UPDATED: UN “names and shames” Canada and DND considers collaboration with Israel on armed drones


Our first update begins with some shocking media headlines that graphically demonstrate the chasm between Canadian principle and practice when it comes to the global arms trade:

Canada is fuelling war in Yemen with arms sales, UN report says (Globe and Mail, 9 September 2020).

Canada’s international reputation stained by UN Yemen war report (National Observer, 11 September 2020).

UN experts’ report on possible Yemen war crimes slams Canada, others for continued arms sales (CBC, 9 September 2020).

And while Canada was not in the international headlines for this UN “naming and shaming”, we did feature in articles on the new UN report carried by news agencies like Reuters and prominent newspapers like the New York Times:

Britain, Canada, France, Iran and the United States continued their support to the warring sides “including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict”, the U.N. panel said.

As RI President Peggy Mason commented to the Globe and Mail’s Steve Chase, the explicit calling out of Canada in the UN Report puts to rest one of the main rationalizations  our government has used to continue its arms exports to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite their leading role in the devastating Yemeni conflict — the argument that our arms transfers “contribute to regional stability”.  Simply put:

the new UN report leaves no doubt that Canada too is undermining regional peace and security.

Not just a breach of ethics but of national and international law

This UN “naming and shaming” matters hugely in terms of Canada’s international reputation and the desire of most Canadians that our country work to alleviate, not exacerbate, human suffering.

But it also matters in terms of Canada’s obligations under both international law — the Arms Trade Treaty — and domestic legislation — the Export and Import Permits Act.  Our domestic law (as amended by Bill C-47) could not be clearer. Mason, who testified on this issue before both the House of Commons and the Senate committees reviewing the draft amendments, notes:

While the old rules left a lot of leeway for Ministerial discretion, the amended rules do not. If there is a “substantial risk” that the proposed arms exports will fuel insecurity, then the Minister “shall not issue a permit”.

For a CBC interview with another member of the NGO coalition against Saudi arms sales, see: Cesar Jaramillo (CBC Afternoon Drive, 10 September 2020). In response to a question about the economic impact of stopping these arms shipments, Jaramillo touches on the all-important issue of conversion from military to non-military production, stating in part:

We need to start thinking long term about what that conversion might look like so that Canada’s prosperity is not tied to human rights violations.

Arms sales and the broader Saudi market

For more discussion on the economic drivers of Canada’s deadly arms trade, see an 11 September article in the National Observer where Anthony Fenton, a doctoral student at York University who tracks Canada’s relations with Gulf-Arab states, is quoted as saying:

I even come across comments in archival records where it says explicitly — if we want to access the broader Saudi market, we have to agree to sell them weapons….

Then we can get our fair share of the hand-over-fist petrodollars that all Western governments want and have wanted for decades….

Money talks but Saudi money may finally be losing some of its allure

The siren song of Saudi petrodollars in the current and future global economic picture may finally be starting to fade. The Saudi regime faces increasing fiscal shortfalls with the low price of oil, exacerbated by the pandemic to be sure, but also due in no small measure to the increasingly costly war in Yemen, the cooling of some investors after the government-engineered Khashoggi assassination (not to mention the recent alleged attempt to murder a former intelligence chief now resident in Canada) and the general mismanagement by Crown Prince “MBS” of his “Vision 2030” diversification strategy.

In the blunt  opening words of a May 2020 blog by Brookings Senior Foreign Policy Fellow, Bruce Riedel:

As a global economic crisis wreaks havoc on Saudi Arabia, the kingdom should reduce military spending.

Time for media reporting to acknowledge internal dynamics of Yemeni conflict

In the Globe and Mail, CBC and Reuters articles cited above, this standard phrase appears:

The conflict is widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its regional foe, Iran.

