Parliamentary report heeds civil society calls for strengthened arms export control system

Foreign Affairs Committee Report to Parliament on Arms Export Controls

On 21 June 2021 the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development delivered its report to parliament on its study, begun in December 2020, of the Granting of Arms Exports with a Particular Focus on Permits Granted for Exports to Turkey.

Entitled Assessing Risk, Preventing Diversion And Increasing Transparency: Strengthening Canada’s Arms Export Controls in a Volatile World, the report lives up to its stated aim to strengthen the current regime.

It includes solid consensus recommendations for significant improvements in the management of Canada’s arms export controls, as well as a majority supplementary report (minus the Liberals) with additional action points, discussed below.

RI President Peggy Mason, who testified twice before the committee and provided a written brief, comments:

All Canadians interested in ensuring that our arms exports do not fuel conflict and facilitate grievous human rights abuses know what a long slog this effort has been.

We are certainly not there yet but this report is an important step in the right direction and we salute the committee members for it.

Members of the Arms Trade Treaty Civil Society coalition, including the Rideau Institute and Project Ploughshares, are quoted extensively in both the main and supplementary reports and, more importantly, its submissions are reflected in the committee’s recommendations to government.

The committee under Standing Order 109 has requested a “comprehensive response” to be tabled by the government to this report, due by 20 October 2021.

In our view, the most significant recommendation in the Main Report is the first one:

Recommendation 1

That the foremost consideration informing the Government of Canada’s arms export policy, including the assessment of risk, should be Canada’s domestic and international legal obligations, and that those obligations should be applied universally and consistently in all decisions about permit applications. …

This recommendation is a direct rebuke to the notion that a review of an export permit application should involve “balancing” Canada’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty with other foreign policy and commercial considerations.

The committee elaborated on this recommendation at page 23 of the report as follows:

There is, in other words, no balancing in the Committee’s mind between commercial and diplomatic interests and the assessment of risk, as determined by the legal obligations Canada has undertaken.

While Canada’s commercial interests should rightly be promoted abroad, in any instances of conflict between those interests and the probability of risk, the course of action dictated by the risk assessment must prevail.

Earlier in the report, relevant testimony on this issue is referenced and, as noted above, acted upon:

Peggy Mason, former Ambassador and President, Rideau Institute on International Affairs, argued that, while Canada does not have “an international legal obligation to export arms,” it does have “an international legal obligation to export those arms in accordance with the obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.”

Supplementary Report supports consideration of RI independent agency proposal

Beginning at page 39 of the report, observations and recommendations backed by the “Conservative, Bloc and NDP members, representing the majority of the committee”, are set out, including the following:

Recommendation 5

That the Government of Canada should consider creating a new independent body for the review of applications for arms export permits.

The Rideau Institute first began advocating for such an independent, impartial, expert body back in October 2020, and it was the focus of the 10 December testimony by the RI President.

The arguments in favour include:

  • No conflict of interest on the part of the administrators between trade promotion and respecting human rights, UN arms embargoes and other Canadian legal obligations;
  • Officials not being asked to review their own past recommendations;
  • Independent expert legal advice based on all available evidence together with other requisite expertise guiding the decisions.

And a House of Commons Committee could be mandated to provide parliamentary oversight, as recommended by Project Ploughshares.

Both the main and supplementary reports support the vital role of civil society

The report includes recommendations that recognize and support the vital role of civil society in both managing and strengthening our arms export control system. Accordingly, they call on Global Affairs Canada to:

  • Engage in “regular and meaningful consultations” with civil society (Rec 3), and
  • Act promptly on “credible concerns” about misuse of Canadian technology raised by civil society (Rec 4).

Post-delivery verification

One of the areas of focus for both the main and supplementary reports was significantly improving Canada’s virtually non-existent system for post-delivery verification. In the view of the committee (page 30):

notwithstanding the complexities and sensitivities involved, some form of post-shipment verification system could increase public confidence in Canada’s arms export control regime, particularly in cases where concerns have been raised about a recipient’s human rights record or foreign policy orientation.

Global Affairs Canada, we are happy to report, is already developing a working paper on post-delivery verification measures (PDVM) as part of the intersessional work of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty and has sought civil society inputs to the document.

