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A Canadian soldier examines an automatic APC cannon before a drill in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Canadian trainers are helping Ukraine modernize its tactics ​to ​combat pro-Russian separatists.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Two human-rights groups have teamed up to oppose a plan by the outgoing Conservative government to allow the sale of so-called prohibited weapons to Ukraine, including automatic assault rifles and armoured vehicles.

Amnesty International Canada and Project Ploughshares have written to the Department of Foreign Affairs expressing concern about the potential consequences of adding the embattled eastern European government to the list of countries to which Canada can sell automatic firearms.

There are 39 countries on Canada's automatic firearms country control list, including Saudi Arabia, to whom General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont., recently sold $13-billion in armoured vehicles despite the opposition of human rights groups.

Foreign Affairs has been in the process of consulting on the Ukraine proposal since it was introduced last summer, around the time Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a free trade agreement with the country's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

The move was seen at the time as opening the door for Canada to expand its support for Ukraine, which to this point has only received non-lethal defensive equipment and medical supplies to offset its losses in the ongoing conflict with Russian-backed rebels.

Both Amnesty and Project Ploughshares say exporting weapons should be withdrawn until the human rights situation in the country improves, citing brutal police tactics used to suppress the anti-government protests in the fall of 2013 – something that led to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych's government the following year.

Despite the change in government and police reforms undertaken by the international community, the groups say there is still the threat of possible human rights abuses.

"We recommend that until they have mitigated these risks, Ukraine should not be added to the AFCCL," said a letter to the Foreign Affairs Department, obtained recently by The Canadian Press.

Getting on to the list is the first step in approving the export of arms to the country. Each sale would still require federal government approval; it is unclear what Justin Trudeau's incoming Liberal government will do about the Ukraine proposal.

Both human rights groups also question whether Canadian-made weapons would be used against civilians in the conflict against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

"Both sides have repeatedly violated the laws of war," said the letter, dated July 10, 2015.

"Individuals have been abducted, and prisoners have been brutally beaten and subjected to mock executions. Civilians who have not committed any crime, but who sympathize with the opposing side, have been held arbitrarily. Both sides have failed to take reasonable precautions to protect civilians during fighting."

Marko Shevchenko, Ukraine's Charge d'Affaires in Ottawa, said apprehension about the security forces relates to actions of the former government and don't reflect the current situation.

"My point of view is that a big part of these concerns are based on irrelevant or even unfair arguments," he said late Monday.

His comments were echoed by Taras Zalusky, executive director Ukrainian Canadian Congress, who noted that his organization also petitioned the Foreign Affairs department in support of adding the country to the list.

"Since April of 2014, Russia has led and backed diversionary groups and terrorist acts in the Eastern Ukrainian Oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk," said the June 17, 2015 letter from the congress.

"This has been followed by direct Russian Federation supply of irregular and now regular armed forces, as well as heavy arms and munitions. For all these reasons, we encourage the government and the Governor in Council to allow exporters of certain prohibited firearms, prohibited weapons and prohibited devices to submit permit applications for the export of these items to Ukraine so that it may defend itself against external aggression and violations of its territorial integrity by the Russian Federation."

The new government in Ukraine, led by President Petro Poroshenko, has been outspoken in its plea to Ottawa, Washington and other western capitals for advanced weapons to counter Russian-backed separatists.

But the Obama administration, and to a lesser extent the outgoing Conservative government, have resisted the calls. U.S. lawmakers and military commanders were in favour last spring, but the White House has only authorized the delivery of Humvees and unarmed drones.

Congress slipped a provision into the recent defence budget to authorize lethal aid to Ukraine, but the president vetoed it.

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