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What does it mean to ''Immorally Use a Canadian-Made Military Vehicle in Saudi Arabia?''

August 10, 2017

I wish to consider briefly the following question: “what does it mean to immorally use a Canadian-made military vehicle in Saudi Arabia?”  

(Substitute other countries if you like.  I use Saudi Arabia because of the current controversy.)

Here is an easy answer. 

A Canadian-made vehicle is immorally used in Saudi Arabia provided that it is directly used by Saudi forces against civilians.

It strikes me that defence contractors and the Trudeau government would like you to focus on the easy answer.

Note that the easy answer makes (at least) two presuppositions.

(1) that there must be a strict identification of the vehicle

(2) that the vehicle is directly used in the operation. 

Strict identification is difficult to obtain as different vehicles may look very similar.  This helps to explain why the courts, about six months ago, said that there was no evidence to the effect that Canadian-made military vehicles in particular were being used in Saudi Arabia against civilians.  But even if one could establish that Canadian-made vehicles are at the scene of rights violations, the second presupposition still needs to be met.

“Directly used” seems to mean the following: that the Canadian-made military vehicle is actually engaged in violence against civilians.  So, as some would say, “just because Canadian-made vehicles are there, that is not necessarily a problem.”

Both of these presuppositions could be reasonably challenged.

Regarding (1), if we could establish both that the Saudi forces use non-Canadian military vehicles against civilians and that those vehicles are substantially similar to Canadian-made vehicles, we have a case for deep moral concern. 

Here is an analogy. 

If you made small kitchen knives for a living and you knew that a person had used similar knives as yours in violent ways, would you simply sell that person your knives and claim no responsibility? 

Probably not. 

The whole issue of background checks for weapons purchases relies on such reasoning.  “Yes, but he never killed with that particular make of weapon” is not an excuse many would accept.

Regarding (2), there is a lot of play in the term “directly used”. 

If the vehicle is at the place of the violations, but didn’t discharge its weapons, only brought troops to the location, would we say that the vehicle was “directly used”? 

Maybe not. 

Indeed, video of a Canadian-made vehicle merely transporting troops to an operation would not be nearly as shocking as seeing a Canadian-made vehicle actually firing on civilians, but that does not mean we should dismiss the use of Canadian-made vehicles to transport troops as non-problematic. 

If Canadian-made machines play a vital role in violations of human rights, even an indirect role, we have a serious ethical problem on our hands.

How should we define “indirectly used”?  Couldn’t someone say that this opens the problem up too much? 

If Canada merely sold the tires that fit on the non-Canadian-made vehicles used in right violations, would that mean that Canadian-made products are part of the operation of violating rights? 

Where does all this end?

Should we stop all trade with Saudi Arabia?  After all, isn’t it all trade linked up in some way?

Without doubt, this discussion quickly becomes much more complex.

I haven’t the space here to dive into the details of this complexity, so I will stay on the outside and conclude with a few comments about complexity.

We, as a society, should not fear complexity. 

It is diffused throughout the world that we live in and we really have no choice about living in this complex world.

We, as a society, should not let fears of complexity drive us into the arms of artificial and easy answers.

Yes, we must embrace these problems of analyzing what is meant by terms like “directly used” and “indirectly used”.

If, as a society, we refuse to enter into these problems and think them through, we risk our governments and military contractors happily defining all these terms for us and providing us with easy and artificial answers to complex and real ethical problems and thereby lulling us into a comfy sense of ethical complacency. 

I have only begun the analysis of the issue of Canadian-made vehicles in Saudi Arabia.

Barely begun --let me add.

But let us insist that the Trudeau government go much further and deeper into this pressing problem and does not attempt to wiggle off the ethical hook with simplistic and questionable presuppositions.

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