Palestinian Canadians sue Foreign Minister Joly over arms exports to Israel

Montreal, Canada – Palestinian Canadians and human rights lawyers are suing Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly over exports of military equipment to Israel, which they argue violate Canada’s obligations under domestic and international law.

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, asks a federal court to order the Canadian government to stop issuing export permits for military goods and technology destined for Israel.

It also asks the court to deem the issuance of such permits unlawful.

“We are seeking to hold Canada to its own standards and to its international legal obligations,” said Henry Off, board member of Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR), one of the groups involved in the case.

“We don’t want the Canadian government to be contributing to the mass starvation and bombardment of Gaza. One way of cutting off Canada’s contributions is by cutting off its military support [to Israel],” Off told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.

Military exports to Israel have come under greater scrutiny since October 7 when the Israeli military launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that has now killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Thousands of others are believed to be dead, buried under rubble.

CLAIHR wrote an open letter to the Canadian government in late January, urging Ottawa to “immediately halt” all exports due to concerns the weapons could be used in human rights violations against Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

Canadian arms exports to Israel totalled more than $15m ($21.3m Canadian) in 2022, according to official figures.

Citing government data, The Maple news website first reported in February that Canada authorised at least $20.9m ($28.5m Canadian) in new military exports to Israel in the first two months of the Gaza war.

That report spurred widespread criticism and calls to end the exports. Last week, protesters rallied outside weapons company facilities in several cities across Canada, including Vancouver, Quebec City and Scarborough.

“Canada’s contempt for international and Canadian law by approving a dramatic increase in military exports to Israel since the latter commenced its bombardment of Gaza compels us to seek legal action to hold Canada to account,” Ayman Oweida, a Palestinian Canadian and one of the lawsuit applicants, said in a statement.

What does Canada export to Israel?

Global Affairs Canada, the country’s foreign ministry, did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the lawsuit on Tuesday morning.

In an email last month, a department spokesperson, Jean-Pierre Godbout, told Al Jazeera that the permits granted since October 7 “are for the export of non-lethal equipment”.

He did not provide an exact dollar amount for those exports or provide details about the equipment that received a permit to be sent to Israel. Asked for examples of what goods are considered “non-lethal”, Godbout did not provide a response.

“In accordance with Canada’s longstanding policy, all permit applications for controlled items are reviewed on a case-by-case basis under Canada’s risk assessment framework,” Godbout said.

Experts said the vast majority of Canada’s military exports to Israel come in the form of parts and components. This includes electronics and space equipment; military aerospace exports and components; and bombs, missiles, rockets and general military explosives and components.

But most of the exports are shrouded in secrecy. “We don’t know what companies are exporting them. We don’t know exactly what their end use is,” Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at the peace research institute Project Ploughshares, told Al Jazeera last month.

Human rights lawyers and activists also suspect that Canadian military components are reaching Israel via the United States, including for installation in fighter jets such as the F-35, but the scope of those exports is also unclear.

The export regime

Meanwhile, Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act obliges the foreign minister to “deny exports and brokering permit applications for military goods and technology … if there is a substantial risk that the items would undermine peace and security”.

Under the law, exports should also be blocked if they “could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws” or in “serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children”.

Canada is also party to the Arms Trade Treaty, a United Nations pact that similarly bans such transfers if states have knowledge the arms could be used in genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other violations of international law.

There is little publicly available information about how Canada makes its decisions on military equipment exports. In 2022, 50 applications for “military, dual-use, and strategic goods or technology” were denied, the government says on its website. Of those, several were denied as a result of sanctions on Russia while others were rejected to stay in line with “Canada’s foreign policy and defence interests”.

In 2021, Canada said it denied export permits to Libya due to its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

Against that backdrop, international law experts have warned that providing weapons to Israel could amount to a violation of the Genocide Convention. In a preliminary ruling in late January, the International Court of Justice found there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and ordered Israel to take measures to prevent genocidal acts in the bombarded Palestinian territory.

Last month, a Dutch court ordered the government to stop exporting F-35 components to Israel after determining “there is a clear risk that Israel’s F-35 fighter jets might be used in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

Off pointed to that ruling in the Netherlands as an example he said he hopes Canada will follow.

“We’re asking that the courts in Canada follow suit here and recognise this unlawfulness,” he said.

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Jillian Kestler-DAmours