“I want to make a promise to you, the reader. And I don’t know if I can fulfill it tomorrow, or even the day after that. But I put the bastards of this world on notice, that I do not have their best interests at heart. I will try and speak for my reader, that is my promise. And it will be a voice made of ink and rage.”
-Paul Kemp, The Rum Diaries
I’m not much for manifestos, especially ones containing simplistic dichotomies and easy condemnations, but I have a soft spot for Paul Kemp and his alter-ego, Hunter S. Thompson. And today I feel like I’ve founds some real rat bastards; that I’ve get a legitimate reason to muster some rage.
As part of my thesis project, I’ve been studying the recent Canadian trade agreement to export $14.8 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia. I’ve been looking at the ins-and-outs, the arguments and counter-arguments, and have come to the conclusion that there is no ethical argument for the deal, nor even a way to credibly pretend that the deal is ethical. Justin Trudeau, that shirtless panda cuddler, and his Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion are neither living up to their campaign promise to join and abide by the ATT (Arms Trade Treaty), nor living up to the traditional liberal values for internationalism and human rights. They have 14.8 billion reasons to hunker down and hold the course on this deal, and so hunker and hold they have. So far Trudeau has shown himself to be a fan of the cute and the costless, photo-ops and Buzzfeed-worthy catchphrases, rather than the courageous course-corrector his party made him out to be.
It’s old news now that the Liberals were lying when they claimed the previous Conservative government had set the LAV deal in stone and it couldn’t be reviewed. It’s old news that Stephane Dion signed the export permits for the LAVs in an early-April frenzy before a pending lawsuit could force the government to disclose that the deal had not yet navigated this critical hurdle It’s even older news that Trudeau’s claim that LAVs are “just jeeps” is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, as is Trudeau’s election claim that the deal is really between a private company and the Saudis.
On this issue at least, the only difference between Harper and Trudeau is that only one of them was pretty enough to appear on the cover of Vogue. And since this isn’t a Disney movie where ‘pretty’ is shorthand for goodness and virtue, I don’t think that makes a lick of difference (sorry to burst your bubble, Canada).
Still, the real source of my anger this week are two documents released in April just after Dion’s permit signing got made public. The first is a press release from Dion himself and the second is an iPolitics article from former Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley titled “We can’t always sell weapons to people we like.” I’m a little late to the party here, but that doesn’t mean this party is over.
Dion is the current minister, so his release is official government statement on the deal. He lays out the Liberal’s reasons for support one by one, beginning with…
“Credibility: We will not weaken the credibility of the signature of the Government of Canada.”
Remember how during the election campaign Trudeau claimed the LAV deal didn’t really involve the government? Well it does. The CCC (Canadian Commercial Corporation) is a crown organization that facilitates military exports between Canadian suppliers and foreign buyers. In essence, both sides sign a contract with the CCC, which negotiates all the red tape and enforces compliances. Dion is admitting that his Prime Minister may not have been entirely truthful with how he presented the deal.
Additionally, the deal was contingent upon the export permits being signed. So technically Canada could have backed out without going back on its word…
Until Dion signed the permits…
Five days before publishing this release.
“Choosing the right lever to improve human rights in Saudi Arabia
The Government of Canada is committed to advancing human rights everywhere, including in Saudi Arabia. We do not miss an opportunity to raise issues with our Saudi Arabian counterparts, nor do we miss opportunities for positive engagement. There are over 16,000 Saudi Arabian students attending our universities, which will likely help to promote the liberalization of Saudi Arabian society. If we drop the contract, we will set back the clock on these productive efforts. And we will simply hand the contract to a non-Canadian—potentially more ambivalent—provider.”
Now here’s an argument only a politician would make. In essence, if we cancel a contract to export 14.8 billion in weapons to a repressive regime, it could damage our ability to educate their students in our liberal democratic values. So really, it would be a crime against human rights NOT TO export weapons to Saudi Arabia!
I should add that those 16,000 Saudi students also generate quite the profit for our Canadian universities, although I’m sure that doesn’t matter to a moral stalwart like Dion.
“Continual rigorous oversight of human rights
The government having made the decision to honour the contract, it is then my responsibility to determine whether it is appropriate to authorize export permits for these LAVs. Last Friday, I made the decision to grant the export permits.
Since 1986, Canada has had a stringent process in place for approving export permits for the sale of military equipment. One of the considerations is whether the equipment being sold would be used to violate human rights. Different versions of this military equipment were provided by Canadian companies to Saudi Arabia since 1993; our best, and regularly updated, information indicates that Saudi Arabia has not misused the equipment to violate human rights. Nor has the equipment been used in a manner contrary to the strategic interests of Canada and its allies.
For the future, as with all export permits, the minister of foreign affairs retains the power to revoke at any time the permits should the assessment change.”
Since 1986 Canada has routinely and egregiously violated the official guidelines by which the government is supposed to control export permits. I think we managed to avoid selling to the now-dissolved Soviet Union and possibly North Korea, but even this secret memo released in April can’t hide the reality that Saudi Arabia is just about the bottom of the human rights barrel. So if our “stringent” export approval processes allow us to sell to the Saudis, then who can’t we sell to?