Unfortunately, this description, barely accurate at the onset of the war in 2015, is now utterly outdated. While the Saudi–Iran rivalry is an important driving factor for the involvement of these two countries (with Iran’s being limited to some weapons supplies and not direct military engagement, another fact rarely mentioned), the conflict is very much an internal civil war between the Shia Houthis in the North and the current internationally recognized Sunni government and a range of internal factions in the South, backed by the UAE and others.

For a superb review of the state of play and the need for the UN Security Council to “catch up” to the multiparty nature of the Yemeni conflict, see: Rethinking Peace in Yemen (Report No. 216, crisisgroup.org, 2 July 2020). That report begins:

Yemen’s terrible war grinds on, despite a COVID-19 epidemic that has deepened what was already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Stopping the fighting is urgent. Diplomats should adopt an inclusive, multiparty framework for talks to replace today’s flawed model.

Whither Canada?

Under the terms of the renegotiated LAV contract with Saudi Arabia, Canada no longer faces the threat of huge financial penalties for having the temerity to apply Canadian law to Canadian arms exports. There is therefore no further excuse, if there ever was one, for failing to finally apply that law now.

We call on the Government of Canada to act in accordance with Canadian and international law by heeding the explicit call from the 2020 UN Expert Panel on Yemen to immediately cease our arms exports to conflicting parties in the deadly Yemeni conflict — namely to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


In his weekly blog post, Peter Larson, coordinator of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine, poses another fundamental question of ethics and law facing Canada:

Should the Canadian government allow our military to consider buying more Israeli drones?

Having leased Israel drones in 2017 for use in Afghanistan, Canada now has plans to procure unmanned aircraft that can conduct long-range surveillance and precision air strikes.  According to Justin Ling, writing for Vice.com, one possibility is a collaboration between Quebec and Israeli companies:

L3 Technologies is working with Israel Aerospace Industries to pitch a modified version of its Heron drone, which has become a favourite of the Israeli Defence Forces….

Peter Larson reviews the many legitimate uses of unmanned drones and then poses the key question: “But Israeli drones?” In the words of OFIP Advisory Council member Peggy Mason:

[Canada] would be partnering with a country that is committing war crimes in their ongoing use of drones as an element of COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT which is contrary to the Geneva Conventions…. So we would be partnering in the production of drones that our partner is using for manifestly illegal purposes.

Peter Larson ends the blog with a section on whether procurement of Israeli drones could be avoided. He writes:

if important, ethically motivated Canadian civil society organizations, including churches, Amnesty International Canada, the Rideau Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and human rights associations raise this as a political issue, enough pressure might be mounted that the Liberal government might take the “Israeli option” off the DND shopping list.

Whither Canada?

Given global concerns over the ongoing misuse of these weapons, we call on the government of Canada to partner with, and purchase drones from, a country with a demonstrated record for faithful adherence to international humanitarian law in their use.


The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy is hosting a 17 Sept 2020 Virtual Panel from 11 am-12:30 pm EST on: The Impact of COVID-19 on Security and Stability in the Middle East. This will include a presentation on Canada’s Middle East policy from our Ambassador to Qatar.  For further details and registration click here.

At 7:30 pm EST on 17 Sept 2020, the Ottawa Forum on Israel Palestine will feature a webinar entitled: “Four years of successes and challenges as Special Rapporteur” with Canadian Michael Lynk, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He will be joined by a distinguished panel drawn from the Ottawa Forum Advisory Board. To register for this event: click here .

Photo credit: Wikimedia Images (Heron drone)

Tags: 2020 UN Expert Report on Yemen, Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), Atlantic Council, Bill C-47, Canada fueling conflict in Yemen, Canada Talks Israel Palestine, Canada undermining peace and security, Canada's arms exports to Saudi Arabia, Canada's arms exports to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Canada's renegotiated LAV contract with Saudi Arabia, Export and Import Permits Act, fueling conflict in Yemen, International Crisis Group (ICG), international law, Israel Aerospace Industries, Israeli Heron drone, Ottawa Forum for Israel Palestine, perpetuating conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabian economic crisis, The Brookings Institution, undermining peace and security