• Blog
  • January 26th, 2015

Saudi arms deal makes mockery of Canadian values


By Peggy Mason

Embassy News, January 21, 2015

The Harper government has made defending Western values a centrepiece of its anti-terror rhetoric. But our actions both at home and abroad tell a different story.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Western democracies, in the name of fighting terrorism, have enacted countless anti-democratic measures to curtail free speech, free assembly, peaceful political dissent and most especially due process and the rule of law. At the same time, we have partnered with anti-democratic regimes abroad to counter the illegal use of force by violent extremists with our own military “reign of terror.”

Nothing can illustrate this Orwellian approach more clearly than Canada’s unholy alliance with Saudi Arabia. It is one of three countries, along with United States and Israel, that not only violent jihadists but the vast majority of moderate Islam (with much justification) hold largely responsible for preventing Muslim countries in the Middle East from taking their rightful place in the world community.

Saudi Arabia is a key regional ally in the American-led military coalition, of which Canada is a part, against the Islamic State, the Islamist movement that has taken over significant areas in northern Iraq. Yet, the 83 official beheadings carried out by Saudi Arabia in 2014 surely rival the numbers thus far attributed to either Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. And need we be reminded that almost all of the 9/11 airplane hijackers were of Saudi origin, including the mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

The sentencing of Raif Badawi, a young Saudi blogger with family in Sherbrooke, Que., has finally brought some long-overdue Canadian media attention to Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. Mr. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a public flogging of 1,000 lashes–50 per week over 20 weeks–for the crimes of insulting Islam and creating the “Saudi Arabian Liberals” website for social and political debate.

Every year thousands of people in that country are subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture, ill treatment in detention and unfair trials. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to thousands of lashes. The government does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam, a situation about which Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom has been as shockingly silent as the Harper government in general has been over the manifold Saudi misdeeds.

Like other Gulf State allies in the fight against the Islamic State, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (with whom Canada has signed a nuclear co-operation agreement), Saudi Arabia has defined terrorism to encompass nearly every form of peaceful political and intellectual activism, including criminalizing the Gulf branches of the opposition political movement the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last July the United Kingdom completed a Foreign Office review of Brotherhood activities that apparently concluded the group was not a terrorist organization. But the study is mysteriously unpublished, seemingly because it might embarrass Britain’s allies in Egypt and the Gulf. Not to be outdone, Foreign Minister John Baird said in April that he was “tremendously concerned” about the group, but he has now has gone silent in the wake of the apparent failure to find “facts and intel” to support a terrorist designation. What message does such blatant hypocrisy send to reformers and peaceful activists in the Middle East?

And of course let us not forget the Saudi role, using Canadian armoured vehicles, in putting down peaceful demonstrations during Bahrain’s short-lived Arab Spring, actions in gross violation of democratic principles. Saudi Arabia’s egregious human rights record ultimately caused Germany in April 2014 to rescind its own huge tank deal with Saudi Arabia.

Not so for Canada.

A few facts about the Canadian deal: supported by heavy government promotion and a parallel decline in Canada’s export control standards, multi-year contracts for armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia were announced by General Dynamic Land Systems Canada in February, totalling almost $15 billion.

Variants include armoured troop carriers and tanks with large cannons, operable in both urban and rural environments. In short, these vehicles are particularly suited for the type of repression of peaceful dissent we saw in Bahrain. As Canadian expert Ken Epps has pointed out in recent commentaries, it is possible that, “in the near term at least, Saudi Arabia will rival or even replace the US as Canada’s largest arms customer and the Middle East–the world’s most heavily-armed and arguably most unstable region–will become the most economically important to the Canadian arms industry.” This will give Canada a direct financial stake in Middle East conflict rather than in its resolution.

Violent extremists like Islamic State members are able to make headway in Iraq and elsewhere because they exploit genuine local political, social and economic grievances to win local support. This is the story of the Sunni tribes in northern Iraq who, having suffered vicious sectarian repression under the Western-blessed Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, decided they had a better chance throwing in their lot with the Islamic State than their own national government.

Do we really think that we can counter violent extremism by partnering with repressive Middle Eastern governments who make a mockery of Western democratic values? By outlawing peaceful political opposition parties while doing nothing to address marginalized, impoverished minorities, these governments are fuelling that very terrorism we say we are fighting.

