Bahrain uprising, 2011

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Five years after the waves of popular protest spread excitedly across the Arab world, little seems to have improved.

Egypt is again being presided over by an autocrat embroiled in high-level corruption; Libya, Yemen and Syria are being blown apart in civil wars that seem to have no end in sight. 

Then there’s Bahrain, the tiny, nearly forgotten Gulf island kingdom that quietly suppressed its own mass uprising on Feb. 14, five years ago. It was a brutal uprising in which rights groups allege Ottawa played a direct hand.

Soon after a group of Bahraini youth issued a call on social media for people to take to the streets in a “peaceful and orderly manner,” thousands poured into the the country’s public square. Within minutes, security forces opened fire. Three people were killed and dozens wounded. 

Then the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council army rolled in, dispatching more than a thousand troops. The army tear-gassed and beat protesters.

Women and children were fired on with live ammunition, medics were prevented from tending to the wounded and hospitals were barricaded by troops. “The international image the authorities have attempted to project of the country as a progressive reformist state committed to human rights masks a far more sinister truth,” Said Boumedouha, a deputy director at Amnesty International declared last year.

What does this have to with Canada? Some of the military vehicles used by the GCC may have been built and made by General Dynamics Land Systems, a company based in London, Ontario. The government has not denied this, only that it doesn’t believe the vehicles were used to attack protesters.

These armoured vehicles are at the heart of a debate raging over the extraordinary $15-billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia announced by Ottawa in 2014.

Across party lines, Canada’s position on arms dealing with governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has been crystal-clear: Where business interests and human rights may conflict, business prevails.

Earlier this month, Canadian officials visited Kuwait to talk up business. Montreal-based civil and military flight simulator company CAE recently built a flight simulator for the Kuwait Air Force, one of several Arab states currently flying fighter jets in Yemen that according to the United Nations, have killed or injured more than 8,000 civilians over the last eight months in a Saudi-led coalition.

“Great visit to @CAE_Defence’s impressive new KC-130J flight sim[ulator] & facility with @CanadaKuwait CDN Ambassador Moreau,” Cameron McKenzie, a vice president at the Canadian Commercial Corporation, recently tweeted.

But General Dynamics and CAE aren’t the only Canadian companies happily supplying Gulf regimes with defence and arms outfits. According to Bahrain’s Tender Board website, Guelph-based internet filtering company Netsweeper has offered the government a “national website filtering solution” for $1.17 million.

In other words, they’re happy to stifle legitimate political dissent and actively contribute to human rights abuses in Bahrain — which, like Saudi Arabia, sentences bloggers, poets and activists to life sentences and is widely known to torture detainees.

In a damning report released last week by U.K.-based human rights group Bahrain Watch, Netsweeper’s presupposed bid to censor the country’s internet is analyzed in painstaking detail. The company is considered one of the world’s leading web filtering companies, and they boast a database of over eight billion categorized web pages, and a rate of adding more than 22 million URLs each day.

“The reason they’re so good is because of the specific categorizations they provide on the websites. You can block a certain type of political content,” says Travis Brimhall, a researcher at Bahrain Watch. “They also do packet-level monitoring which means whenever information is transferred across the web and is broken down into pieces, Netsweeper can analyze even the smallest little bits that travel.”

It’s not the first time Netsweeper has come under fire for censoring the Internet for foreign clients. In 2011 and 2012, Netsweeper’s technology was documented blocking access to human rights, religious, and independent journalism resources on state-operated ISPs in Qatar, UAE and Yemen.  

According to their website, Netsweeper actually strives to “create a safer society.” They say their product can be used to protect users from malicious attacks online, and filter dangerous content for young students in schools.

Fair enough — but in 2012, the company used to advertise their product as a means to censor content “based on social, religious, or political ideals.” And in 2011, when pressed about the use of their product by repressive regimes, a spokesperson said: “There is no good conversation for us to have” on the issue.

Actually, there are plenty of good conversations to have, starting from the ethics of doing business with despotic regimes.

Why are Canadian companies helping to quell legitimate dissent and promoting human rights abuses in Gulf countries? And can Ottawa set up new ethical standards of acceptable behaviour for companies that export censorship and surveillance technologies?

In other areas of diplomacy, the Trudeau government has demonstrated boldness and courage in reclaiming Canada’s reputation on the world stage: Ending air strikes against Islamic State, and throwing open its doors to thousands of Syrian refugees.

How does it make sense to take those steps while simultaneously selling arms and censorship technologies to some of the worst human rights abusers on earth?

Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance writer and part-time journalism instructor at Humber College. She is a former producer and writer with Al Jazeera English, BBC News, and CBC. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Middle East Eye and Muftah magazine. She holds an MA degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies and can be followed @mskermalli.

This article was originally published in The Embassy.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Shenaz Kermalli

Shenaz Kermalli

Shenaz is a former producer and writer with Al Jazeera English, BBC News, and CBC Television. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, The Huffington...