The government of Canada is about to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first and only legally binding treaty designed to regulate the multibillion-dollar global arms trade. On April 13, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the introduction of new legislation that will harmonize Canadian laws with the new treaty. To that end, Ottawa has committed $13 million to “implement new brokering controls, improve transparency, and support enhancements to Canada’s export controls,” plus another $1 million to the United Nations Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation.
Diplomatically, Freeland’s press release omits to mention that Canadian accession to the ATT is long overdue. Under the Conservative governments of Stephen Harper, Canada was the only member of NATO and the G7 not to sign the ATT — a decision shaped not so much by the interests of the Canadian gun lobby as by Harper’s dislike of all things UN. Reversing this embarrassing position is not only one of 223 promises made by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the run-up to the 2015 election, but also part and parcel of the new government’s reboot of Canadian foreign policy.
Freeland correctly states that supporting the treaty can “help prevent human rights abuses and protect lives.” In addition to committing member states to restrict the flow of conventional weapons to conflict zones and countries where there is risk of human rights violations, the ATT adds a heretofore missing layer of accountability while also clarifying the stakes of arms trade to the publics at home.
This is especially relevant for exporting countries. Although the ATT decidedly cannot stop members from selling weapons to whomever they deem fit, it does make deals with human rights-abusing buyers more costly politically. An outstanding case in point, according to Canadian arms control and human rights organizations, is the Saudi LAV scandal — the $15 billion deal awarded to Canada in 2014 to provide Saudi Arabia with light armoured vehicles. Treaty membership would have made officials in Ottawa think twice before supporting a sale of weapons to a government with one of the worst human rights record in the world.
But would Canadian membership in the ATT have actually stopped the Saudi deal, and others like it? Research shows that Canada’s support of international human rights tends to hit a hard wall when it comes to the arms trade.
Montreal data journalist Naël Shiab recently did a path-breaking analysis for the magazine L’Actualité in which he found that in the past 25 years Canada sold $5.8 billion worth of weapons to countries with deeply questionable human rights records. The example showcased in the report is Algeria, which received $28 million worth of Canadian-made military gear despite being embroiled in a vicious civil war and being classified as dictatorship by Washington D.C.-based think tank Freedom House. Using freedom of information requests, Shiab also found that Canadian foreign ministers are exceptionally reluctant to refuse export permits. Reducing this reluctance should be one long-term effect of the upcoming ATT accession.
My own working paper on this issue, “A Nation of Feminist Arms Dealers? Canada and Military Exports,” compares Canadian arms exports to those of Sweden and the Netherlands, two arms exporting middle powers known for their progressive foreign policies. The main finding is that Canadian arms exporting behaviour is unexceptional when it comes to human rights. The data for the 1980-2010 period shows that Canada sold 15 percent of its military goods to buyers with “bad” or “very bad” human rights records. This is essentially in line with the behaviour of the two European “international do-gooder” middle powers — 14 percent for the Netherlands and 10 percent for Sweden.
The finding can be seen as a Rorschach test. People supportive of Canadian arms exports will probably interpret said 15 percent as a sufficiently low figure, while also pointing to the fact that Canada actually exports much less than its European peers. In contrast, those who favour arms trade restrictions will underscore the limitations of such comparisons. While it is true that the Canadian defence industry heavily depends on exports — a recent survey estimates the sector’s export intensity at 60 percent, well above the overall Canadian manufacturing average — it is also equally true that most of the export activity is with the United States.
Following the 1959 Canada-U.S. Defence Production Sharing Agreement, the term Canadian defence industry has come to refer mostly to small- and medium-sized enterprises that specialize in supplying components and subsystems for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics and other U.S. firms. (Attend CANSEC, Canada’s largest defence and security jamboree, next month in Ottawa, and you can witness this relationship in action.) This has implications for any quantitative analysis of arms trade. If these smaller arms flows were counted, overall Canadian exports would arguably look more formidable. It is also possible that Canadian-made components and subsystems end up in the hands of human rights violators at a higher rate than the equivalent Swedish or Dutch wares.
The ATT in fact helps resolve such debates. As more and more governments and non-governmental organizations produce reports on export licences, brokers, end users, volume, price and other details, international arms transfer data will gain in clarity, comprehensiveness and comparability.
Comparing Canada with Sweden may be of interest to Canadian arms trade-watchers for another reason. In Sweden’s current centre-left coalition government, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström has gained international headlines for her “feminist foreign policy.” An important part of this agenda has revolved around a moratorium of sorts on military cooperation with Saudi Arabia — a country notorious for its lousy record on women’s rights — and an attempt to make Swedish arms exports contingent on the recipients’ “democratic credentials.” Later this year, the government in Stockholm is expected to table a bill on more stringent export controls.
Whatever the epilogue of these Swedish goings-on, they are already shaping arms trade debates well beyond Sweden, including the ones in Canada. Joining the ATT will serve as a reminder to the Trudeau government about its unedifying role in the LAV scandal; indeed, the government may well be asked to commit to a “never again.” How to support indigenous defence industries while also reducing trade with human rights-abusing actors, however, is likely to remain a major policy challenge for Canada in the ATT era, as indeed it is for most arms-exporting democracies.