(The official answer is North Korea and Belarus, in case you were wondering.)
“Security matters: Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner in an increasingly volatile region, particularly in the armed conflict against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Supporting our partners is essential in preventing the chaos, lawlessness, atrocities and terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIL, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups active in the region and beyond.”
Saudi Arabia is the key Arab ally of the U.S., and therefore it is a strategic Canadian ally as well. Just as none of our export guidelines seem to apply to military exports to the U.S., so none of our guidelines seem to apply to Saudi Arabia. Supporting repressive regimes has been a national past-time in the West for at least the last century, and consequently it appears to be a patriotic duty to sell arms to the Mubaraks and Husseins and Sauds of the world.
Canada’s Export Controls Handbook lists six key policy goals considered in the decision to allow or disallow a military export. The third goal is that exports “do not contribute to national or regional conflicts or instability.” Exporting to Saudi Arabia, which is currently involved in a proxy war with Iran, a hot war in Yemen, and an internal struggle against various dissidents, is in obviously violation of this goal.
But then again, so was selling arms to the Americans during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam), but that didn’t stop us.
“The economy matters: Any time a contract is broken, financial penalties are sure to follow. In this case, it is the Canadian taxpayer who is on the hook. Cancellation would deprive almost 2,000 workers of their livelihood, principally in London, Ontario. We must take into account the chain of repercussions for an industry on which around 70,000 Canadian jobs directly depend and which plays an important role in fostering research and development in Canada.”
General Motors used to operate a diesel division plant in London, Ontario that produced buses and earth-moving equipment. In the late ‘70s the faltering plant took on a government contract to produce armoured vehicles as a temporary reprieve. Since then the plant has produced thousands of LAVs for a number of countries around the world, subsisting contract to contract and holding the Canadian export office as a sort of economic hostage.
What do I mean ‘hostage’? Well, the plant (which has been under the ownership of General Dynamics since 2003) exists in a state of export dependency. The Canadian military alone cannot keep the plant running on its orders alone, and therefore the plant has had to find foreign customers for its LAVs as an order of business. Since most of our NATO allies already have the capacity to build armoured vehicles (or require significant economic concessions to buy Canadian), the developing world is generally considered to be our best customer. And since the plant survives basically contract to contract, if the Canadian government were to deny export permits for a major contract (essentially blocking the sale), it would potentially force the plant into bankruptcy, taking the livelihoods of 2000+ Canadians with it.
No government wants to take direct responsibility for destroying 2000+ jobs and a major military industrial plant with one moment of regrettable ethical clarity.
Really, the creation of export-dependent military production plants is a form of economic blackmail to protect the Canadian arms industry from true regulation. And every time the government encourages arms production and export as a way of buttressing Canadian military production, we create more export dependency and concede more power to our military industrial complex.
It’s the economy, stupid.
“We have decided to honour this contract, which provides thousands of jobs for Canadian families, and be more vigilant than ever about human rights. That is responsible conviction.”
Dion closes with this line, which I think is one of the best examples of Orwellian double think I have ever read.
There is nothing responsible about proclaiming that you are going to do both things if they cannot mutually coexist.
Dion is at least sensible enough to try to disguise his utter disregard for Saudi human rights in the face of economic gain. Manley, on the other hand, seems to view himself as a Canuck Machiavelli. Even his title is a doozy of a realpolitik trope, which, on second thought, seems insane.
“We can’t always sell weapons to people we like”? Why the hell not? This isn’t 1939, we’re not arming the Stalinists in a proxy war against the bloody Wehrmacht. It’s 2016 (as Trudeau keeps reminding us). Today we argue over whether we have to sell WEDDING CAKES to people we don’t like; and we’ve sort of learned our lesson that EVERY SINGLE TIME WE ARM SOMEBODY WE DON’T LIKE, it comes back to bite us in the ass. Of course, in this case “somebody we don’t like” is code for tyrants, religious fanatics, genocidal dictators, trigger-happy separatists, etc.
I don’t know what Manley was doing in the 90s when his party was trying to use Canada’s status as a middle power to advance the causes of internationalization and human security, but he apparently missed the memo that massive, destabilizing arms transfers to conflict regions like the Middle East are neither in the best interest of Canadian foreign policy, nor Canadian security.
“The minister and his colleagues are, of course, right to say that the sale was negotiated and approved before they assumed office. The fact that the minister’s signature was required on the final export permits in no way contradicts the reality that to have refused to sign those permits would have breached a contract previously entered into by the Government of Canada.
If I sign an agreement to sell my house, the transaction is not completed until the day I sign the papers transferring ownership of the property to the buyer. But if I refuse to do the latter, I am clearly in breach of my prior agreement.”
This is Manley engaging in utter bullshit. Canadian export permits for military goods are not meant to be a formality like a property ownership transfer, but instead the carefully considered result of a rigorous process independent of the two parties engaging in the contract. Manley acts as if the export permits are largely irrelevant, which shows a shocking disregard for Canada’s commitment to a restrictive military export policy, as well as the potential misuse of Canadian-build LAVs by Saudi Arabia.
Was this guy seriously our Foreign Minister at one point?
