Growing International Movement Seeks to Place Arms Embargo on Saudi Arabia

A Canadian law professor’s suit against his government is part of a growing backlash against Saudi Arabia.

Photo: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

A LAWSUIT FILED last week in Canada is seeking to halt a major $15 billion sale of light-armored vehicles to the government of Saudi Arabia, part of a growing international movement to stop arms sales to the Saudi government over its alleged war crimes in Yemen.

The suit, filed by University of Montreal constitutional law professor Daniel Turp, argues the vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia violate a number of Canadian laws, including regulations on the export of military equipment, which prohibit arms sales to countries where human rights are “subject to serious and repeated violations” and there is a reasonable risk exported equipment “will be used against the civilian population.” Saudi Arabia, which has a deplorable human rights record at home, has inflicted considerable civilian casualties in Yemen as part of its yearlong bombing campaign in support of the contested government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“The suppression of human rights in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government’s actions during the war in Yemen make the sale of these armored vehicles legally unacceptable,” Turp said.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of growing evidence of war crimes by Saudi-led forces, including the use of cluster munitions in civilian areas and the designation of entire cities as military targets. A particularly gruesome attack earlier this month killed 120 civilians at a market in the town of Mastaba, including at least 20 children. Last week, in response to these atrocities, Human Rights Watch demanded that Western countries impose an arms embargo on the Saudi government over its conduct in the war.

Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest arms purchasers in the world, spending billions of dollars annually in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere to outfit its military. But the spectacle of democratic countries selling deadly military equipment to one of the most oppressive governments in the world has triggered outrage from human rights groups. That outrage is now beginning to coalesce into legal and political action to stop these sales.

In addition to the Canadian lawsuit, this year lawmakers in the Netherlands passed a resolution to ban further arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while Belgian officials stated that they had refused an arms export license to the hereditary dictatorship following a mass execution of dissidents in the country. In late February, the European Union parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia by member states.

But despite growing pressure, major arms-producing countries generally appear unfazed. In the past several months, U.S. weapons manufacturers have inked weapons deals with Saudi Arabia for billions of dollars, ensuring a steady stream of munitions for the war in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a war inside Yemen for over a year, and we’re selling them weapons with knowledge they will be used in Yemen, where ample evidence has shown they are using them to commit war crimes,” said Raed Jarrar, government relations manager with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker political advocacy group with a mandate to promote peace.

Jarrar said the U.S. has legal grounds to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia under the Arms Export Control Actpresidential policy directives, and international treaties, all of which circumscribe arms sales based on human rights violations.

“We’re only asking for implementation of existing laws and we’re not picking on Saudi Arabia or anyone else because of a partisan agenda,” he adds, “but the U.S. should stop facilitating death and destruction in the Middle East through arms sales to regimes it knows are committing war crimes.”

Although the United States is Saudi Arabia’s biggest arms supplier, it has competition in that field. Just weeks ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron gushed about the sale of more “brilliant” U.K.-made jet fighters to Saudi, even while reports continue to arrive about likely war crimes in Yemen.

“Over the last year, we have documented dozens of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes that have been indiscriminate or disproportionate that have killed civilians and hit civilian objects in Yemen,” said Belkis Wille, a Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch. “In this context, no country should be sending weapons to Saudi until we see a fundamental change in its behavior around investigating alleged unlawful strikes and compensating victims and their families.”

For now, Canada offers a hopeful test case for using legal means to stop arms supplies to Saudi Arabia. During recent elections there, the deal to sell light-armored vehicles became a campaign issue. The new government, headed by liberal politician Justin Trudeau, has said it would continue with the weapons deal signed by its predecessor, disingenuously defending the sale by describing the vehicles as merely “jeeps.”

Similar deadly equipment has been sold by Canada to Saudi Arabia in the past. Reports from the war in Yemen have suggested that Canadian-made vehicles are being used by the Saudi army in its operations against Houthi rebels. Canada’s export control laws ban arms sales to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens,” and who may use the weapons against civilian populations.

The contract with Saudi Arabia was signed by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of the global arms manufacturer. If successful, the lawsuit would revoke the export permit facilitating the sale, effectively canceling it.

Lawyers involved in the Canadian case say they hope it will help create an international precedent against the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other rights-abusing states.

“This case is in part about sending a message that Canadian weapons should not be used against civilian populations,” said Anne-Julie Asselin, a lawyer at the Quebec firm litigating the case. “But it’s also about setting a precedent. If Saudi Arabia can’t buy these weapons here, we don’t want them to buy them from another country either.”

Top photo: Saudi security forces take part in a military parade in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 17, 2015.

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