to public awareness again in September, 2020. This is when evidence emerged that Azerbaijan was using TB2 drones in its conflict with ethnic Armenian separatists in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. After protests by Armenian diaspora organizations, Global Affairs Canada again suspended the export permits for WESCAM optics. Opposition parties later launched parliamentary committee hearings (which Gallagher testified at) into the granting of the exemption and how the sensors ended up in Azerbaijan, hearings at.

When asked to evaluate Canada’s export permit regime, Gallagher stated that it “is unsatisfactory at best, [and] at worst fuelling conflict.” Canada’s system may be better than that of some other countries, he said, but “the benchmark is not very high.” He criticized in particular the reactive nature of the regime. Global Affairs Canada “pauses exports only when media or civil society raises attention to problems,” rather than proactively seeking to avoid selling military equipment to countries likely to use it to commit war crimes and human rights violations.

Delegates speak during the ceremony for the signing of the Arms Trade Treaty At United Nations headquarters in New York, June 3, 2013. Credit: Keith Bedford/INSIDER IMAGES

While he commended Canada’s move to sign on to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) — something Project Ploughshares had been advocating for years — Gallagher argued that Canada is not fulfilling its obligations under the treaty. For instance, the Canadian government has ignored publicly-available evidence that its military exports to countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are being diverted to third parties, when the ATT “states in opening sentences that it exists to stem diversion.” 

Gallagher also pointed out the Canadian-owned company Streit Group, which, because it is headquartered in the UAE, has effectively evaded Canadian sanctions banning exports to countries like Libya and Sudan. He calls this procedure “akin to an offshore banking scheme.” 

The Canadian government, meanwhile, has denied that it has jurisdiction over Streit Group sales in third-party countries, even though the ATT requires its signatories to regulate brokering — the act a country’s nationals arrange arms deals between foreign parties. However, Gallagher noted that “the regulations governing brokering in Canada are not clear,” and about 31 permits for brokering had been granted since the ATT came into effect in Canada in September 2019.

When it comes to strategy, Gallagher called for more organizing to make people realize that “weapons exports are a choice, not something the Canadian government has to do.” He argued that “all facets” of the anti-war movement — including human rights groups, labour groups, and religious groups — “need to work in tandem because all the cards are stacked against us: [our] opponents have a lot more power than we do.”

“The military establishment is hyper-masculinized”

While wars are almost exclusively fought by men, it is generally women and children who suffer most from them, as recognized by UN Security Council Resolution 1325. It is only logical then that women should organize against war and the arms industry. And they do, as shown by two women-led peace organizations,  Canadian Voice of Women for Peace (VOW) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The Leveller spoke with Tamara Lorincz, a member of both organizations.

VOW was formed during the Cold War to oppose nuclear weapons testing, and recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Today it organizes protests, lectures, meetings with MPs, and letter-writing campaigns to mobilize women against war and militarism. In particular, VOW has (until the COVID-19 pandemic) held monthly protests outside of the NATO office in Toronto, because NATO requires that its members spend at least 2% of their GDP on the military. 

VOW is also organizing to shut down the 2021 iteration of CANSEC, one of the world’s largest arms fairs, held annually in Ottawa. VOW and WILPF both intend to participate in the January 25 day of action on Yemen, though they are not listed among the signatories to the open letter.

Lorincz argued that since “the military establishment is hyper-masculinized, women must be more vocal in opposition to militarization of the country.” She made the case that the COVID-19 pandemic shows that the world is spending “too much on militarism and not enough on healthcare.” Like Simon Black from LAAT, Lorincz called for a conversion of the arms industry towards more constructive goals, such as a green jobs strategy or investing in affordable housing.

When asked to evaluate the Canadian export permits system, Lorincz described it as “a total failure.” After all, “under Canadian law, permits are not supposed to be [granted] to human rights abusers, but Canada continues to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, UAE, etc.” Moreover, she criticized the lack of transparency concerning exports to the U.S., which are not included in GAC’s annual Exports of Military Goods report. In Lorincz’s estimation, “probably about 80% of Canadian [military] exports go to the U.S.” 

Lorincz also decried the influence of organizations such as the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI). She described CADSI as “an extremely powerful and well-funded lobby” that pushes for war and military spending. She noted the disparity in lobbying expenditures between environmental groups and arms manufacturers, as well as the “revolving door between [the Department of National Defence] and lobbying.” 

Lorincz is particularly dismayed by the lack of opposition to militarism among ostensibly left-wing politicians, and argued that “if parties [like the NDP and the Green Party] were serious about protecting climate and environment, they should oppose defence spending.” After all, “the military is the largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest emitter of [greenhouse gases] in Canada.” For this reason, “militarism is the greatest impediment to climate justice,” as captured in the VOW slogan “stop the war, stop the warming.”

On the question of strategy, Lorincz argued for the “need to shame the government.” The Liberal government “tries to convey a friendly face to the world” on issues such as gender equality, human rights, and climate change, but solving those issues is “impossible with what Canada is doing with relation to militarism.” She called on readers to join local peace organizations, participate in the January 25 day of action, and continue to pressure MPs and the government to end the arms trade.

Readers can find Labour Against the Arms Trade on Facebook and Twitter; Project Ploughshares on their website, Facebook, and Twitter; Canadian Voice of Women for Peace on their website, Facebook, and Twitter; and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom on their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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