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Politics Three of top 10 buyers of Canada’s military goods have bad human-rights records

Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV) parked on the lot of the General Dynamics / Land Systems factory where they are built in London, Ont., on Wednesday, April 13, 2016. Canada has a deal to send combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Dave Chidley/The Globe and Mail

Sales of Canadian military equipment to China have soared and the Chinese are now the third biggest overseas customers for Canada's defence and security goods, a new government report reveals.

This means that three of the top 10 buyers of Canadian military goods now are countries with bad human-rights records, according to statistics released by Global Affairs Canada Friday. The other two are Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the controversial buyer of Canadian-made combat vehicles.

Shipments to China in 2015 exceeded $48-million, Global Affairs said.

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Ottawa, however, is reporting exports bound for Chinese destinations in a manner that understates the rise of China as a customer for Canadian military goods.

It lists the destination of these $48-million in exports as Hong Kong, rather than China, even though Hong Kong has been part of the People's Republic of China since 1997, when British rule ended there.

Hong Kong retains some autonomy and has its own small fleet of aircraft, for instance, but China has authority over foreign affairs and defence in the former British colony.

The result of Canada's reporting is that Hong Kong, rather than China, appears in a list of the top 10 destinations for Canadian military goods and technology laid out in the latest Global Affairs report.

Ottawa won't tell Canadians exactly what was shipped, or which company sold the goods.

It will only say that a Canadian company sold aircraft or unmanned drones or aircraft engines and equipment "designed or modified for military use."

The report doesn't say whether these are Bombardier Challenger 605 aircraft delivered to the Hong Kong Flying Service in 2015. Ottawa refuses to detail specific details on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

Officially, according to this Canadian government report, military exports to Hong Kong in 2015 exceeded $48-million but military exports to China itself were only a paltry $41,585.

"It suggests they are trying to hide the real figure on sales to China," Ken Epps, a researcher with Project Ploughshares, said of the new 2015 report. Project Ploughshares is a disarmament group, in Waterloo, Ont., that is an agency of the Canadian Council of Churches and tracks arms shipments.

As a measure of how much has changed in recent years, in 2014, Canada shipped only $49,165 to China, and $611,443 to Hong Kong. In 2013, those numbers were $1.3-million for China and $2,800 for Hong Kong.

Exports to Algeria jumped to more than $28-million in 2015 from a little more than $1-million in 2014, making the north African country No. 7 among overseas customers for Canadian military goods. Global Affairs says the vast bulk of it was "imaging or countermeasure equipment designed for military use."

In Algeria, watchdog Human Rights Watch says, "Authorities curtail free speech and the rights to freedom of association, assembly, and peaceful protest. They also arbitrarily arrest and prosecute political and trade-union activists." Last month, the group said, an Algerian court sentenced a labour-rights defender to six months in prison "for posting a video on Facebook criticizing a prison term for a colleague." In March, police in Algiers beat teachers demonstrating for greater job security, injuring at least two.

A benchmark the Canadian government is using to put a positive gloss on its military exports record is coming under heavy criticism from arms-control advocates – particularly after controversy about Canada's massive sale of combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

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Global Affairs says in the 2015 military-equipment export report that 83 per cent of the defence and security goods shipped abroad went to countries that rank high on the United Nations Human Development Index, which considers factors such as life expectancy and education.

The index, however, does not take into account human rights. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is an extremely wealthy country that scores high on the UN development index, but ranks among the "worst of the worst" when it comes to U.S. watchdog Freedom House's scoring on human rights.

John Packer, director of the University of Ottawa's Human Rights Research and Education Centre, said the Trudeau government talks of "evidence-based policy making" but isn't practising this when it measures the soundness of arm exports with a metric that excludes the human-rights conduct of customers.

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