This article was originally published on April 25, 2017 on Ricochet.
When the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-47 earlier this month to accede to the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), it was one of those situations where you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. You could be thankful that the government is finally stepping up to international standards for arms control. But then you could cry too, as the Trudeau government seems intent on maintaining existing loopholes in Canada’s international arms dealings.
Looking at the positive side, Canada is finally taking steps to align its existing arms export control mechanisms with a higher UN standard. Despite Canadians’ mythological self-image as a peace-loving nation, Canadawill be the last of its G7 and NATO allies to sign on to the ATT.
So the ATT is good. Exceeding Canada’s current export controls, the ATT explicitly cites considerations of human rights and international humanitarian law when considering arms sales. The ATT also prescribes reporting mechanisms for signatory states which should establish greater scrutiny of all arms sales. So in theory, if C-47 is passed and Canada accedes to the ATT, export permits for questionable arms sales should be more quickly and easily denied. Should Canada fudge on its ATT obligations, it will risk being pilloried on the international stage for its non-compliance.
Despite these positive signs, there are two problems. First, it’s not clear that the Trudeau government has the will to actually apply the guidelines set out by the ATT. Honestly, Canada’s existing export controls aren’t all that bad, if only successive Canadian governments could muster the political will to apply them. The current controls – embodied in Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act – articulate a number of red lines: arms exports should not endanger the “peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country.” Similarly, under Canada’s existing export controls, Canada should not export military arms to any countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.”
Many Canadians believe that that last prohibition should have applied to Saudi Arabia and our $15 billion deal for light armoured vehicles (LAVs) with them. Among many other human rights violations, the Saudi government has a long history of not tolerating dissent, persecuting human rights defenders, arbitrarily arresting and holding detainees for months without charge, and systematically torturing prisoners. But first the Harper government, and then the Trudeau government weaseled out of Canada’s own laws forbidding such sales.
The Liberals were most preposterous in their evasion. Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion first claimed that the deal had already been signed, and he was powerless to stop it. Until internal documents revealed that he had, in fact, signed key documents enabling the sale. Not long afterwards, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that Canada must “stick to its word” on the deal, or risk international opprobrium. But such deals are broken frequently; the Swedes cancelled a deal with the Saudis on principle in 2015, and suffered no economic or diplomatic blowback. If the Liberals are so convinced of this argument, they should consider using it against US President Donald Trump as he prepares to tear up NAFTA.
Some would argue that if Canada didn’t follow through on the deal, then the Saudis would simply take their $15 billion and do business elsewhere. Fortunately, that’s where the ATT comes in: if all arms exporters sign on to the ATT’s common standard, the Saudis will have no place to spend their billions. Of course, that’s again assuming that Canada and the other parties to the ATT will have the political will to uphold the standards of the ATT.
The second major problem with Canada’s accession to the ATT is that Bill C-47 maintains an existing loophole excluding the reporting of Canadian arms sales to the US. Not only is the US itself the world’s number one arms exporter, but the US is also the largest recipient of Canadian military exports. Canada exports massive amounts of arms and arms components for larger weapons systems to the US. According to Cesar Jaramillo of Project Plowshares, the flaw in C-47 exists through an omission. Unless C-47 addresses the Defence Production Sharing Program – which currently veils all arms transactions between our two countries – the Canada-US weapons commerce will remain outside the ATT processes.
Thus, under C-47, Canadian accession to the ATT would be largely meaningless, as it will not subsume sales to the largest consumer of Canadian arms sales. An oversight by the Liberals? Not likely.
The capitalists among us may cry foul. If we renege on deals like the Saudi LAV purchase, we lose a $15 billion “investment” in the Canadian economy. But most Canadians deplore profiteering on other peoples’ misery. In a poll released earlier this year, a strong majority of Canadians indicated that they opposed weapons sales to countries with poor human rights records, including specifically Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Thailand and China. It’s not surprising. Just as we frown on drug dealers who prey on high school students, so we should frown on rogue arms dealers who sell weapons to human rights abusers.
By fixing Bill C-47 before it becomes law, and by showing greater resolve to stop unethical arms deals, Canada can live up to the true aspirations of the ATT and help make the world a less dangerous place. But by continuing our current practices, we demonstrate that we consider those hapless Saudi and other victims of our weapons to be something less than human.