SPECIAL REPORT: "No Credible Evidence" - Canada's flawed analysis of arms exports to Saudi Arabia

August 11, 2021


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The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral international agreement aiming to regulate international trade in conventional arms, entered into force on 24 December 2014. The treaty is a direct response to the absence of regulations and lax controls on the global arms trade, which has contributed to the widespread availability and misuse of weapons. The increased accessibility of weapons has heightened the risks of arms being used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) by state security forces, non-state armed groups and organized criminal groups.

On 13 April 2017, prior to becoming a State Party, Canada introduced Bill C-47 to address the shortcomings of its own export assessment process under the Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA). Mandatory criteria were introduced into Canadian law to provide structured guidance to the Foreign Affairs Minister’s decision-making process on the authorization of exports. The goal was to ensure that these mandatory criteria be considered prior to the issuance of new permits, and to regulate the practice of brokering, arranging and negotiating export and import transactions of controlled goods outside of Canada.

Soon after Canada’s enhanced arms export process was introduced, one major importer of Canadian-made weapons became the subject of widespread scrutiny and condemnation: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Khashoggi, a prominent journalist, was murdered by Saudi agents after criticizing KSA’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi’s murder catalyzed public outcry denouncing KSA’s poor human rights record. In response to the murder, Canada suspended the approval of new arms export permits for KSA in November 2018. However, this suspension did not affect permits already approved.

On 17 September 2019, Canada acceded to the ATT. Contrary to the government’s claim that “[a]s per Canada’s practice for all international treaties, Canada will be fully compliant with all its obligations upon accession to the ATT,” the statutory regime under Bill C-47 and Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) assessment process are fundamentally flawed, because they fail to implement all Canada’s international obligations under the ATT.

After Bill C-47 received royal assent on 13 December 2018 and following accession to the ATT in 2019, Canada did not cancel export permits to KSA. Canada continues to export armoured vehicles, as well as sniper rifles and other arms, to KSA despite extensively documented domestic human rights violations and KSA’s involvement in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Due to the risk that these weapons pose in Saudi arsenals, Canadian arms exports to KSA have received intense domestic condemnation. Civil society groups have continuously pressured the government of Canada to revoke existing export permits.

In April 2020, the government of Canada published its Final Report: Review of export permits to Saudi Arabia (Final Report). The Final Report argued that Canada’s export of armoured vehicles to KSA, as well as other weapons systems, posed “no substantial risk” of facilitating any of the “negative consequences” referred to in subsection 7.3(1) of the EIPA. Following the publication of the Final Report, the freeze on the issuance of new export permits – imposed after the murder of Khashoggi – was lifted. Thus, Canadian exports of weapons to KSA continue unabated.

The Final Report’s assessment and subsequent analysis were conducted exclusively under the EIPA, while ignoring Canada’s obligations under the ATT. Although Canada claims that the EIPA as amended by Bill C-47 meets Canada’s obligations as a signatory to the ATT, a legal analysis comparing Canadian law with the ATT demonstrates that it does not.

In this report, Amnesty International and Project Ploughshares will provide a thorough assessment of Canada’s exports of arms to KSA, drawing upon international treaties, domestic legislation and United Nations (UN) expert reports released up until the publication of Canada’s Final Report. We illustrate that Canadian law and practice are inconsistent with aspects of the ATT, explore the flawed analysis conducted by GAC outlined in the Final Report, and conduct a comprehensive analysis of Canadian exports to KSA as mandated by the ATT.

Photo: Several variants of Saudi LAVs on display during the Northern Thunder military exercise in Saudi Arabia, 2016. Credit: Saudi Press Agency