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Ethics and Arms: The Strange Saga of the Saudi Arms Deal

March 31, 2016

The proposal in the recent federal government’s budget to allocate substantial funds towards issues involving First Nations, such as education and drinking water, a proposal that is indeed long overdue, has finally become what could almost be called “self-evident”.  I say “almost” since as a philosopher in good conscience, I must point out that any proposition that historically has been declared self-evident has turned out to be anything but. 

Nonetheless, how could one today seriously argue that any community within Canada should be on perpetual boiled-water advisories, have substandard education and constantly suffer such violence towards their women and girls?  Canadian society at large has historically turned a blind and shameful eye on these issues, but that seems to be changing. 

But the Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the one that amounts to approximately 15 billion, is certainly not self-evident in any sense or degree of the term.  This deal has been controversial since it was first brokered by a crown corporation and then announced by the previous Conservative government.  Shortly after it was announced, Gerald Butts, the principal advisor to then Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, poured scorn on the deal, the Conservatives and even compared Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State in terms of their views on punishment for “offences” such as blasphemy, homosexuality, drinking alcohol and adultery.

Strangely, during the federal election, Justin Trudeau downplayed the deal, passing it off as merely the sale of a “few jeeps”.  A quick look at the manufacturer’s brochures that advertise the light armored vehicles that Canada is selling reveals that calling these vehicles “jeeps” is quite inaccurate.

Again, unlike the First Nations issues, people do stand up and argue for one side or the other.  Critics of the arms deal point out that Saudi Arabia has an extremely poor human rights record; there is no real guarantee that Canadian weapons will not be turned on civilians.  In fact the critics argue that it is quite the opposite: given the Kingdom’s poor track record on respecting human rights, there is a very real possibility that Canadian weapons will eventually be used on civilians. 

The proponents of the deal, as far as I can tell, push the economic benefits.  They claim that this deal will directly sustain roughly 3,000 manufacturing jobs in Ontario throughout a 14-year period.  They also claim that there will be numerous spin-off jobs that will be of a lasting duration and will benefit numerous regions of the country.  Moreover, proponents also stress that were Canada to abrogate the deal, it would damage Canada’s reputation in the world as a reputable supplier of merchandise.

In sum, it is a choice between money and ethics.  This choice was also present in the First Nations case.  The previous federal government resisted putting money towards First Nations’ issues by prioritizing economics.  Now the tide has turned and in the eyes of the current federal government, ethics dominates the choice.  But when it comes to the Saudi arms deal, we are still at the level of contrasting ethics and economics.  From an ethical perspective, this is not terribly difficult: selling arms to a country with a poor human rights record is simply not something that Canada should be doing.  This does not mean that we are to have no dealings with countries that have poor human rights records.  It is a false dichotomy to insist that either we sell weapons to such countries or completely cut off all ties.

Canada claims to be a country that respects human rights, a respect that is more than mere assertion, but is ultimately a guide for action.  It may not be the case that the actions guided by this respect for human rights will always result in the upholding of human rights since we live in an imperfect world and actions can have unintended consequences.  Nonetheless, Canada’s claim to respect human rights cannot be taken seriously unless it is upheld in the face of negative consequences.  In other words, simply by being contrasted with jobs and money, the respect should be maintained and actions in line with this respect pursued.  To abandon the respect for human rights simply upon such a contrast is not to have respect in any serious way for human rights, but to merely shout ethical pieties into the wind.

In addition to maintaining a consistent, action-guiding approach regarding the respect of human rights, we should be acutely aware of the consequences of engaging in arms deals such as the one with the Saudi’s.  For a country like Canada, which already does enjoy quite a high level of international respect as an upholder of human rights, to then engage in selling arms to Saudi Arabia, only serves to further legitimize the international arms trade.  It encourages others to sell without regard to the buyer’s records and possible intentions.

Along the lines of considering consequences, another strange argument has come from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, who has repeatedly argued (and most recently so in a speech in Ottawa last Tuesday) that were Canada not to sell these weapons to Saudi Arabia, someone else would.  No doubt he is correct on that; Canada is by no means the sole arms dealer. 

Nonetheless, I call this a strange argument since it comes from an MP in a government that repeatedly proclaims to have a different viewpoint on the world from the previous Conservative government.  Minister Dion’s argument that “someone will sell the arms, so it might as well be us” is a piece of reasoning that could be lifted out of the Harper international relations playbook. 

Louise Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was in the audience for Dion’s speech and noted that Dion’s argument is “the weakest that could be made”, “unconvincing” and “not infused with moral, ethical values”.  She is indeed correct on that.

In scholarly terms, Dion’s argument is not strange at all for he is simply propounding the “realist view” of international relations.  The realist view has a number of variations, but at its core is the thesis that countries, in their interactions, do behave and should behave solely with their own interests in mind.  According to the realist view of international relations, the role of ethics in state-to-state interactions is either an afterthought that must ultimately conform to state interests or simply a mode of speech without significance.  In the end, realism in international relations holds that states do not and even more importantly, should not look at doing the ethically right thing.  States should only do what ultimately benefits them; if that happens to align with ethics, fine, but if not, so much the worse for ethics.

This realism is only accidentally compatible with a respect for human rights.  In other words, a nation that respects human rights is, in the end, a nation that cannot continually adhere to a realist perspective in international relations. Eventually, in some way or another, there will be a clash between the state’s interest and the demands of ethics.  The realists are at least honest in declaring that state interests trump ethics.

The question, at last, is simply this: do we or do we not truly respect human rights?

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