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Rights + Justice

Yemen’s War: A Test for Canada, and We’re Flunking

Another hospital bombed, more civilians killed. How long will we tolerate it?

Crawford Kilian 17 Aug

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On Monday, Aug. 15, an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition hit yet another hospital in Yemen, killing at least 11 patients and staff and wounding at least 19, reports the Guardian.

Attacks on hospitals and schools have become routine in today’s wars. Such attacks have also become a test of our tolerance for war crimes. So far, we appear to be too tolerant for our own good.

If you want to know what the Yemeni war is about, here’s a primer. Just don’t expect to find clearly defined good guys and bad guys. From the point of view of a democratic western nation, no one in the Yemeni war is a good guy.

Yemen’s Houthis are a Shia minority, running much of the poor country after a coup d’etat against a president who ran unopposed. The Saudis are a Sunni majority in a very rich country, and they’re used to influencing events in Yemen. To overthrow the Houthis they built a coalition of Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Pakistan — few of which are notably democratic. The United States provided intelligence support and discreet silence. In March 2015, the coalition went to war against the Houthi regime.

Better said, it went to war against Yemeni civilians. The coalition imposed a blockade, closing Yemen’s ports. Food shortages resulted, as well as scarcities of fuel and medical supplies. That led to dengue, diarrhea, measles, malnutrition and the general collapse of the health-care system.

Ignoring the Geneva Conventions

Meanwhile the Saudi coalition began air strikes against Houthi-held cities. Like most of the conflicts in the region since 2001, the Yemeni war honours the Geneva Conventions more in the breach than in the observance. The Saudis, far better armed and equipped, seem to find it easier to attack civilians than Houthi soldiers.

And as in Afghanistan and Syria, Yemeni hospitals and clinics appear to be targets: they’re defenceless, their loss demoralizes the local civilians and deprives them of health care, and on occasion an attack will also kill some wounded enemy troops.

But they pose a problem for Canada. Attacks on civilians are war crimes. Attacks on civilian facilities like hospitals, schools and places of worship are simply unacceptable.

For nongovernmental agencies like Mèdecins Sans Frontiéres, such attacks have become a clear and present danger. In May, MSF International’s president, Canadian Dr. Joanne Liu, appealed to the UN Security Council: “In Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, hospitals are routinely bombed, raided, looted or burned to the ground. Medical personnel are threatened. Patients are shot in their beds. Broad attacks on communities and precise attacks on health facilities are described as mistakes, are denied outright, or are simply met with silence.... We are facing an epidemic of attacks on health facilities, impeding our ability to do our core work.”

The war went on, and Monday’s air strike was the fourth on an MSF facility in less than a year. “The location of the hospital was well known,” an MSF news release said, “and the hospital’s GPS co-ordinates were repeatedly shared with all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led coalition.”

This was one of the rare MSF mentions of the Saudis, who completely control Yemen’s air space and seem to enjoy a notable absence of criticism — especially from countries like Canada.

‘Promoting regional peace and stability’

On its website about our embassy in Saudi Arabia, the Canadian government says, with a straight face: “Canada and Saudi Arabia share common interests on many peace and security issues, including energy security, humanitarian affairs (including refugees) and counter-terrorism. The Saudi government plays an important role in promoting regional peace and stability.”

As for Yemen, Canadians are warned: “Global Affairs Canada advises against all travel to Yemen.” The reasons why “the security situation has deteriorated significantly” go unexplained.

Foreign policy is notoriously hard to maintain on moral terms; Stephen Harper got nowhere with his disapproval of China, and it’s impossible to trade only with morally acceptable governments. If we tried it, we could trade only with heaven, which might not want to trade with us.

Naked self-interest, calling itself “realism,” is difficult also: it leads to overthrowing governments, starting wars and supporting terror. Such measures are likely to lead to blowback and very unwelcome consequences.

So it’s realistic for Canada to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudis — and Justin Trudeau’s government paid homage to morality by fudging about the deal at first.

Realism or blowback?

It’s also realistic to recognize the political blowback of too much realism. It’s terrible optics to be seen cozying up to convenient governments that blow up hospitals, especially when they also behead people just the way ISIS does (for crimes including sorcery). It’s terrible optics for a self-proclaimed feminist prime minister to be seen cozying up to the Saudis, who don’t allow women to drive.

It’s all very well for our diplomats to praise the value of “engaging” with unpleasant governments. They’re right, but when we engage we need to put a price on our co-operation.

Prattling about “human rights” before signing the latest trade deal is not enough. While still negotiating the deal, we need to make it clear that our trading partner’s behaviour creates political problems here at home. So the deal would be sweeter if our partner would, for example, stop jailing and whipping bloggers and start respecting the Geneva Conventions (to which Saudi Arabia has been a signatory since 1963).

No deal? Well, that’s unfortunate, and we’ll have to explain to our voters why your problems made the deal fell through. No hard feelings, eh? We’ll be delighted to do business when your situation improves.

Stalin spent the Second World War trying to wrap his head around the bizarre idea that his ally Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t just issue decrees; Roosevelt had to bargain, bully and connive his way to new laws allowing him to do what he needed to do. Current tyrants still don’t get it, in part because current democracies don’t bargain hard enough with them.

Tyrannies by definition are unconfident and insecure, frightened even of bloggers and women drivers and health-care workers. That’s why they want armoured vehicles and jet fighters and ruined hospitals in the first place.

If Justin Trudeau’s government were both realistic and moral, it would understand that confident governments can drive hard bargains — and if Justin Trudeau’s not confident these days, who is?  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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