On Saturday, December 22, protesters against the sale of armed vehicles to Saudi Arabia picketed the King Street entrance to the Port of Saint John.
Sharon Murphy-Mayne of the group PEACE-NB, which helped organize the picket, called the sale of armaments to Saudi Arabia “immoral” and said: “We’d like to send a message to the Canadian government that this is unacceptable.”
The protesters noted Saudi Arabia has caused massive civilian casualties and human rights abuses during the three and a half year old military intervention in Yemen.
Canada has sold nearly 4 billion dollars worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia over the last three decades, and is currently in a 14 year, $14.8 billion contract to supply 742 light armoured vehicles to that country.
Protester Wayne Dryer, who is associated with the Council of Canadians in Saint John, said he learned about the scope of the abuses in Yemen a few months ago and feels that if he doesn’t speak up, he would be “complicit in all of the actions that take place using the vehicles that pass through our port.”
Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen has violated international law by bombing civilians, hospitals and schools.
The armoured vehicle Canada is now sending to Saudi Arabia is the LAV 6.0, made by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada at its Oxford Street plant in London, Ontario. A consignment of the vehicles was scheduled to be loaded onto the Saudi ship Bahri Yanbu at Saint John on Dec. 22nd.
Picketers arrived at 7:00 a.m., in pre-dawn fog and drizzle, to protest Canada’s arms shipment to Saudi Arabia and to call for a lasting ceasefire and humanitarian relief in Yemen. Initially, several cars and trucks drove through the picket line and entered the dock area. However, at about 7:30 am, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association arriving for work refused to cross the picket line. The dock workers parked their cars on the inland side of the picket and stood watching the two dozen picketers pacing the road below.
The Bahri Yanbu remained offshore all day on Dec. 22nd due to “bad weather,” according to Saint John port officials. The picketers began packing up their signs at 9:00 a.m. Two or three of the longshoremen drove to the gate to report for work but were refused entry by their employer.
The picketers went up as a group to applaud the longshoremen and thank them for their support. The longshoremen had lost a day’s pay and thought additional punishment from the employer was likely, but expressed no bad feeling toward the picketers, saying simply: “We don’t cross picket lines.”
The Bahri Yanbu docked at the Saint John port the next morning, on Dec. 23 at 1:34am. The ship, loaded with the armoured vehicles, was seen leaving the port that afternoon.
Why the protest?
An estimated 85,000 children under the age of five have starved to death in Yemen during the last three years, according to the aid group Save the Children. UN World Food Program head David Beasley has told the UN Security Council that as many as 12 million of Yemen’s 28 million population “are just one step away from famine.” A naval and air blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is mainly responsible for this.
The blockade was called for in April 2015 by the UN Security Council – with the abstention of Russia – but was intended only to intercept “arms and related material” bound for the insurgents. What actually happened is that the neighbouring states which the Security Council resolution called on to implement the blockade applied it more broadly, so that not just weapons, but food and the critical fuel needed to run pumps that bring drinking water up from wells, are kept out of the hands of the Yemeni people.
Several members of other unions, including George Vair, a past president of the Saint John and District Labour Council, were among the ranks of the picketers.
The Saint John longshoremen have refused cargos on ethical grounds before. In 1979, they refused to ship heavy water for the Argentine military junta’s CANDU nuclear reactor; and in 2003, during the Iraq War, they refused to ship military equipment destined for the Middle East.
Weapons are not Saint John’s only trade with Saudi Arabia. About 115,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil arrive in the port on an average day – 14 per cent of Canada’s oil imports and 5.7 per cent of our total supply (domestic and foreign).
Cancellation of those 115,000 barrels would not greatly punish the Saudis, who export 7 million barrels a day to the rest of the world.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest importer of military equipment over the last five years, behind only India. According to the consulting firm IHS Inc., Saudi military imports in 2015 were $US 9.3 billion.
Norm Knight writes on labour for the NB Media Co-op and was among the picketers against the Canada-Saudi arms deal.