The Canadian arms deal to Saudi Arabia is a national disgrace. Our export control laws, going back over 30 years, have a human rights test that potential recipients are required to pass. If Saudi Arabia can meet that test, then any country can. If the Canadian government is actually serious about fighting terrorism, the very first thing it must do is to follow Germany’s principled lead and cancel this arms deal.


Peggy Mason, a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament to the UN, is the President of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs.

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President of the Rideau Institute Peggy Mason to talk at the Canadian Club of Kingston

On Thursday January 22nd Ambassador (ret’d) Peggy Mason, the President of the Rideau Institute will give a talk entitled “Countering the Islamic State: Why Canada needs to Change course” hosted by the Canadian Club of Kingston. Talk is open to all.

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Ambassador (ret.) Peggy Mason discusses Canada’s current military role in Iraq

Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason spoke to CBC Radio One listeners across the country Sunday about the Canadian military’s current involvement in an airstrike mission in Iraq, the need for a political and humanitarian strategy, and where the mission will be in six months:

“I think that it’s a seriously misguided strategy, this focus on airstrikes, which has little hope of effectively countering the threat posed by ISIL and which has an even greater prospect of making the situation worse. So, I think that it’s a seriously misguided strategy and Canada should not be part of it.


All of the political complications will be far worse [in six months] unless we really start to get serious about addressing them.”

Listen to the full interview on CBC Radio’s The 180 with Jim Brown here. 

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  • Blog
  • October 10th, 2014

From the killing fields of Flanders to the recurrent Israeli attacks on Gaza: A century later, WWI continues to echo in the Middle East

By Peter Larson

Almost every city and town in today’s Israel has a “Balfour Street”, named after Britain’s foreign secretary during WWI.

It is a poignant reminder of the fact that while WWI was fought mostly in Europe, it had profound consequences around the globe, and its effects still shape today’s world, particularly in the Middle East.

Lord Arthur James Balfour was a proud imperialist willing to shed blood to protect and expand the British Empire. He was also a staunch Christian, a member of the Church of England. Like many Anglicans of his day, Balfour took the bible rather literally, and appears to have accepted the Christian Zionist notion that God had promised Palestine to the Jewish people.

Lord Balfour

Lord Balfour

At the time, Palestine was part of the decaying Ottoman Empire. But in 1917, at the height of WWI, Balfour issued a now famous declaration in which he stated that Britain sympathised with Zionist aspirations and promised it would support the creation of a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.

The promise was made in response to intense lobbying from British Zionists. But it also seems to have been supported by the British cabinet which had ambitions of replacing the Ottomans in the Middle East and saw advantage in supporting the creation of a colony of pro-British Jews in the region.

(In those colonial times, it did not seem to strike many people as unusual to give part of somebody else’s country to a third party without any consultation whatsoever. What would happen today if Obama were to offer, say Prince Edward Island, to Syrian or Iraqi refugees?)

At the end of the war, Britain successfully convinced the League of Nations to give it a “mandate” to govern Palestine, Iraq and Jordan and quickly moved to take over.

It named Viscount Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Zionist, as the first governor of Palestine.

In short order, Hebrew was made an official language and Jewish firms were given privileges, including for example the monopoly on electricity distribution. With British approval, European Zionists began buying huge tracts of land, often from absentee landlords. The new owners expelled thousands of Palestinian serfs from lands they had been working for generations, to be replaced by a flood of European Jewish immigrants.

It took the Palestinians several years to understand that life under the British mandate was going to be different from the 400 years they had spent under the Ottoman Empire. That Britain’s Zionist objective was to take their country from them.

However, in 1936, the Palestinians revolted against British colonial rule with a massive general strike. It began as peaceful resistance. Stores were closed and ports were shut down. But when the strike was violently suppressed by the colonial police, it evolved into a full-scale insurrection against British colonial rule. The British then enrolled Jewish militias to help them put down the revolt. By 1939, thousands of Palestinian leaders had been killed, jailed, assassinated or exiled. The Palestinian resistance was effectively broken.

