Commentary / World

Canada's thorny arms deal

by Ramesh Thakur

Negotiated by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2014, a $15 billion Canada-Saudi Arabia arms deal would see Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems manufacture light-armored military vehicles for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. In a joint open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on April 25, the heads of 16 development, human rights and arms control groups in Canada — including Amnesty International, Project Ploughshares and the Rideau Institute — laid out the case for rescinding the agreement.

Their opposition is based on two elements. First, they argue that “such a large supply of lethal weapons to a regime with such an appalling record of human rights abuses is immoral and unethical.” The regime uses an array of weapons, including light arms, to harass, intimidate and attack political opponents and protesters.

The second element is that it violates both the spirit and letter of domestic export controls and international human rights law. The Riyadh regime, they insist, satisfies the criterion of “persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens” for refusing the export of Canadian arms. Moreover, it is also “involved in or under imminent threat of hostilities” in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been alleged, by a U.N. panel of experts, to have carried out crimes against humanity by targeting civilians.

The Harper and Trudeau governments have dissembled, deflected and evaded the question of how the authorization to proceed with the deal is compatible with Canada’s export control regulatory regime for arms deals. Two successive governments have performed Olympic-quality verbal gymnastics to justify the deal with reference to economic and job creation benefits, contractual obligations, and credibility and reputational costs. But Canada must also honor its international human rights obligations, not just its contractual arms supply obligations, the opponents say. The integrity and credibility of Canada’s export control regime would be gravely compromised with delivery of the military vehicles to Riyadh.

The threshold for rejecting exports is not certainty of abuses based on irrefutable evidence — a threshold so high that it would make a mockery of any attempt to regulate arms sales to unsavory regimes — but a reasonable risk. Export authorizations should be granted only for end-users in full compliance with applicable safeguards, and no reasonable observer can assert this to be the case with Saudi Arabia. In conclusion, the groups expressed their conviction that “the decision to proceed with this arms deal undermines not only the public’s trust in our export control system, but also the core values that define Canada’s character as a nation.”

Ethics, norms and the rule of law are indeed important Canadian national attributes. International politics is never simply a struggle for power and wealth maximization; it is just as much a struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures. Underlying the struggle for power are ethical contestations over the norms and values that constitute international society as a collective entity, and also the individual international state-actors engaged in global social practices. The balance of power by itself cannot provide order and stability to keep anarchy at bay; it has to be underpinned by a common set of values and international practices appropriate to them.

Both principles and power are embedded in international institutions at the center of which lies the United Nations. The liberal international order after 1945 was crafted essentially by the West and maintained largely by the United States. The world is at the intersection of two major long-term trends: a shift from the power toward the normative end of the spectrum as the pivot on which history turns; and a realignment of global power equations as the pendulum of history swings back to mute the relative role and influence of the West in structuring world order. The emergence of a polycentric global order represents a serious challenge to the post-1945 liberal international order, not so much because the rising powers reject the ethical underpinnings of the order, but because the status quo powers have subjected others to “global” norms while exempting themselves from the same norms. The prime global exhibit of this double standard remains the 2003 Iraq War.

As relative power shifts away from the West, the ability of Western countries to exempt themselves from the reach of global norms — on human rights, international criminal justice, the rule of law, the use of force, the possession of nuclear weapons — will lessen. That is, the West is losing its ability to impose policy preferences, values and double standards on the rest. Hence the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s refusal to share a stage with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Johannesburg in August 2012, saying Blair belonged in the dock at The Hague, alongside the many African leaders there, for his role in the Iraq War in 2003.

Similarly, on April 28, Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, criticized the Obama administration’s hypocrisy and double standards in attacking Russia’s military presence in Ukraine in light of the U.S. military presence in Syria: “How can we criticize the Russian incursion into Ukrainian sovereignty when we are carrying out escalating military operations in Syria without the permission and really even against the will of the sovereign nation?”

Canada is not immune from the international hypocrisy syndrome. In June 2011, the Harper government voted to block asbestos from being added to the hazardous chemicals list of the U.N.’s Rotterdam Convention. Canada had also opposed the listing of asbestos at the convention’s meetings in 2004, 2006 and 2008; and abstained at the subsequent meetings in 2013 and 2015. Asbestos is still not listed because of the objections of seven countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Not that Canada didn’t believe in the existing scientific consensus at the time: Asbestos could not then legally be sold within Canada because of tough health regulations. But Canada was happy to mine, ship and make money from asbestos at the cost of large numbers of Third World lives. This was arguably an even more deeply immoral Canadian export, but it never attracted a similar level of scrutiny and opposition.

The same Harper government had the chutzpah to boast of conducting a “principled” foreign policy, in the pursuit of which Harper unsuccessfully lobbied other Commonwealth prime ministers at the 2011 summit (the same year that Ottawa blocked the effort to end international trade in asbestos) in Perth to boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit to be held in Sri Lanka because of human rights abuses by Colombo. Harper refused to attend, with cynics suggesting he was courting the ethnic Tamil vote in Toronto more than suddenly elevating ethics as a priority goal in Canada’s foreign policy.

The Saudi arms deal brings into sharp relief the collision between Canada’s self-righteous national identity and a self-interested foreign policy. Like all countries, Canada can pursue a normative (“principled”), transactional or “mixed-motives” foreign policy. But it cannot engage simultaneously in transactional diplomacy itself that prioritizes the pursuit of material interests while sharply criticizing others for not hewing to a moral principle at the cost of their material interests.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.