“First, the defence industry is a key driver of economic activity and an important source of high-value employment. The sector encompasses more than 650 firms, supports more than 65,000 full-time jobs across the country and contributes an estimated $6 billion a year to our country’s GDP. Exports account for half of Canada’s total defence industry revenues.”
This is the same argument Dion made. The arms trade supports the Canadian economy, and therefore we shouldn’t hinder it over something as trivial as Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
“Whether one believes that Canada should offer its forces only in support of peacekeeping (a view I don’t happen to share), or should play a more robust role in global affairs, our armed forces plainly need vehicles, uniforms and ordinance to carry out their duties.
Given that requirement, it stands to reason that Canadians should want to design and manufacture this equipment — and if we’re doing so, the economics of scale dictate exporting those same products.”
Every national military dreams about developing a military industrial base capable of manufacturing all of its material requirements domestically. Unfortunately, as the complexity of military hardware has increased, it’s become increasingly difficult to maintain a high level of domestic production. The U.S. is probably the closest to having an independent military industrial complex, and they can only accomplish it by being the world’s biggest international arms dealer.
Yes, it makes sense economically to export LAVs, that’s never been the issue. The problem (as with all of Manley’s arguments so far) is that one cannot make direct comparisons between economics of exporting military systems and that of exporting, say, socks. Military exports are almost always sold directly to a foreign government, and have a direct effect upon said government’s ability to wage war and influence geopolitical safety and security. Yes, it may make economic sense to export LAVs to subsidize our own production costs, but that does not mean it makes strategic or ethical sense.
The current glut of arms production in the global market has been caused by a lot of countries making a lot of smart economic decisions about their arms production without considering other factors. And that glut of arms (especially small arms and light weapons) has enabled countless conflicts around the world in the last century. In the long run, I suspect that the arms trade has cost us more in human life, aid transfers, and economic destruction, than we will ever make running guns.
Manley goes on to argue that Saudi Arabia is not a “friend” but an “interest” that Canada is supporting as a proxy against Iran. He wonders what worse evil will rise in Saudi Arabia if the current government falls, and mentions that 23 Canadian soldiers are buried in Egypt as evidence of Canadians long involvement in the region.
There are multiple books written about the complicated history of western nations meddling in the Middle East, and I won’t waste my time summarizing them. Let’s just say that supporting the evil we know to maintain the status quo is not a particularly viable strategy, especially if by ‘support’ we actually mean ‘make $14.8 billion by selling them weapons.’
Let’s not pretend that this is anything more than Canada benefiting from the gravy train that is Saudi Arabia’s massive appetite for imported arms. Bluntly, we are offsetting our trade deficit in oil imports by selling weapons.
“Third, as a mature country, we have to be able to deal with governments and regimes with which we do not always agree. The world is full of countries that do not share our values and beliefs. Should we adopt a policy of refusing to trade with people whose values are out of line with our own? Regrettably, that might leave us with a rather limited number of potential customers.”
Once again, Manley conflates normal economic activity with the arms trade. Being a “mature country” does not mean that we have to sell weapons to whoever has the money to pay for them. If it did, then I doubt our Canadian ‘values’ would be anything worth bragging about.
“Canada, it should be pointed out, is not supplying the Saudis with equipment that can be used in torture or persecution of women. We are selling military vehicles — basically fancy trucks — of the sort that are required by any country’s armed forces, and which we happen to be good at making.”
Both Trudeau and Manley have made the claim that LAVs are just trucks, which is true…if you happen to believe that armoured personnel carriers with mounted weapons and sophisticated military systems are basically the same as your Toyota Tacoma. Military trucks and LAVs are not interchangeable, and both are designed to fill very different functions.
I’d like to ask Trudeau, if, since they’re just trucks, he’d let me buy one to roll around Lethbridge in…stopping occasionally to take potshots at magpies with the 105mm anti-tank cannon.
“Finally, I find myself wondering whether the people who are now loudly proclaiming that we should block the sale of military vehicles to the Saudis are being equally vigorous in their support of a pipeline from Alberta to the East Coast — a pipeline that would reduce and perhaps end our dependence on oil imports from that same country. Somehow, I doubt it.”
Non-Sequitur. Red Herring. False comparison.
It saddens me that we live in a country which can congratulate itself so loudly on its liberal and progressive principles, and then forget those principles like a bad dream in pursuit of $14.8 billion. We’ve got some politicians acting like real rat bastards right now in regards to this deal, and I’m hoping that they are going to grow some ethics before it’s too late.
I don’t want to wake up in three to four years and watch BBC or CNN airing video clips of Canadian-made LAVs firing on protesters in Bahrain or Riyadh.* I don’t want to have to wait for the inevitable press conference where some uncomfortable-looking bureaucrat claims that the Canadian government couldn’t have foreseen this sudden and condemnable violence — and don’t you know it was the previous government that signed the contract?
To the bastards of the world: you still have a chance to do the right thing.
*CBC won’t air them, because CBC will be too busy covering a ‘upcoming Canadian artist’ protesting cultural genocide via kazoo before a rapt audience of ‘lovable Canadian personality’ Ben Mulroney.