“Made in Canada”: Arms Exports on the Rise

Canada’s Cconservative government often boasts having one of the strictest national control regimes for military exports in the world. Yet Canadian human rights NGOs, for their part, consider their country’s export control regime to be a paper tiger, as the regime’s 1986 policy guidelines can be circumvented with relative ease.

At least on paper, the Canadian government commits itself to ensuring prior to an export that there is “no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”[i] However, the arms deal worth 14.8 billion dollars, which Ottawa concluded with Riyadh in February 2014, reveals that the Canadian government is giving itself considerable latitude in its interpretation of that commitment. The delivery of Canadian light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia marks the biggest arms export in Canadian history. The deal was brokered by the Canadian company Canadian Commercial Corps (CCC), which, having a so-called Crown Corporation status, is under tight government control. The CCC acts as an intermediary between Canadian defense firms and foreign governments and acts on behalf of the Canadian government.

Saudi Arabia passed the test

Saudi Arabia’s government is notorious for its systematic brutal and repressive treatment of women, dissidents and immigrant workers. Only recently, Amnesty International denounced the fact that “Saudi Arabia’s faulty justice system facilitates judicial executions on a mass scale.” In March 2011, Riyadh sent armored vehicles and other military equipment into neighboring Bahrain to support the government in crushing popular mass protests. According to articles published in the Canadian newspaper Ottawa Citizen, armored vehicles of Canadian origin were transported across the border during that time. To this day, the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs owes an answer to human rights organizations such as Ploughshares, Amnesty International, and Oxfam as to what it knows about the use of Canadian export goods in the 2011 crackdown in Bahrain.

Another discrepancy between theory and practice in Canada’s export policy is the government’s lack of transparency when examining the human rights situation of a potential recipient country. For example, the Canadian public has no way of knowing which government body is responsible for examining the respective human rights situations, or how this body arrives at its conclusions. It is also unclear what criteria the government applies when trading off human rights against economic and political alliance interests. If a country like Saudi Arabia is classified as a suitable recipient for arms exports, what country, if any, would be classified as unsuitable?

Development of new markets: the sun rises in the east

The expansion of Canadian arms exports, actively driven by the Harper government in recent years, is part of a larger economic growth plan. The deal with Saudi Arabia alone creates, according to government statements, 3,000 Canadian jobs during the span of its 14-year life cycle.[ii] The shrinking defense budget of the United States most likely contributed significantly to the strategic importance of the deal. Due to the “close and long-standing military cooperation with the United States, including the nature of North American’s defence industry”, the Canadian government is exempt from keeping track of the volume of its military exports to its southern neighbor.[iii] However, experts estimate that military exports to the United States generate more profit for Canada than all its other military exports taken together.

In order to diversify its clientele, the Harper regime has stepped up its efforts to export Canadian armored vehicles, helicopters and other military equipment to Latin America, Asia and especially to the Middle East. In 2009, the CCC therefore set up a new division, called Global Defence and Security Sales, for the development of new markets. Canadian disarmament experts and human rights advocates, however, are still waiting for the “increased vigilance for responsible and ethical business conduct” which the CCC promised would accompany the quest for non-traditional markets.[iv]

Saudi Arabia is only the tip of the iceberg

Unprecedented in Canadian history, the arms deal with Saudi Arabia is only the most dramatic case in point of a broader trend under the Harper government. Other actions include far-reaching changes toward less restriction and controls in Canada’s national gun laws. For example, by adding new provisions to the existing legislation, the Harper government is circumventing a number of international obligations concerning the export of firearms which Canada had agreed to under the UN Firearms Protocol and the regional CIFTA agreement of the Organization of American States (OAS).

This trend of increasingly hollowing out Canada’s image as champion of disarmament and arms control efforts moreover includes the continual enlargement of the list of countries to which Canada is authorized to sell automatic firearms. By law, Canada may only sell such weapons to those countries listed on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL). However, the number of countries on that list has tripled since its creation in 1991, namely from 13 to 39 countries, and now includes Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.[v] Finally, the considerable increase of nuclear trade and research agreements which Canada has signed in recent years with India and China are another component of the same trend.

