Canada Relaxes Controls Over Arms Trade

Canadian light armoured vehicle in Afghanistan, 2010.

Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia was a breach of its own military export policies. Thanks to a few tweaks in a document from the Department of Global Affairs, it’s not anymore.

The government recently released the 2014 and 2015 versions of the Report on Exports of Military Goods for Canada. On Monday, the Globe and Mail  revealed that they contain a few relevant edits, findings which were later confirmed by the Canadian Press and Le Devoir. It’s only three small changes in wording of a relatively obscure Global Affairs document, but they are indicative of the dangerous direction our arms trade policies are taking.

The section clarifying the goals of the control on exports of military equipment has been altered in two places.

Previous versions said that controls intended to ensure that military exports would not be “diverted to ends that could threaten the security of Canada, its allies or other countries or people.” Mentions of “other countries or people” have been edited out as it now only refers to “Canada, its allies or civilians.”

Yemen, for example, is another country, but not an ally. Therefore, the matter of Saudi Arabia using Canadian military equipment for shady operations in Yemen is officially none of Ottawa’s business.

The only sentence explicitly allowing Ottawa to restrict military exports has also been erased.  Hence, export controls are no longer meant to “regulate and impose certain restrictions” but to “balance the economic and commercial interests (with Canada’s) national interests.”

Furthermore, where it previously stipulated that “wide-ranging consultations are held” as a mandatory step, it now only mentions that they “may be included.”

The document still includes a general rationale for the control of military exports, in which the notions of ethics and concern for human rights remain untouched, but with no practical mandate tied to them. The power of regulating or restricting shipments of military goods to that effect has been edited out. In fact, there is no mention of restricting or regulating exports anywhere in the entire document.

The report still reads like a spirited commitment to ensuring that exports of Canadian arms do not threaten peace, security or human rights. This little rewriting just deprived it of any teeth.

Still, the authors did not dare to keep claiming that “Canada has some of the strongest export controls in the world;” which was the opening statement of previous versions. The sentence was substituted by the assertion that Canada’s export controls were “rigorous” and “in line with our allies.”

“For Clarity”

The liberals maintain that the edits were made only for “clarity, length and exactitude.”  The fact that all of them also serve to legitimize the massive sale of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia is probably just a happy coincidence.

Trudeau’s government authorized the $15 million deal in April, despite strong popular and political opposition.  Saudi Arabia’s lousy human rights record and its unsanctioned military intervention in Yemen should have disqualified it from the global arms trade. Both the International Arms Trade Agreement and the Directives of Exports of Military Goods of Canada – at the very least- implied as much.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion pleaded that the armoured vehicles were to be used to fight off ISIS and not against Saudi or Yemeni civilians. If the contrary was reliably demonstrated, Canada could rescind the deal, he promised.

Footage of Canadian equipment used in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is accused of breaching international law, apparently, was not considered substantial proof.  In June, Canadian-made tactical gear was used in a violent house raid in a neighbourhood mainly inhabited by Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shia community. The debate over the arms deal had mostly died down by then and although it received moderate coverage, there was no political response.

If it wasn’t before, it is now clear that the Trudeau government never had any intention of backing off on its arms trade with Saudi Arabia. In fact, they seem committed to moving the country on its path to becoming one of the world’s biggest arms dealers.

Canada’s exports of military goods (outside the US) rose by 89% during the Harper years and the $15 million deal with Saudi Arabia further increased this number. Canada is now the most important arms exporter in the Middle East, after the United-States. The path might have been set by the Conservatives, but the Liberals are running down it at full speed.

* Featured image taken by Staff Sgt Christine Jones, Wiki Creative Commons

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