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Canada's largest labour group urged to condemn Saudi weapons deal

Canadian Labour Congress must denounce Canadian arms shipments to Riyadh as Yemen war rages, letter reads
War in Yemen has killed tens of thousands and ravaged the country (AFP/File photo)
By in
Montreal, Canada

A group of Canadian university professors, union leaders, human rights activists and others has urged the country's largest labour organisation to condemn a multi-billion-dollar agreement to ship Canadian-made weapons to Saudi Arabia.

In an open letter published on Wednesday, the signatories called on the Canadian Labour Congress "to express public opposition" to the deal.

Inked under Canada's previous conservative government and later pushed through by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals, the $11bn ($15bn Canadian) agreement involves sending light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

"On this issue, Canada's labour movement is uniquely situated to bring pressure to bear on the Liberal government," the letter reads. 

'It is unionised Canadian workers - in manufacturing plants, on railways, and in ports - who have the power to stop the production and shipment of weapons of war to the Saudi regime'

- Letter to Canadian Labour Congress

"It is unionised Canadian workers - in manufacturing plants, on railways, and in ports - who have the power to stop the production and shipment of weapons of war to the Saudi regime."

The Canadian Labour Congress represents three million workers across Canada, the group says on its website.

Trudeau, who is up for reelection in October, has faced consistent pressure to cancel the deal with Riyadh in light of Saudi human rights abuses both domestically and in Yemen, where Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman launched a devastating war in 2015.

That pressure mounted even more after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi government agents inside the country's Istanbul consulate last October.

Wednesday's letter was signed by several university professors across Canada and the United States, and it was also endorsed by the Council of Canadians, a prominent civil society group, and British Columbia's Government and Service Employees' Union.

"There is credible evidence that Canadian weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are being used in the devastating war in Yemen," it reads.

"And while the Saudi-led coalition continues to commit serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Yemen, Saudi Arabia also has a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of its citizens."

Ottawa stands by deal

Trudeau's government has so far refused to cancel the weapons deal, despite pressure from rights groups and others.

In October last year, the prime minister said Ottawa had the power to suspend future export permits to Saudi Arabia, but the existing agreement is structured in a way that "makes it very difficult to suspend or leave the contract".

"I do not want to leave Canadians holding a billion-dollar bill because we're trying to move forward on doing the right thing," Trudeau said at the time. "So we're navigating this very carefully."

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The Canadian company involved in shipping those weapons - Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada - also warned Ottawa in December 2018 that cancelling the deal would force the government to "incur billions of dollars of liability".

That figure has been contested, however, with Canadian rights campaigners continuing to call for Ottawa to scrap the deal.

Similar attempts to stop weapons shipments to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the war in Yemen have gained traction in the US and the United Kingdom, among other places.

Earlier this year, US lawmakers passed a measure that sought to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war-torn country, but that piece of legislation was vetoed by President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, the UK ordered a halt to all new export permits to the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in the Yemen war following the British government's defeat in court.

The ongoing war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed millions more to the brink of starvation.