The Rideau Institute submission includes the following recommendation:

Civil society organizations can play an important role in the development of best practices in relation to post-delivery verification in general and can also be a potentially important resource for the provision of information of relevance to the assessment of post-delivery risks in specific situations.

There should be regular, institutionalized GAC-CSO engagement on best practices in relation to Canada’s Arms Trade Treaty obligations, including in relation to the prevention, detection and mitigation of diversion.

The full Rideau Institute submission can be found here.

Broader foreign policy considerations: the example of Nagorno-Karabakh

In our view the only credible argument against an independent agency to administer Canada’s arms export controls is that, even where the proposed export does not contravene Canada’s ATT obligations, there might be other foreign policy considerations at play, which GAC is best placed to assess.

The case of Canada’s approval of Wescam drone targeting technology for export to Turkey, which was then transferred to Azerbaijan for use in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — the instigation for the Foreign Affairs Committee study in the first place — does not provide much confidence about the ability of Global Affairs Canada to appropriately weigh such broader considerations.  In the words of Christian Leuprecht, professor at Canada’s Royal Military College and Queen’s University:

ultimately, Canadian technology here fundamentally changed the geostrategic status quo, and it changed it in a way that was not in Canada’s interest and not aligned with NATO interests. Canada thus inadvertently aided and abetted a change in the geostrategic status quo.

Canada does not even seem to have considered these broader implications. Indeed, the supplementary report at page 40 cites evidence:

suggesting a link between Turkey’s support for the Hon. [Bill] Morneau’s [OECD Secretary-General] candidacy and the approval of arms export permits to Turkey.

In any event, it would be entirely appropriate for Global Affairs Canada to retain the right, on broader foreign policy grounds, to reject a permit that would have been otherwise given the okay by the independent agency.

Another strong argument in favour of an independent export control agency relates to the assessment of whether the proposed export would “contribute to or undermine peace and security”, the first risk criterion in the Arms Trade Treaty and in Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA), as set out Article 7.3(1)(a). In the view of

Heretofore Canada has shown its willingness to flout clear international assessments of a negative impact on peace and security when it comes to the UN Expert Panels, the war in Yemen and our Saudi exports.

We have no doubt that an independent agency would give due weight to such authoritative evidence.

Whither Canada

This is an extremely clear and compelling report, summarizing the evidence, providing the Committee’s views thereon and making substantive recommendations to significantly strengthen Canada’s arms export control process.

We are encouraged by the fact that Canada has already begun work in earnest on identifying best practices in relation to post-delivery verification measures and undertaking civil society consultations thereon.

We call on the Government of Canada to accept the Committee’s recommendations and to table a comprehensive response on their implementation as soon as possible.

As a matter of urgency, we also call on the Government of Canada to immediately begin to apply Recommendation 1 of the report: that the foremost consideration informing the Government of Canada’s arms export policy, including the assessment of risk, should be Canada’s domestic and international legal obligations, and that those obligations should be applied universally and consistently in all decisions about permit applications.

For the April 27 Committee hearing where testimony was heard from RI President Peggy Mason, former RI Board member Professor Michael Byers and other international security experts, click on the arrow below.

Biden–Putin Summit and Arctic Cooperation

Much of the post-summit commentary missed an important area of potential Russia–USA cooperation — namely the Arctic. Melody Schreiber and Krestia DeGeorge, writing for Arctic Today, were a welcome exception:

In a press conference following the three-hour meeting, Putin pointed to the Arctic as a zone of understanding between the U.S. and Russia, while in a separate press conference Biden said the leaders discussed how to ensure “the Arctic remains a region of cooperation rather than conflict”.

The article goes on to outline the views of several Arctic affairs experts to the effect that the summit leaders’ positive discussion of the Arctic offers a window for real — if limited — progress in bringing the two nations closer, with areas of potential collaboration including:

  • Research on the effects of the thawing of permafrost on infrastructure, coastal erosion and the release of methane and carbon dioxide;
  • Continued joint work on search and rescue; and
  • Specific actions to address climate change.

Deep differences of course remain between the US and Russia over Russia’s interpretation of internal waters under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (an interpretation Canada shares), and in particular over Russia’s military build-up in its Arctic.

