When the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-47 earlier this month to accede to the international Arms Trade Treaty, 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 a mythological self-image as a peace-loving nation, Canada will be the last of its G7 and NATO allies to sign on to the treaty.
So the Arms Trade Treaty is good. Exceeding Canada’s current export controls, the treaty explicitly cites considerations of human rights and international humanitarian law when considering arms sales. It 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 treaty, export permits for questionable arms sales should be more quickly and easily denied. Should Canada fudge on its treaty obligations, it will risk being pilloried on the international stage for non-compliance.
Despite these positive signs, there are two problems.
An evasive Liberal government
First, it’s not clear that the Trudeau government has the will to actually apply the guidelines set out by the Arms Trade Treaty.
Canada’s existing export controls aren’t all that bad, if only successive 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 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 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. But 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 U.S. President Donald Trump as he prepares to tear up NAFTA.
Some would argue that if Canada hadn’t followed through on the deal, then the Saudis would simply take their $15 billion and do business elsewhere. Fortunately, that’s where the Arms Trade Treaty comes in: if all arms exporters sign on to its common standard, the Saudis will have no place to spend their billions. Of course, that’s again assuming that Canada and the other treaty parties will have the political will to uphold the standards.
Exclusion of the world’s number one arms exporter
The second major problem with Canada’s accession to the Arms Trade Treaty is that Bill C-47 maintains an existing loophole excluding the reporting of Canadian arms sales to the United States.
Not only is the United States the world’s number one arms exporter, but it is also the largest recipient of Canadian military exports. Canada exports massive amounts of arms and arms components for larger weapons systems to the United States. 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-U.S. weapons commerce will remain outside the Arms Trade Treaty processes.
Thus, under C-47, Canadian accession to the Arms Trade Treaty 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.
Misery profiteering or human dignity
The capitalists among us may cry foul. If we renege on deals like the Saudi light armoured vehicles purchase, we lose a $15 billion “investment” in the Canadian economy.
But most Canadians deplore profiteering on other people’s 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 Arms Trade Treaty 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.