The Canadian government has quietly watered down its own mandate for screening the export of military goods, rewriting parts of the only substantive public statement available on Ottawa's responsibilities for policing foreign sales.
The Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada, published by the department of Global Affairs, offers the best insight into Ottawa's export-control policy when it comes to screening deals to sell defence products to foreign customers. A separate export-control handbook provides more of a technical manual for exporters.
The wording in these annual reports, in particular on whether Canada can ship to a country with a poor human-rights record, has figured prominently in the debate over the $15-billion sale of weaponized armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia and whether the Liberal government was abiding by the rules when it greenlighted this deal in April, 2016.
Both the 2014 and 2015 versions of the Report on Exports of Military Goods were released recently by the Trudeau government. Like previous reports, they include several pages of prefatory statements that articulate the rationale and guiding principles for screening weapons sales.
Several significant changes, however, stand out. Ottawa has revised a key statement about the rationale for its arms export-control policy.
It has removed a phrase about how export controls are intended to "regulate and impose certain restrictions on exports" in response to clear policy objectives.
Instead, it substitutes more anodyne language saying the goal of Canada's export controls on military goods is, in fact, to "balance the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business" with this country's "national interest."
This edit removes the only reference in the entire document to restricting and regulating the export of military goods.
The deleted phrase said Canada was supposed to regulate, where necessary, in order to comply with a series of objectives outlined earlier in the preamble of each year's military goods export report. These objectives – including closely controlling military exports to countries with poor human-rights records – remain in the latest reports but are no longer tied to the notion of regulating and restricting shipments.
Secondly, Ottawa has reduced its mandate when it comes to describing how export controls help fight the diversion of weapons. Diversion refers to situations in which military goods end up being used for something other than their intended function or by people other than the intended user.
As The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year, Canadian-made armoured vehicles sold to Saudi Arabia's National Guard have been used to help Riyadh fight a war in neighbouring Yemen. Combat vehicles made in Canada have been filmed fighting Houthi rebels from Yemen who are part of that country's civil war. This is a diversion from the intended use because the Saudi National Guard's role is supposed to be to protect the monarchy from internal threats.
Under the policy as laid out in earlier annual military export reports, a specific goal of Ottawa's screening of arms shipments is to ensure exports would not be "diverted to ends that could threaten the security of Canada, its allies, or other countries or people."
The new wording eliminates the reference to "other countries." It now mentions "the security of Canada, its allies or civilians."
Yemen is not an ally of Canada's but it is another country. So while the use of Canadian-made light armoured vehicles in Yemen would qualify as a diversion under the old language, it doesn't under the new language.
In a third edited section, the government has relaxed its commitment to a key stage in the export control process. The previous wording of Ottawa's mandate on export controls said that as a matter of course, "wide-ranging consultations are held" through the federal government to examine the human rights, international security and defence implications of a particular export deal.
Now, the new version says the assessment process "may include" such consultations.
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a disarmament group that is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches and tracks arms shipments, said the changes amount to a rewrite of Canada's mandate for screening foreign sales of military goods.
"Taken together, these changes effectively weaken Canada's export control policy," said Mr. Jaramillo, whose organization uncovered the revisions to the arms export policy.
Finally, the Canadian government has dropped a boast that used to lead off these reports, eliminating a sentence that said: "Canada has some of the strongest export controls in the world." Instead, it now says: "Canada's export controls are rigorous and in line with those of our principal allies and partners in the major export controls regimes."
The federal government plays down the changes – cautioning against reading too much into them.
"The 2014 and 2015 Reports on Exports of Military Goods from Canada that were tabled in Parliament are merely that – reports on exports of military goods," François Lasalle, a department of Global Affairs spokesman, said last week.
He said that, at the Liberal government's request, the reports have been revised to make them "clearer [to read] than was the case in the past." Mr. Lasalle said Ottawa intends to work with Canadian business and non-governmental organizations to make them even "more informative and useful."
Andrea Charron, a member of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, said export controls have arguably always been about balancing businesses interests and Canada's national interests.
"One of the reasons that you are starting to see slight changes is because time and time again Canada and other NATO countries have found that when they have very, very restrictive arms controls, all of the sudden it means they can't actually arm people they want to arm," she said.
She said what will be important is to see whether the Liberal government's commitment to join the global Arms Trade Treaty ends up strengthening export controls. "When all of the legislation is completed, we may find it is actually stronger."
Prof. Charron said countries need to think carefully about being too prescriptive in regulations. "A lot of states are saying 'We don't know, especially in these geopolitically interesting times where you never know who is going to be your enemy, your ally ... that if we are too prescriptive and too high-handed and moralistic in the types of regulations we set, we could actually be doing more harm than good in the future'."
The former Harper government dragged its feet by publishing these reports only sporadically but the Liberals say they plan to ensure they are tabled annually by May 31 for the previous year.
Mr. Lasalle said the government plans to formalize the assessment criteria used by the Minister of Foreign Affairs in deciding whether to allow exports of military goods as part of Canada's move to join the Arms Trade Treaty.
Four changes to the export of military goods
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, explains the four most significant changes to the government's policy governing the export of military goods.
No more restrictions
Perhaps the most significant change relates to the way in which the rationale of the export-control policy is articulated. Previously the policy specifically indicated that Canada's export controls are meant "to regulate and impose certain restrictions on exports in response to clear policy objectives." The revised policy completely removes the reference to regulations and restrictions. Now it states that export controls are intended "to balance the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business with the national interest of Canada."
From mandatory to optional
Another significant change makes a key stage in the export-control process optional. The previous policy stated that wide-ranging consultations "are held" among various government departments with expertise in different areas, including human rights, when assessing export-permit applications. In the revised policy, the assessment process simply "may include" such consultations.
Watering down diversion
A further revision relates to diversion – using military exports for anything other than the intended use or by anyone other than the intended user. Under previous policy, a specific goal was to ensure that exports would not "be diverted to ends that could threaten the security of Canada, its allies or other countries or peoples." The new wording does away with "other countries." Presumably Yemen is one of those "other countries," whose security no longer needs to be considered when assessing export-permit applications. Even so, recent evidence suggests that Canadian-made armoured vehicles may have been used by the Saudi Arabian National Guard in cross-border hostilities as part of the Saudi campaign against Yemen-based Houthi rebels.
While Canada's export-control policy already indicated that some details of military exports cannot be disclosed because of commercial confidentiality, the revised version spells out the particular attributes that are not to be disclosed. The names of exporting companies, for example, are now specifically protected.