For more on these and other important Arctic security issues, download our ebook by clicking here. It is also featured in our 21 May 2021 blog.

Better dialogue on military issues

One of the proposals discussed in the final chapter of the book is the potential reopening of dialogue processes between Arctic military leaders, suspended in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  As contributing author Ernie Regehr has emphasized:

These military-to-military talks are not a reward for good behaviour. They are vital diplomatic tools to reduce military tensions, avoid misunderstandings and clarify intentions among Arctic states.

Military matters are not covered by the Arctic Council. Nonetheless, at the meeting in May where Russia assumed the Council chairmanship for 2021-22, Foreign Minister Lavrov reiterated a Russian call to restart these types of talks, stating:

It is important to extend the positive relations that we have within the Arctic Council to encompass the military sphere as well.

Arctic expert Mike Sfraga, director of the Wilson Centre’s Polar Institute, commenting after the Biden–Putin Summit, did not think such meetings were likely to resume in the next few months. He did, however, see the possibility that high-ranking military members could:

Begin the discussions about discussions.

Whither Canada?

We call on the Government of Canada to strongly support the resumption of military-to-military dialogue processes among Arctic states, as a vital diplomatic tool for reducing risk and building confidence.

New Co-chairs of CNANW discuss Nuclear Disarmament, Public Opinion and Canada’s Role

The Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW), established in 1996, is the umbrella organization for Canadian national organizations with a shared commitment to nuclear disarmament. All have endorsed the following statement:

We believe that the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons are abhorrent and morally wrong. We call on the Government of Canada to work urgently with other nations to conclude a Convention which will set out a binding timetable for the abolition of all nuclear weapons in the world. has often featured articles, letters and Calls to Action from CNANW under the previous Chair, Earl Turcotte, for whose dedication, commitment and leadership we are very grateful.

Now the baton has passed to new co-chairs, Robin Collins and Sylvie Lemieux, who have penned a thoughtful and timely article in the 25 June issue of the Hill Times entitled: If most oppose nuclear weapons, why do we still have them?

It begins with national and international polling data indicating overwhelming support for nuclear weapon elimination but then points out:

And yet, almost half [of those polled] “believe nuclear weapons are an effective instrument of deterrence.”

In the authors’ view:

There lingers a belief that possessing a nuclear arsenal may protect you from enemies. There is also a lack of political leadership countering this dangerous illusion.

The article reminds us of past Canadian leadership on steps towards nuclear disarmament and outlines a range of actions that Canada can begin to take to “Get back in the game”. They write:

Canada can also at minimum sit in as observer to the inaugural meeting of States Parties (likely in January 2022) of the new TPNW to show solidarity with the goals of its 122+ supporting or signatory states.

This is also being considered by Germany.

The article also highlights a global campaign for No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons and a missed opportunity by Canada and other NATO leaders:

At the NATO summit of leaders this month, Canada had an opportunity to help promote NFU for the alliance as a game-changing safer policy, but also as an early step towards nuclear weapon elimination.

They conclude:

This opens up the urgently needed discussion of alternatives to nuclear deterrence, a shift to sustainable common security for all peoples, and protection of the global environment.

Canada needs to be there.

For non-subscribers to the Hill Times, the pdf. version is available here with the kind permission of the authors.

For an excellent article on ending one of the most dangerous aspects of current American nuclear weapons policy, see Biden should end the launch-on-warning option (, 22 June 2021).  Author Frank N. von Hippel writes:

President Biden has indicated he does not support first use of US nuclear weapons. He should end the launch-on-warning option and the danger it entails of an unintended nuclear Armageddon.

Whither Canada?

We support the CNANW co-chairs’ call for Canada to participate as an Observer in the inaugural meeting of States Parties of the new TPNW to show solidarity with the nuclear disarmament goals of its 122+ supporting or signatory states.

Photo credit: Parliament of Canada (FAEE report cover)






Tags: Arctic cooperation, Arctic Security, Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW), diversion, global campaign for no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, launch on warning, Nagorno-Karabakh, post-delivery verification measures, risk assessment, strengthening Canada's arms export controls, WESCAM EO/IR sensors