Time to review Canada’s arms export policy

John Lamb and Ernie Regehr

Having now at least acknowledged that it has the authority, indeed responsibility, to cancel export permits to ship armored combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia under certain conditions, the Government needs to take the next logical step – to review and revamp the military commodities export policy that has been allowing such sales for some three decades.

Trade officials have long claimed that Canada operates a restrictive military export policy, and the general public may have had the impression that Canada is a careful, if not reluctant, arms merchant. But like the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be or seemed to be.  To understand this, we need to look back.

The origins of Canada’s policy go back to 1937 when the Spanish Civil War required Ottawa to institute Canada’s first licensing of arms exports.  These rudimentary controls were later expanded to meet the needs of World War II.  In 1948 Canada adopted what was then called a ‘restrictive’ policy.  It would voluntarily and unilaterally prohibit the export of Canadian military products in certain circumstances, even when ready markets and economic pressures to export existed.  This broadly reflected the ‘liberal internationalism’ of Canada’s approach to the world from the late-1940s through the early 1980s.

The broad impulse moving Canada to be restrictive in military exports was the Cold War.  This soon broadened, though.  With crisis brewing in the Middle East, in 1956 Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson for the first time announced that military exports would not be permitted to “areas of tension.”  In 1958, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker insisted that he be apprised, in advance, of all decisions to issue permits for arms sales to sensitive destinations.

Not everyone was happy with the policy, though.  In 1966, a Canadian official in the Middle East reported that other countries were profiting from growing Arab demand for arms and that Canada’s restrictive policy was becoming increasingly costly.  He advised Ottawa to reconsider it.  But in 1967, Foreign Affairs Minister Paul Martin Sr. rejected the call from trade officials to ease political control over military exports.

Soon after taking office in 1968, the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau endorsed the restrictive policy and even strengthened it by curbing promotional activities of Canadian officials abroad.  Then, in 1975 it instituted a policy review that led to three changes easing restrictions.  First, in future, export permit application reviews would take commercial considerations into account.  Second, it ended the veto the Foreign Affairs and Defence departments had long enjoyed over arms exports.  Third, the onus would now be on those advising against a particular sale, whereas previously the onus had been on those favouring it.

These changes, and the fact that military exports to the United States were and are entirely unrestricted (no export permit is required), encouraged a ‘drift’ toward reduced restraint in Canada’s policy that has continued under successive Liberal and Conservative governments.  That, together with a policy to try to enhance domestic military production in support of Canadian procurement, ultimately led to official acceptance of the export of lethal military goods to human rights violators as egregious as Saudi Arabia.

In the 1970s Ottawa helped General Motors convert its diesel division plant in London, Ontario so it could build Swiss-developed armored vehicles under license for the Canadian Forces. But the plant had a built-in export dependency since Canadian orders would not sustain long-term production, so export orders were also pursued. The justification was based on both economics and security. If the plant was forced to close after the Canadian orders were filled, not only would the London workers lose their jobs, but Canadian security would be undermined inasmuch as the Canadian Forces would be left without a competent repair facility and a reliable source for parts for its armored vehicles.

The first exports went to the US Marine Corps and shortly thereafter the US used the plant in London to procure armored vehicles which it then shipped to Saudi Arabia. Then came the opportunity to sell directly Saudi Arabia. In this case its guns would have to be installed in Canada, and that in turn required a change in regulations that prohibited the export of automatic weapons from Canada. The Mulroney Government made the change, decreeing that while automatic weapon sales would continue to be generally prohibited, exports would be permitted to countries on a new Country Control List.  The very first iteration of that list included, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia. Shipments of armored vehicles to Riyadh have continued under all Canadian governments since the early 1990s.

Other changes made in 1986 remain in place, and they in fact allow sales of military goods to persistent human rights violators, so long as the particular goods are deemed unlikely to be used against civilians.  In 1997 the Chrétien Government directed that the permit process “involve a more rigorous analysis of security issues and threats of hostilities, a strict interpretation of human rights criteria, and stricter controls of firearms,” but no changes were made to tighten the formal guidelines.

Justin Trudeau has indicated his determination to re-establish a principled Canadian foreign policy reflecting the values of liberal internationalism. Without a formal review with public input, guided by a clear recommitment to a genuinely restrictive and transparent military export control policy, those values will continue to give way to short-term exigencies that in turn lead to deals like the most recent one with the Saudis.

A study of countries with restrictive arms export policies, including Canada, shows that, in the absence of periodic reaffirmation of the commitment to restrictiveness based on thoughtful contemplation of longer-range values and interests, short-term exigencies produce the kind of drift away from restrictiveness described above.

Thus, we propose that the Trudeau Government initiate a broad public review of Canada’s military export policy.  Such a review would help ensure that exports are in line with today’s Canadian values and how we see – or want to see – our country’s place in the world.

John Lamb was Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament from 1983-94.  Ernie Regehr was Executive Director of Project Ploughshares from 1976-2006, and is currently Senior Fellow with The Simons Foundation and Research Fellow at the Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. Both have carried out extensive research on Canadian military exports.

Reprinted from Embassy, 27 January 2016 – http://www.embassynews.ca/


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