Canada and the Arms Trade Treaty
By Jennifer Wiebe, Director of the Ottawa Office, MCC Canada
During the marathon (by Canadian standards!) election campaign, the Liberal Party claimed its vision for “a more compassionate Canada”—a “sunnier” Canada that would re-engage multilateral institutions, re-invest in public diplomacy, and reverse the decline in foreign aid.
Three months after their win, the Liberals have moved in as governing party. Political staffers are slowly (but surely) taking their positions. And everyone in Ottawa has hit the ground running, trying to give legs to the many promises made on the campaign trail.
The slogan around town is, “Canada’s back.”
As the newly-appointed Foreign Affairs Minister, Stéphane Dion has a role to play in rebooting Canada’s image. His mandate letter, while containing a dash of politics-as-usual, also signals some decisive foreign policy shifts—even a re-commitment to peace operations, mediation, and conflict prevention.
To what extent any security paradigm-shift will be implemented remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one encouraging step is the promise to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
Given the widespread accessibility of cheap weapons has been a key factor in exacerbating conflict and fueling displacement around the world, MCC welcomes this promise. The illicit flow of small arms and light weapons (even a steady trickle across porous borders) can wreak havoc, destabilizing communities, negatively impacting development, supporting the emergence of extremist movements, and even sustaining the power of autocratic regimes. Weapons diversion is, according to the UN Secretary-General, a “colossal problem around the world.”
Massive injections of arms from the outside can have a destabilizing effect across entire regions. After the fall of Gadhafi, weapons that were poured into Libya by the international community—which was arming various actors within the conflict—began feeding terrorist movements in Mali, Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon. It’s also no secret that so-called Islamic State militants are well-armed because they’ve laid claim to Soviet, Chinese, and American weapons seized from over-run (U.S.-backed) Iraqi military bases.
In other words, the international community—with its $1.76 trillion annual arms trade—has a role to play in ensuring volatile contexts don’t get flooded with weapons that provide corrupt governments or armed groups with the primary means of perpetuating violence and intimidation.
Enter the Arms Trade Treaty. Coming into force just in time for Christmas of 2014, the ATT is the first (and long overdue!) global agreement regulating the trade and transfer of conventional (non-nuclear) arms, ranging from light weapons to fighter jets, armoured combat vehicles, and warships, as well as their related ammunition, parts, and components. The treaty imposes strict conditions on arms transfers (export, import, transit, transshipment, and brokering), requiring states to assess the potential for weapons to be used in committing serious violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law.
All said, it’s a crucially important convention. But, of course, it ain’t perfect.
Critics will note (quite rightly) a central weakness of the ATT—the assessment and authorization of whether an arms transfer risks undermining peace and security is undertaken solely by the exporting state. In other words, the treaty doesn’t really challenge the political interests of arms exporters (not a huge shocker; after all, what did we expect?). And while there are transparency measures, there is no enforcement regime.
Yet the creation of the ATT acknowledges the enormous costs of not regulating the arms trade. Besides, what other instrument puts states on the hot seat, forcing them to justify their arms sales to gross human rights violators?
So, whither Canada?
Well, to date, Canada is the only member of the G7 and the only country of all 28 NATO members not to have signed the landmark treaty.
The previous government’s rationale? That Canada already has a strong export-control system for weapons.
Canada’s track record, however, tells a different story. When selling arms to countries with persistent records of serious human rights abuses, Canada must first obtain assurances that there is no reasonable risk the weapons could be used against civilians. Recent deals to Colombia, Nigeria, Libya, and, most notably, Saudi Arabia, then, raise troubling questions about how the government determines who it sells weapons to.
Given that Saudi Arabia annually tops the charts as among the worst human rights violators in the world, how could Canada’s (largest-ever) $15 billion contract to sell armoured-vehicles to the Saudi National Guard pass muster? Far from being merely “jeeps” (as now-Prime Minister Trudeau called them on the campaign trail), these vehicles—some of which will be weaponized with turrets and cannons supplied by a European subcontractor—are surely capable of mass destruction.
Still, the foreign affairs minister is standing by this contract for its economic value (though taking some flak for this position). Yet acceding to the ATT is in his mandate. It’s right there in his letter.
Yes, I recognize that foreign policy is, as one columnist recently put it, “more about dark arts than sunny ways.” State interests rule. But I’m still holding out hope. Effective arms control is possible when there is political will (and public support).
Sure, the ATT is flawed, and it isn’t a panacea. Conflicts won’t simply end tomorrow because of it (though they will be harder to carry out and sustain!). Yet it is a tool that outlines how governments can, and should, exercise greater restraint in the weapons trade—a tool that can help shift norms and behaviour over the long-term.
A critical achievement indeed.
Arms photos courtesy of Project Ploughshares.