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Federal Liberals strengthen arms exports bill but experts say big loopholes remain

OTTAWA — After months of delay, Liberals have tweaked a bill setting out new arms export rules but left loopholes open that some experts say defeat the the legislation’s purpose.
The bill that facilitates Canada’s accession to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty passed committee stage in the House of Commons Thursday after Liberals took nearly four months to draft changes.
“It’s a great thing that we’re continuing to move towards getting on board the Arms Trade Treaty. The amendments that were made today are a step forward on some key fronts, but there are still very significant shortcomings that need to be addressed,” said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
The UN treaty attempts to regulate the international arms trade and diminish its role in human rights violations by setting out criteria on how countries and their industries should sell weapons to each other.
Canada’s domestic legislation will now put the list of those criteria right into law. Liberals also added an explicit requirement that the foreign affairs minister not approve exports of arms where there is “substantial risk” they could be used for serious human rights violations.
Last month the Philippines cancelled a US$234-million purchase of Canadian helicopters amid a firestorm over alleged human rights violations perpetrated by its government. After Canada said it would review the sale, the Philippines called it off.
In another memorable example, the nascent Liberal government gave the final rubber-stamp to a $15-billion export of Canadian armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, brokered under the Conservatives. News reports have since alleged the vehicles are being used against civilians.
Both deals had been facilitated by the government-funded Canadian Commercial Corporation. Neve said Bill C-47 would’ve proved a golden opportunity to clarify the Crown corporation’s rules and mandate, but the CCC is not mentioned.
Canadians do not want a government with blood on its hands, New Democrat foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière suggested Thursday. “It’s not a small fringe of the population concerned about this. It’s a significant share,” she said.
“Canadians are rightly concerned about how arms could be used to perpetuate regional and international conflicts in which civilians have suffered and lost their lives,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a speech Wednesday to the UN’s disarmament conference in Geneva. “We must be confident that our institutions are equipped to ensure we are not perpetuating these conflicts. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
One of the Bell helicopters sold to the Philippines by the Canadian government in 2015. A deal for further helicopters fell through last month. Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
Still, additional changes proposed by the New Democrats and supported by Neve and Mason were rejected by the Liberals and Conservatives on the committee. One would’ve required Canada to report on what happens to weapons and military parts after they are exported to the United States, which is not party to the UN treaty. Another would’ve allowed existing export permits to be revisited if new information emerged about violations.
The Rideau Institute’s Peggy Mason said she is pleased that the “substantial risk” clause is now present — though it should’ve been further extended to the entire government, rather than just to the minister, she said.
But she is concerned that Liberals are failing to adhere to the spirit of the treaty by not tracking, controlling or reporting on exports to the United States. An estimated 50 per cent or more of Canada’s arms exports flow to the U.S. and parts or weaponry are often resold elsewhere.
Under its previous administration the U.S. froze exports of military aircraft to Nigeria because the Nigerian military had been accused of human rights abuses. But the current administration under Donald Trump has lifted the suspension. The planes have Canadian engines.
“We would never, ever do that if we were exporting them directly to Nigeria. So it’s not a minor problem,” Mason said. “It’s a major failure to meet a key obligation of the treaty.”
For Canada not to place stricter requirements on itself sets a bad precedent internationally, she said. “If you’ve got among the alleged, supposed good guys this kind of behaviour, it’s not good.”
Bill C-47 must be debated and voted on at third reading in the House of Commons before it heads to the Senate. Seeking senators’ support for more changes to the bill will clearly be a “next step,” Neve said.

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