Yemen and Canada’s $2.8-billion moral deficit

March 18, 2021

On March 1, Canada’s Minister of International Development Karina Gould pledged $69.9-million in aid to Yemen, now mired in its sixth year of continuous warfare. Gould stated, “Yemen is undergoing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and its people deserve decisive action. Their suffering must end, and their rights and dignity must be protected. We must do everything possible to make this happen.”

These sentiments, laudable as they are, must be set against Canada’s actions in arming combatants in the war—the United Arab Emirates and, in particular, Saudi Arabia, which leads a coalition of countries that militarily support the Yemeni government.

Of course, Canada is not the only country providing both weapons and aid. The United Kingdom, for example, is continuing to authorize arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while also providing aid to Yemen. Ironically, this year, it reduced the amount of aid by half.

Yemen had experienced instability and insecurity prior to the eruption of conflict. Now, war has compounded every problem.

In these and other cases, there is a significant disparity between the escalating value of arms sold to parties to the conflict and the relatively meager amount of aid directed to Yemen.  Adding the two results in a moral deficit.


Yemen’s civil war has had a horrific impact on civilians and infrastructure. And there is no military or humanitarian solution in sight.

By the end of 2020, Yemen’s civil war had resulted in the deaths of 230,000 Yemenis, including tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured directly due to hostilities. Four million Yemenis are internally displaced, while more than 260,000 have fled the country since 2015. Of 24 million people in need, roughly 2.2 million are malnourished children and 16.2 million are food insecure. Almost all of Yemen’s population of approximately 29 million is threatened by communicable diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, and COVID-19.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has destroyed critical infrastructure—hospitals, schools, gas stations, roads, and more. Blockades of Houthi-held territories have drastically reduced access to aid, food, and clean water.

Yemen had experienced instability and insecurity prior to the eruption of conflict. Now, war has compounded every problem.


Consistently one of the top 10 international donors to Yemen, Canada has given more than $30-million annually since 2017. In 2019, Canada gave nearly $37-million, its highest donation to that point.

But Canada is also benefiting hugely from selling arms to the war’s combatants—in particular, light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, Canada exported arms valued at $2.8-billion to the Saudis—more than 77 times the dollar value of Canadian aid to Yemen in the same year. Not only morally suspect, such sales may well be illegal.

Failing to meet international obligations

Human rights groups, including Project Ploughshares, have opposed arms sales to the Saudis for many years. One reason is because such sales contravene the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

As a State Party to the ATT, Canada must meet certain obligations, including assessing the risk that the end-user of exported arms will employ those arms in abusing human rights. A determination that such a risk exists requires that a State Party halt exports. Canada has seemed unwilling to fulfill this duty.

Saudi Arabia has faced a great deal of scrutiny and criticism over its abysmal and thoroughly documented record of human-rights abuses. Consider the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government in 2018.

At that time, Canada did, temporarily, halt new weapons exports to the Saudis, although previously approved transfers continued. However, in April 2020, less than a month after the UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hold on weapons exports was lifted.

There is also evidence that Saudi Arabia has illegally used imported weapons, including Canadian-made weapons, in Yemen. The 2020 Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts in Yemen report explicitly named Canada as one of a small group of countries that “continued their support of parties to the conflict, including through arms transfers, thereby helping to perpetuate the conflict.”

Moral High Ground

Yemen needs international assistance—desperately. It needs aid—medicine and food and portable hospitals and temporary shelters. But not so the war can go on and arms dealers can continue to reap unholy profits.

Yemen needs a just and lasting peace. What is Canada, along with its allies, prepared to do to bring this about?

Canada can no longer pretend that aid dollars and moral posturing make up for its continuing to supply weapons to parties to the war in Yemen. To achieve the moral high ground, Canada must immediately halt arms exports to all such parties, while also engaging actively in efforts to achieve real peace.

Recently, Canadian allies such as the United States, Italy, and Germany have taken decisive action to stop some arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Canada needs to follow their lead. As civil society groups continue to argue, all arms sales and exports to participants in Yemen’s war are prolonging the suffering of the Yemeni people.

Aid is needed and should be increased. But aid without an end to arms exports is, according to Project Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo, “a bit like helping to pay for someone’s crutches after you’ve helped break their legs.”

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