Canada is joining a global treaty aimed at regulating the arms trade, but the federal government still will not bring in measures that would make it more difficult to ship military goods to a country with a dismal human-rights record, such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria or China.
Those three countries ranked among the top 10 destinations for Canadian military goods in 2015.
The Arms Trade Treaty is a global effort to rein in the unregulated international arms trade and it obliges states to track arms exports and ensure they are not used to carry out human-rights abuses, including terrorism. It entered into force in 2014, but the former Conservative government balked at signing it, saying Canada's export regime was already among the "strongest in the world" and citing concerns, dismissed by arms control experts, that it might affect firearm owners. More than 80 countries have already ratified the treaty and close to 50 more have signed but not yet ratified it.
Canada will officially accede to the treaty in 2017, Ottawa announced Thursday, and, as part of this process, will formalize the screening system it has used to evaluate arms exports since 1986 and legally oblige the government to conduct the assessments.
Federal officials were clear, however, that Ottawa believes it does not have to raise its standards, saying once again that Canada already has among the "strongest export controls in the world."
Ottawa will also begin regulating the opaque business of arms brokering by Canadians. Federal officials currently don't know how many Canadian brokers are operating or where they are based. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said he will consult with businesses and non-governmental organizations before producing that legislation.
The Canadian Commercial Corporation, the government's defence export corporation, could be considered an arms broker because it arranges sales of military goods to foreign buyers. The Liberal government was not able to immediately answer whether the Canadian Commercial Corporation would be targeted by new regulations – measures that could affect its ability to market arms around the world.
Mr. Dion was not available to answer questions Thursday at the treaty announcement.
A senior government official who was designated to answer questions on signing on to the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty, but only on the condition the official was not identified, said Ottawa believes it already has sufficient restrictions on arms exports.
"Canada already has some of the strongest export controls in the world which means that we already meet the vast majority of the obligations under the arms trade treaty," the senior official said in a briefing.
"In a real sense, this treaty was designed to bring other countries – many of whom have no export control regimes in place – up to the high standards that Canada and our like-minded allies already apply through our robust export control regimes," the official said.
The Canadian government said joining the treaty reflects Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's commitment to work with other countries and would help bring about a "more transparent and accountable arms trade."
It's also promising easier-to-read and more detailed annual reports on military exports that will be published by May 31 the following year. Ottawa will now tell Canadians how many applications for military exports it denied each year – a figure that as recently as January, 2016, it told The Globe and Mail it was unable to provide.
Officials couldn't say whether Canada might begin releasing to Canadians specific details of arms sales as Sweden does. The Scandinavian country names the companies and transactions behind major defence and security goods exports each year.
The Canadian government's reports on arms exports are merely sum totals of military goods sales to each country by category without details about which companies or specific items are involved.
The government official said Canada remains concerned about shielding the identity of defence exporters but will consult with industry about whether more details of arms shipments might be released. "Canadian practice has been to date … to protect commercially confidential information."
Arms control advocates welcomed the Liberal decision to accede to the United Nations-sponsored treaty, but said they're leery about whether this will change much.
"But if recent practice is a predictor of what is to come, then there is still a lot to be desired in terms of Canada's export control regime," said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches and tracks arms shipments.
"There's a huge gap between lofty rhetoric and actual practice with regards to arms control. It's not the first time they've promised increased rigour and transparency and yet they continue to shield basic facts about major arms deals," Mr. Jaramillo said of the Liberal government.
"Rigour has to mean something."
In recent months, the Liberals have rejected an opposition motion to establish parliamentary oversight of foreign arms deals and refused to reveal whether Mr. Dion approved a shipment of military goods to Thailand, ruled by an undemocratic junta since 2014 coup, when he was asked to make a decision in early 2016. In April, Mr. Dion quietly issued export permits for the vast bulk of a controversial $15-billion deal to sell weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. His decision was the most crucial step in Canada's arms-control screening process and amounted to a judgment call that Saudi Arabia, notorious for human rights abuses, will not use the combat machines to commit them.
The Liberals had long insisted their hands were tied by the Conservative government's decision to sell the vehicles to Riyadh. But records obtained and published by The Globe and Mail last year show Global Affairs staffers saying that export-permit approval is the stage at which Ottawa really sanctions shipments. In 2014, the department undertook an initial review of the deal to check for "red flags." It found none but Debbie Gowling, a senior official in the export-controls division, reminded colleagues in an e-mail that there was no guarantee that the sale was officially approved by Ottawa until actual export-permit applications were processed.