CJPME's Testimony to House Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development

tom.pngTuesday, November 7th, CJPME was invited by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development to testify on Bill C-47, an Act to amend the Export and Import Permits Act and the Criminal Code (amendments permitting the accession to the Arms Trade Treaty). 

Below is CJPME's President Thomas Woodley's testimonial.


1 Introduction

Good morning. My name is Thomas Woodley and I am president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME).  First, I wish to thank the committee for the kind opportunity to speak to you this morning.  It is a privilege to be here, and I look forward to a frank and honest discussion about Canada and its role in the sad realities of the international arms trade today.

CJPME is an organization whose mission is to empower Canadians of all backgrounds to promote justice, development and peace in the Middle East.  We have local activist groups across the country and we have approximately 125,000 Canadians who have participated in our activities or campaigns in the past.  Because of the devastating role that arms have played in the Middle East over the years, my organization has become increasingly involved in attempts to limit the flow of arms to the Middle East. 

2 Arms in the Middle East and the need for greater controls

In an attempt to help the Committee understand the arms escalation problem in the Middle East, I provide the following statistics published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Instititute (SIPRI), in a report issued earlier this year: [i]

  1. The volume of international arms transfers in the past 5 years was the highest since 1990.
  2. Over the past five years, the Middle East has accounted for 29% of all arms imports – a highly disproportionate share as compared to its population
  3. Saudi Arabia has moved from being the world’s eleventh largest arms importer during the period 2007–2011, to being the world’s second largest arms importer during the period 2012-2016, with an 8.2% share of the world’s arms trade.
  4. Five of the top 11 arms exporters over the past five years are located in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.
  5. Regionally, apart from North America, the Middle East is the greatest recipient of Canadian arms. 
  6. Over the past five years, excluding the US, Saudi Arabia has been the largest importer of Canadians arms.  The United Arab Emirates and Egypt are also among the top 5-6 importers of Canadian arms.

Clearly, the trends above run counter to the intents of the ATT, notably, the desire to contribute to international and regional peace; the desire to reduce human suffering; and the desire to promote co-operation, transparency, and responsible action by and among states. [ii] 

3 Emergence of the Arms Trade Treaty

CJPME was thrilled when the International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was first concretely debated in 2012, then adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2013, and entered into force in 2014.  However, despite our excitement at the adoption of the ATT by much of the world community, we were saddened and upset by the Canadian government’s reluctance to consider signing the treaty for much of the past several years.  

It is important to note that at the same time that the ATT was creating greater hope for higher standards and greater transparency in the movement of arms around the world, Canada was negotiating one of its largest arms deals yet – with a serial human rights abuser: Saudi Arabia.  This arms deal has been in and out of the news over the past 2-3 years, with two successive governments providing shifting justifications for this sale, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia regularly ranks among the "worst of the worst" among human rights violators.[iii] 

In fact, a survey of Canadians in September, 2017 by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail found that 64 per cent of Canadians “oppose” or “somewhat oppose” the Canadian government’s decision to sell light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi government. [iv]  Despite the fact that it’s common sense (as demonstrated by the survey results) that this sale should not have been approved, Canada’s existing export controls – as embodied in the Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA) – failed to prevent the sale.

There is clearly much to say about this sale, but it’s obvious that for a strong majority of Canadians, the current EIPA provisions did not properly function to prevent this sale. 

4  New Canadian intentions

When the Canadian government changed in 2015, CJPME was encouraged that there had been a campaign pledge to join the treaty, the promise stating, “We will ensure that Canada becomes a party to the international Arms Trade Treaty.”

We had high hopes that the new government would sign on to the treaty in a way which addressed the longstanding shortcomings of Canada’s existing arms export controls.  Nevertheless, when Bill C-47 was introduced, it was immediately clear that many of the fundamental objectives of the ATT were being circumvented through the provisions of the Bill, whether through omissions, through exclusions, or through deferral to regulations; whether intentionally, or unintentionally. 

5  Disconnects between C-47 and the ATT

The committee has already heard from a number of witnesses, and I believe there are important points to make regarding some of the testimony that the committee has already heard:

5.1  The need for a “legally binding obligation” in C-47

A witness for the government admitted that “Article 7 of the ATT requires each state party to consider a number of specific risks with respect to the items proposed for export, before authorizing the export to take place. […] The critical element was the need to create a legally binding obligation for the minister to take the ATT assessment considerations into account in deciding whether to issue an export permit.” [v] [italics added] 

First, we must be clear that the ATT establishes strict prohibitions on arms exports depending on an objective risk assessment, and that simply requiring taking “considerations into account” will not satisfy Canada’s obligations under the treaty.

The witness went on to suggest that the ATT requirement was “most effectively” implemented through regulation.