Canada’s foot-dragging on the international stage: the Arms Trade Treaty

The Harper government is not generally known for its enthusiasm for multilateral agreements and international organizations. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that Canada refuses to this day to accede to the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The treaty was negotiated in December 2014 under the auspices of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs of the United Nations (UNODA). By ratifying the ATT, an acceding country commits to subject itself to a rigorous examination of whether its military exports could be used for a “serious violation of international humanitarian law or of international human rights law.” Meanwhile, some 130 countries have signed the treaty, including Germany and the United States. Canada is in fact the only NATO country that has not signed the treaty to date.[vi]

The Canadian government already showed a hesitant attitude toward the ATT in its early negotiation phase, instructing its diplomats to play only a “restrained, minimal role” in the negotiations. Ottawa justifies this restraint primarily by claiming that the restrictions under national Canadian law are already adequate. Former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who served in Harper’s cabinet from 2011 until February 2015, also maintained that the ATT could have a negative effect on national laws on the possession of firearms. According to Kenneth Epps, Policy Advisor at Project Ploughshares, it was these domestic political deliberations that ultimately led to the government’s rejection of the ATT. During the negotiations of the treaty, the Canadian National Firearms Association (NFA) and weapons enthusiasts invested heavily in negative lobbying activities. Much like in the United States, the gun lobby in Canada is a key segment of the constituency of the Conservatives.

We cannot say with certainty whether the arms deal with Saudi Arabia could have been prevented had Canada acceded to the ATT. What is certain, however, is that such a contractual obligation would have triggered a national and international debate over Canada’s decision to engage in the arms deal. Even though the ATT does not have a superior decision-making body or enforcement mechanism, the reporting obligation would have likely had a deterring effect on the Canadian government.

Opposition parties in favor of the ATT

With the exception of the separatist Bloc Québécois, all opposition parties–– the New Democratic Party, the Liberals and the Green Party––have declared themselves in favor of joining the ATT. However, in the current campaign for the parliamentary elections in October 2015, arms exports and international control mechanisms play only a subordinate role. Whether the political wind is changing, such that Canada will insist on stronger arms export controls under the next government, depends as so often above all on economic factors. The Canadian defense industry and the gun lobby would certainly not object to the continuation of the status quo. Prime Minister Harper and his government have indeed been of great service to them over the past nine years.


[i] Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Export Controls Handbook, retrieved on 8/23/15: http://www.international.gc.ca/controls-controles/export-exportation/exp_ctr_handbook-manuel_ctr_exp-p4.aspx?lang=eng

[ii] Chase, Steven, The Globe and Mail, “Canada not tracking Saudi rights record despite $15-billion arms deal,” published on 5/20/2015, retrieved on 8/21/15: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canada-not-tracking-saudi-rights-record-despite-15-billion-arms-deal/article24506186/

[iii] Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Export Controls Handbook, retrieved on 8/23/15: http://www.international.gc.ca/controls-controles/report-rapports/mil-2…

[iv] Chase, Steven, The Globe and Mail, “Head of Crown agency calls Middle East ‘strategic region’ for arms sales,” published on 5/28/15, retrieved on 8/21/15: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/head-of-crown-agency-calls-middle-east-strategic-region-for-arms-sales/article24656185/

[v] Jaramillo, Cesar, The Ploughshares Monitor, Volume 36 Issue 1, Spring 2015, “Paper tigers: Canada’s pursuit of military exports has left a trail of secrecy and lax standards”: http://ploughshares.ca/pl_publications/paper-tigers-canadas-pursuit-of-military-exports-has-left-a-trail-of-secrecy-and-lax-standards/

[vi] Chase, Steven, The Globe and Mail, “Human rights advocates blast arms deal with Saudi Arabia,” published on 5/20/2015, retrieved on 8/21/15: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/arms-deal-with-saudi-arabia-exposes-flaws-of-ottawas-export-control/article24536304/