Lord Balfour’s project of turning historic Palestine into “national home for the Jewish people” was nearing completion. But it took the horrors of the Holocaust to provide a rationale for the final step, the ethnic cleansing of the area by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the creation of the State of Israel.

Many of the Palestinians fled to Gaza, where they and their descendants are still today. For 65 years, Gaza has remained a festering sore, full of refugees from Israel who can’t return to their homes and farms. They are not welcome in the Jewish State because they are not Jewish.

Lord Balfour could not have imagined that the pain and misery he would create for the Palestinians would continue a century later. But as a Christian Zionist, and a British imperialist, he probably wouldn’t have lost any sleep over it either.


Lord Balfour’s famous declaration noted that the creation of a Jewish homeland should not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” (i.e. Palestinians). It’s not clear whether he really believed that was possible. But Britain did not intervene when Zionist militias expelled over 750,000 Palestinian peasants in 1947/48 to create the “Jewish State of Israel’. Many fled to Gaza where they have remained stuck ever since. 

Peter Larson is the Chair of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine, a Canadian organization whose mission is to educate Canadians about the complex Israel/Palestine conflict. Our objective is to have Canada take a fair and balanced policy aimed at promoting reconciliation between the parties based on a realistic understanding of historic and current events.

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  • Blog
  • October 5th, 2014

Harper’s Iraq plan may make matters worse, says former Ambassador

by Peggy Mason, Defence Watch guest writer

Originally published by David Pugliese in Defence Watch.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will put Canada’s proposed combat military mission in Iraq to a vote on Monday. Recent polls have suggested that Canadians slightly favour the bombing mission to confront the threat posed by the extremist organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It comes as no surprise that Canadians want to help and “do something.”But Harper’s plan to send Canadian warplanes to join the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing of Iraq may just make matters worse.

Stephen Harper and his allies are underestimating their opponents as a bunch of religious extremists bent on spreading wanton mayhem and terror. Islamic State may be brutally ruthless, but they know exactly what they are doing.

Their core is made up of seasoned, motivated fighters and an extremely experienced leadership that go back to the “dirty war” waged by the American and British Special Forces in Iraq between 2006 and 2009.

ISIL is playing a strategical game of chess with its every move, while the West is playing military tic-tac-toe.

ISIL is not just a military organization, it is a political movement with a well-thought-out ideology, however abhorrent it may be to the West. It governs the huge areas it controls in Iraq and Syria. Ruthless in eliminating any potential opponents, it also provides electricity, food and other vital services for ordinary people in the areas it controls.

That is why American air strikes against ISIL recently targeted not only oil and gas facilities but also grain elevators – a highly problematic course of action in both legal and humanitarian terms, particularly if the conflict is to be a long one.

To date Western military action has been disastrously counterproductive.

Prime Minister Harper says “we” are not responsible for the chaos in Libya. Yet it is absolutely clear that the NATO-led military victory in Libya was a pyrrhic one which paved the way for the civil war that followed.

We have to remember how we got to this point. Time and again in the past, we have chosen war over negotiations.

Look at the lessons of Libya. Had we not exceeded the UN mandate in Libya (which excluded regime change), we could have negotiated a power-sharing deal with Gaddafi that would have promoted incremental democratic reform and not left a power vacuum to be filled by extremists, including ISIL.

Exactly the same lesson can be learned from Syria. Had the West not insisted on Assad’s immediate departure and refused to allow Iran a seat at the table, Kofi Annan’s power-sharing arrangement within a transitional government would have paved the way for incremental democratic reforms in Syria and, once again, would have left much less room for extremists like ISIL to operate.

A UN mandate privileging inclusive governance and democratic reforms in concert with robust military support has been central to recent progress in Somalia and Mali. A UN mandate is also possible for effective intervention in Iraq and Syria if all necessary players, including Russia and Iran, are brought fully into the negotiations, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are at the core of the political strategy, not just token participants.

A comprehensive, broadly supported and UN-mandated approach is long overdue in the heretofore disastrously counterproductive war on terror. Let this enlightened approach be the basis for Canadian action in Iraq and Syria.

Peggy Mason is Canada’s former UN Ambassador for Disarmament and advisor to then External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. She is now the President of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs.

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