  • My organization vigorously disagrees with this conclusion.  Implementation of this obligation via regulation may be the “easiest” or “most malleable” implementation, but it creates a glaring loophole which could lead to high risk arms sales being approved.  In fact, it is precisely this type of loophole which led to the $15 billion Saudi Arms Deal to be approved under the existing EIPA, against the better judgement of the Canadian public. 
  • As such, my organization agrees with the testimony provided by several other witnesses before this committee which asserted that, in order to comply with the ATT fully, C-47 must oblige the Minister of Foreign Affairs to deny exports that carry an “overriding risk” of contributing to undermining international peace and security, or committing or facilitating serious violations of international law. 
  • Our recommendation would be that C-47 establish an obligatory minimum threshold for export approval as per the ATT.  I posit, for example, that there is no need for “flexibility” around the question of whether or not Canada should approve an arms sale if the arms in question risk being used in human rights violations.  If, according to government witnesses, additional flexibility is required to “accommodate evolving threats and new international norms,” let additional regulations address this need above and beyond the minimum threshold demanded by the ATT and codified in C-47. 

5.2  The need to report arms sales to the US under the C-47 implementation of the ATT

A witness for the government suggested that accession to the ATT would not require Canada to track and report arms sales to the US. [vi]  Nevertheless, a plain English reading of the ATT would suggest otherwise.

  • Article 1 of the ATT insists on the “highest possible common international standards” in the sale of arms.  Yet Canada’s existing arrangement with the US is neither a “high” standard nor a “common” standard. 
  • Article 2 of the ATT also makes clear that its implementation applies to “all” arms exports of acceding nations.  Exempting Canadian arms exports to the US specifically contradicts this obligation.
  • Finally, Article 5 of the ATT calls for the Treaty to be implemented in a consistent, objective and non-discriminatory manner. A separate, less stringent, process for Canadian arms exports to the US clearly is not the “consistent” standard demanded by the ATT. 

The government witness suggested that the ATT “does not specify how state parties should organize their export control systems.”  This may be a fair statement, as long as the export systems in question do not violate a nation’s obligations under the ATT.  However, Canada’s arrangement with the US under the Defence Production Sharing Agreement (DPSA) clearly does not meet Canada’s obligations under the ATT. 

5.3  Avoiding a decision between our ethics and Canadian jobs

I suspect that privately, many of the Committee members are as uncomfortable as I am with Canada’s $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.  However, because proponents of the deal have positioned it as a choice between “questionable risks” on the one hand, and “Canadian jobs” on the other, the issue becomes a political hot potato.  It is not surprising that elected representatives in successive governments would take the approach that they have, given that the alternative would be a form of political self-flagellation.  As such, I would recommend that Canada’s implementation of the ATT include provisions to enable lawmakers to avoid this type of political catch 22.  

Perhaps as the result of the role of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the Saudi Arms Deal from the get-go was presented as a trade-off that would jeopardize good paying Canadian defence jobs in London, Ontario.  Under Canada’s accession to the ATT, the ethical issues should be addressed much earlier in the sales process, long before people are calculating the trade-off in Canadian jobs. 

Naturally, a “legally binding obligation” on the Minister as required by the ATT could help prevent many morally questionable deals from even being considered.  But beyond that, CJPME would recommend that lawmakers look at other ways to segregate and “front load” the ethical considerations of a deal before the potential economic benefits of the deal are promoted publicly.  As mentioned above, there may be implications in terms of the ongoing role attributed to the Canadian Commercial Corporation. 

6 Other Considerations and Conclusion

The above discussion highlights our top concerns with the pending legislation.  CJPME would recommend that, if they have not already done so, Committee members be sure to review the document issued by a group of Canadian NGOs entitled, “Bill C-47 and Canadian Accession to the Arms Trade Treaty: Civil Society Concerns and Recommendations.”  This document was released officially on Oct. 16, and was the result of deliberations between many of Canada’s leading NGOs on this issue, including CJPME.  It details a number of items that go beyond the scope of my presentation here today. 

Through rigorous accession to the ATT, Canada has an opportunity to prevent unnecessary misery and suffering around the world as the result of unwise or illicit arms sales.  My organization and I exhort this Committee to propose the amendments necessary to ensure that Canada’s accession to the ATT adheres to both the letter and the spirit of the treaty. 

Thank you for your attention. I welcome any comments or questions related to my testimony.

[i] “The state of major arms transfers in 8 graphics,” Stockhom International Peace Research Institute, Feb. 22, 2017, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2017/state-major-arms-transfers-8-graphics accessed Nov. 6, 2017

[ii] Article 1 (Object and Purpose), The Arms Trade Treaty, https://unoda-web.s3-accelerate.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/English7.pdf accessed Nov. 6, 2017

[iii] “Saudi Arabia: Freedom in the World 2016,” Freedom House, 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2016/saudi-arabia accessed Nov. 6, 2017

[iv] Chase, Steven, “Most Canadians oppose arms deals with Saudi Arabia, poll finds,” The Globe and Mail, Sept. 13, 2017, https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/most-canadians-oppose-arms-deals-with-saudi-arabia-poll-finds/article36256402/ accessed Nov. 6, 2017

[v] “EVIDENCE, TUESDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2017,” STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, Oct. 17, 2017, https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/FAAE/meeting-75/evidence accessed Nov. 6, 2017

[vi] Ibid.