Supposed anti-war sentiments lose all credibility when the person espousing them ignores or celebrates military violence that is initiated by members of their own country’s geopolitical alliances. This is why mainstream Canadian press coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is so maddening: at the same time that it presents a near-constant stream of reports from Ukraine, most of which seethe with a self-righteous hatred of the Russian leadership, it either ignores aggressive military violence that Canada has helped perpetuate, covers these conflicts very briefly and with nowhere near the same stridency it reserves for Russia, or recycles the rhetoric of the aggressor states, as is the case with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the United States in Afghanistan.
On March 29, the Saudi-led coalition (which has been subjecting the Yemeni people to merciless attacks since the popular resistance movement overthrew a Saudi-aligned president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, in early 2015) announced that it will observe a ceasefire in Yemen in preparation for political negotiations and to “jumpstart peacemaking efforts.” This is a dubious proposition given that the coalition and its Western allies have been bombing and blockading Yemen for over seven years, a war effort that has killed hundreds of thousands of Yemeni people and pushed millions more to the brink of starvation.
One must also remember that the announcement came several days after the Houthis suspended retaliatory attacks on Saudi Arabia for three days in the hopes of supporting a peace initiative relating to the Western-backed war on Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition’s subsequent ceasefire announcement nearly missed the three-day deadline put forward by the Houthis, but nevertheless, the resistance leadership has promised to boycott talks that are not held in a neutral country. The group’s spokesperson Mohammad Abdul-Salam also stated that, in order to show the seriousness of their peace gestures, the coalition must first act by “lifting the siege [i.e. the blockade of Yemen’s ports] and expelling foreign forces” from the country. Certainly these are not unreasonable demands.
In a recent interview with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Shireen Al-Adeimi explicates in no uncertain terms the reality that this reprehensible war would have ended years ago if not for US, European, and Canadian support for the Saudi assault. She explains that the US supplies the Saudi government with “[almost] all of their weaponry, because they don’t manufacture anything, and they import everything that they have from mostly the US… but then also countries like the UK, Canada and other Western countries—not from Russia and China.” She goes on:
Then there’s the intelligence sharing, and there’s support in the command room, choosing targets for them. So every step of the way, the pilot who was flying a US-made plane has been trained by US personnel; his plane, after he dropped US bombs, ends up getting serviced, continues to get serviced, by US personnel. Spare parts are provided by the US… So every step of the way, the US is helping and facilitating and enabling this coalition to continue bombing Yemen.
Although Canada’s support for the Saudi offensive has not been as comprehensive as that of its southern ally, the Trudeau government has provided extensive support for the war effort. In 2016, for instance, the federal government approved a $15 billion arms deal with the Gulf kingdom. This deal includes “heavy-assault” vehicles, troop carriers, and “combat-ready” arms. Trudeau’s weapons exports to Saudi Arabia have grown consistently over his premiership; in 2020, 67 percent of all Canada’s non-US arms sales went to Saudi Arabia.
In a damning assertion that received little to no mainstream Canadian press coverage, the United Nations Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen specifically blamed Canadian weapons sales for “helping to perpetuate” the horrific war. Furthermore, in August 2021, Amnesty International accused Canada of violating international law by supporting the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Yemenis since 2015.
Earlier this month, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly announced that she will petition the International Criminal Court to probe allegations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. She has made no indication that she will make similar petitions about Saudi war crimes in Yemen, which include the bombing of schools, school buses full of children, hospitals, and funerals, or about Canada’s illegal weapons export policies in support of the aggressor state in this conflict. This hypocrisy drains any plausibility from Canada’s supposed concerns about Russian war crimes, and reveals that they are simply the wrong kind of war crimes: the kind that don’t profit Canadian capital.
“The media has not given the conflict in Yemen its fair share of coverage,” wrote Anas Al-Ademi, a co-leader of the Yemeni Canadian Club, on March 30, “yet the situation in Yemen is not any less severe than in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan… Eighty per cent of the population in Yemen is in dire need of assistance, food, medical supplies, fuel and access to safe zones.”
Al-Ademi also pointed out that, shamefully, the Canadian government has not exempted Yemenis fleeing conflict from the requirement of having to prove their refugee status with the UN Refugee Agency before coming to Canada. Trudeau has implemented this exemption for Ukrainians and Afghans, and in 2015 Canada temporarily lifted the requirement for Syrians and Iraqis. But not Yemenis. Given that Canada has played an internationally recognized role in perpetuating the war in Yemen, it is indefensible that the Trudeau government is not making it as easy as possible for the victims of this war to escape to safety.
