On May 12, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt Canadian arms sales to Israel. His call was in response to the Israeli military conducting airstrikes which have killed dozens of Palestinians, including children, injured hundreds more, and destroyed countless homes. Israeli airstrikes also destroyed the building housing the offices of news agencies Al-Jazeera and the Associated Press.
Others have spoken and written about the apartheid regime imposed upon the Palestinian people more heartfully than I could — others such as Rashida Tlaib, Fayrouz Sharqawi, Mehdi Hasan, the late Michael Brooks — and so I point to their words, and others’. I will note, however, that Newsweek reported on May 15 that Israeli airstrikes on Gaza killed more people in that week alone than rockets fired by Hamas have killed in 20 years.
This article isn’t about Israel, it’s about Canada. Israel is merely one entry in a list of countries Canada sells weapons to which systematically violate human rights, including the massacre of civilians. That is to say, these human rights violations are matters of policy for the governments concerned, and they are integral to the institutions through which those governments act.
In late 2017, Trudeau attended a summit of Asian and Western countries, hosted by the Filipino government of President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.
In his remarks, Trudeau directly criticized the brutal anti-drug campaign of extrajudicial killing being carried out and encouraged by Duterte. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has called for the massacre of people who use or sell drugs by law enforcement and military personnel, and offered rewards to members of the public who did the same.
Thousands of Filipinos have been killed during Duterte’s presidency. In the summit’s closing news conference, Duterte rejected Trudeau’s comments, calling them “bullshit” and stating that he only answers to the Filipino people.
A few months later, in early 2018, it was reported that the Trudeau government had struck a deal to sell 16 combat helicopters to the Phillippine air force. The sale of helicopters to Duterte’s government was particularly notable given the aircraft’s historical association with the “Caravan of Death,” a Pinochet-era Chilean army death squad which travelled primarily by helicopter and was tasked with murdering communists. Pinochet, of course, came to power through a violent military coup supported by the CIA, deposing the democratically elected Salvador Allende. That historical association has led to military helicopters featuring prominently in right-wing death-squad meme culture.
In a 2018 Reuters article, the $233-million deal was described as “under review,” with reports of Canadian officials’ concerns that the helicopters would be used to violently suppress political dissent. The Philippine government offered assurances that the helicopters would not be used against rebel groups. This is an argument regularly advanced by those who defend arms sales by Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. to governments actively subjecting civilian populations to extreme violence. In fact, this is the very substance of the review mentioned above.
This distinction was made clear by the renewed focus on the light armoured vehicle (LAV) deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of the Saudi crown prince. Effectively, the only way Khashoggi’s murder would have impacted the deal is if he had been killed by light armoured vehicles.
This argument strains credulity. The question of whether or not the specific weapons sold in a particular deal are used to violate human rights is irrelevant. For one, it simply allows a government to use other weapons in those actions without fear of leaving itself unarmed. Indeed, that system means that the actions of any government purchasing weapons from Canada have no bearing upon the sale, so long as the Canadian weapons specifically are not used to violate human rights. Clearly that is an insufficient standard by which to determine to whom it is appropriate to sell tools designed for destruction and taking human lives as quickly and efficiently as possible.
However, questioning any particular sale of arms inevitably leads to the fundamental question: why should such weapons be sold at all? According to the records kept by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Canada has been the 15th-largest supplier of arms globally for the last 20 years, having sold more than $4.3 billion worth of military resources. The SIPRI records show that over the same period Canada ranks 23rd among the recipients of arms globally, having acquired more than $6 billion worth of military resources. It isn’t immediately clear that there is an economic-benefit argument to be made, contemptible as such an argument would be. Even if one argues that standing armies are an absolute necessity — we must not, after all, allow a mineshaft gap — that would only require states to permit manufacture of equipment for their own forces. And, if it was simply a matter of selling arms to states which didn’t have the resources to manufacture their own, there would be no cause for Canada to purchase arms and equipment as well.
All this speaks to a particular characteristic of present politics: our removal, as residents, from much of the violence carried out by our government internationally. The turn of the century ushered in an era — shepherded by the war on terror — in which bombings, air strikes, invasions, occupations and other military endeavours the Canadian government directly participates in are simultaneously omnipresent and incredibly distant.
In 2011, officers of the Canadian military led a NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Surely coincidentally, the NATO intervention came two years after the election of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi to the presidency of the African Union, which led to Gaddafi intensifying criticism of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), a consolidated U.S. military base established in 2007.
The intervention led to the public, videotaped, and widely broadcast execution of Gaddafi. In the wake of NATO’s campaign, open-air slave markets have emerged in the region.
That was not the first time. In 1966, Canadian foreign intelligence officials working internationally were instrumental in the removal from office of Pan-Africanist independence leaders Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. In Lumumba’s case, Canada’s involvement led to his body being dissolved in sulfuric acid.
In 2003, Canadian officials hosted the Ottawa Initiative on Haiti, a meeting of North American and European officials in which it was decided that Jean-Bertrand Aristide — Haiti’s first democratically elected president following the Duvalier regime — would be removed from office and replaced with an occupation government. In February 2004, the Aristide government was overthrown.
Haiti is often referred to as the world’s first Black republic, having been born through the historic Haitian Revolution. A recent documentary entitled Haiti Betrayed demonstrates at length the enduring harm of Canada’s intervention and its impacts on the Haitian people.
Canada’s allegiances inevitably further implicate its government. The list of countries which Canada is currently imposing sanctions on includes — among many others — Yemen, a country presently experiencing widespread famine while under blockade by a country armed by Canada; Venezuela, a country in which 40,000 people died between 2017 and mid-2019 due to international sanctions led by the U.S., and in which Canada participated in an attempted “soft coup“; and Libya, a country Canada led the effort to destroy a decade ago. In every case, sanctions harm the most vulnerable.
And none of this even begins to address the Five Eyes Alliance, a post-Second World War agreement between the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to share all signals intelligence (SIGINT) that any of the respective governments gather. This means that everything the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and other Canadian intelligence agencies learn, they give to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In 2014, The Intercept reported the NSA’s involvement in the U.S. military’s global unilateral assassination program. In The Drone Papers they documented the extent of that program.
Earlier this year, on April 12, the Canadian government cancelled export licenses which would have permitted the sale of drone systems to the Turkish government. However, this came after the government had already quietly reversed an earlier suspension of the same licenses applied in October 2019, after the Turkish military advanced into Kurdish-controlled regions of northeastern Syria. In response to the cancellation in April, Turkey accused Canada of hypocritical double standards, given the Canadian government’s ongoing arming of Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government is correct.
But, more pressing than the policies of any one government is our acceptance of military operations overall. While we would never consent to bombs being dropped on our homes, we rationalize when they are dropped on the homes of other people. Though if we were forced to flee our communities in fear or desperation — cross entire countries on foot, risk our lives and those of our children in insecure boats — we would be stunned by the cruelty of those who turned us away at their borders, but nonetheless turn people away ourselves. Our closest ally, the United States, repeatedly asserts the right to kill whoever, wherever, and however it wants, and still we expect other nations to greet us as a peacebringer. It is an affront to the entire world.
The Trudeau government recently failed in an attempt to attain a seat on the UN Security Council. Who can say what they would have done with it?
Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer, and works in the labour movement in British Columbia. He focuses on political and economic inequity and inequality, both within Canada and as produced by Canadian policy.
Image credit: Iyad al Baba/Oxfam International/Flickr