Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is deeply concerned about pictures showing the Saudi army using Canadian-made armoured vehicles to attack Shia dissidents in the eastern part of the country. She should keep her deep concern warmed up and ready for use because Saudi Arabia, one of Canada’s best customers for military hardware, could not care less what Canada thinks of its conduct.
Terradyne Armoured Vehicles of Newmarket, Ont., is one Canadian supplier of light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. General Dynamics of London, Ont., is another. Vehicles of those two firms were part of $142-million worth of Canadian weaponry bought by the Saudi kingdom in 2016. That made Saudi Arabia Canada’s biggest military hardware buyer after the United States.
Saudi arms sales were a problem for the governing Liberals as soon as they took power in October 2015. Stéphane Dion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first foreign affairs minister, claimed he had no choice but to authorize export of the General Dynamics vehicles because it was a done deal. Then he turned around and signed the export authorization, showing it was not entirely a done deal until Mr. Dion signed off on it. Now, Ms. Freeland is trying to reclaim the moral high ground by expressing her deep concern about Saudi use of Canadian-made military equipment.
What did Ms. Freeland think the Saudis were going to do with it?
When violence flared recently between the army and Shia militants in the eastern region, the army stepped up its operations. Pictures lately circulated by the Shiites appear to show Terradyne’s Canadian-made vehicles in action.
Was the Saudi army murdering peace-loving civilians or was it defending the population against Iranian-inspired terrorists? It’s pretty hard to tell from this distance.
As a supplier of weapons, Canada has some standing, along with others, to offer advice to the Saudis about how to run their country. We should not, however, expect the Saudis to pay much attention to our advice, because Canadians know practically nothing about the means that are available to the Saudi rulers to maintain order.
It is pleasant to imagine Saudi Arabia could quickly reform itself into a liberal democracy with equal rights for women and for religious minorities, but the prospects for reform remain dim at best.
Canada should support and encourage reform and enhancement of human rights in Saudi Arabia, recognizing progress will be slow. That will at least give the foreign affairs minister something useful to talk about when the Saudi human rights record comes up for discussion. But we should not imagine we can attach a leash to the light-armoured vehicles Canada ships to the Saudis and exercise a veto on their use in operations we may find distressing.
Weapons are made for killing people. The manufacture of weapons is a big business in which Canada plays a small but significant part.
We are clearly not prepared to renounce the business opportunity the Saudi arms market presents. Nor are we prepared to accept the use of Canadian-made vehicles in Saudi domestic operations. The Canadian solution is to sell... and then throw up our hands in horror when they are put to such use.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.