If Canada wants its condemnations of war-makers to have any weight, this country must (for a start) reckon with the role it has played and continues to play in the Middle East, including in Palestine, Libya, Syria, and in the ongoing immiseration of Afghanistan.
In the years after 9/11, the Canadian government swiftly offered covert support for the illegal US war in Iraq and overt support for the NATO war in Afghanistan. However, Canada’s role was much more extensive in Afghanistan: it involved providing troops for the initial offensive and the later occupation, supplying funds for occupation infrastructure, and temporarily assuming responsibility for the southern province of Kandahar.
The majority of Afghan citizens protested Canada’s presence there. Internationally monitored polls demonstrated this reality. Jerome Klassen explains:
According to a 2010 survey in Kandahar for NATO… 54 percent [of the population] ‘strongly support’ the Taliban, and 37 percent ‘somewhat support’ the Taliban. According to another survey… a majority of Kandahar opposes the presence of foreign troops. In still another poll… 70 percent of respondents in Kandahar and Helmand opposed military actions by coalition forces. In the same poll, 75 percent believed that foreign forces disrespect local traditions and religion, 74 percent opposed working with foreign forces, and 55 percent believed ‘the international community is in Afghanistan for its own benefit…’
Another poll found that 87 percent of citizens in southern Afghanistan believed that the occupation was “bad for the Afghan people.”
Nevertheless, Canadian leaders adopted a belligerent and condescending attitude toward Afghanistan for the duration of the military effort, referring to resistance forces as “detestable murderers and scumbags” and “insidious by their very nature,” and accusing them of “detest[ing] our freedoms” and wanting to “break our society.” As a result of this aggressive attitude, a number of “Death to Canada” protests erupted in the province, and Canadian soldiers were frequently pelted with rocks while on patrol.
One cannot help but wonder if the Canadian state’s Bush-esque rhetoric of “freedom versus totalitarianism,” of the “charitable and forward-thinking Canadian” versus the “backward and ungrateful Afghan,” is one of the reasons that Canadians at large don’t seem to care that the Biden administration is currently starving the Afghan people.
In the same way that violence against Yemen is excused by the application of the ubiquitous “Iran-backed” resistance forces, violence against Afghans has frequently been mischaracterized as violence against the misogynistic and sectarian Taliban. While the Taliban are inarguably misogynistic and sectarian, they are not Afghanistan. The fact is that 95 percent of the country’s population is malnourished as a result of the Biden administration’s seizure of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves and US sanctions preventing international engagement with the country. Forget postwar rebuilding—the Afghan government lacks the ability to feed almost the entirety of its population, and numerous international monitors have directly blamed the US for this reality.
Almost 14,000 Afghan newborns have died this year due to lack of nutrition. There are reports that hospitals are packed with parents holding sick and starving children. “There is a visible sense of desperation among millions of Afghans,” stated Farhanaz, the sole breadwinner of a family of eight. “People are selling their babies and young girls to survive.”
The only recent statement from Global Affairs Canada about Afghanistan was a joint declaration condemning the Taliban’s move to restrict women’s education. While doubtlessly a condemnable action, the statement completely ignores the fact that the US is waging economic war against the entire population of Afghanistan, and that millions of people are currently starving as a result of the Biden administration’s actions.
“I hope the Taliban will allow us back to work and schools so we can help our families survive,” said Farhanaz, “but I also appeal to the world to not turn their backs on us. They are also responsible for this crisis, and I ask them to not abandon us in this misery.”
If Canadian foreign policy had anything resembling a consistent concern for human rights and the demands of oppressed populations, Canada’s leaders would not remain silent as the Biden administration starves the Afghan population as punishment for the US defeat there. If such a policy existed, our leaders would also totally extricate themselves from any involvement in the Saudi-led war on Yemen and use every possible opportunity to condemn the true aggressors in that conflict.
Criticism of Russia’s militaristic actions rings totally hollow when one simultaneously ignores or celebrates the militarism of Canada and its allies. If Canadians want their anti-war statements to have any credibility, we should begin by holding our own leaders to the same standard that we hold Russia’s.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Visit his website at www.owenschalk.com.