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Canada’s transparency in arms sales should apply to our biggest customer

Andrew Stobo Sniderman was the human-rights policy adviser to former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion. He is a visiting researcher at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa

The federal government says its new legislation to implement the international Arms Trade Treaty will increase transparency and accountability. That would be welcome news, given that we are talking about how Canada sells weapons that kill people.

Unfortunately, the proposed legislation leaves an exception as big as the rule.

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Canada sends about half its arms exports to the United States – maybe more, maybe less, nobody really knows. That is because current rules do not require reporting on arms sales to the United States. It is probably more than you think, and our hands may be dirtier than you know.

There are two main reasons given in support of our current approach. First, it is best for business. The border barely exists for the defence industry, and that is the way integrated supply chains want it. Many jobs, families and seats in the House of Commons depend on a seamless flow of military goods, often parts and components.

Second, we like and trust the United States. Sure, Americans are the world's largest arms dealers and consistently provide weapons to useful monsters. And, yes, for those who care to inquire it is rather easy to find American-made weapons shooting, bombing and crushing civilians worldwide. But the Americans are our buddies, and they pay a lot of bills, so there are clear incentives to suggest their arms-export policy is more defensible than it really is.

I am not arguing that arms should never be sold, and believe that properly regulated arms sales can be justified. Canadian weapons empower some dubious allies, but our enemies are often worse.

But the sale of weapons is clearly the kind of thing that must be tightly regulated. They are by their nature dangerous and liable to misuse. As we benefit from their sale, we have a responsibility to minimize harm. Profit is complicity.

As the human-rights policy adviser to this government's previous foreign affairs minister, my job was to ask questions like: if we really believe in increasing transparency and accountability in Canadian arms sales, does it make sense to exempt all sales to our biggest customer by far?

Or: shouldn't Canadians know more, for example, about how Americans are selling Super Tucano ground attack aircraft with Canadian-made engines to Nigeria? Fearsome military planes, for an often-ruthless government, powered by the maple leaf: this is business as usual and we keep no public record of it.

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Whether or not you believe that the federal government should be nurturing and promoting our defence industry, which it does, in all our names – we must demand at a minimum that a complete tally be kept of what we are selling.

The current approach is not consistent with the spirit of the Arms Trade Treaty we are rightly joining. A key objective is to require reporting on "all" arms sales, not just the ones that are most convenient to report. The United States is also not a party to the treaty, so the failure to regulate our sales to them is clearly in tension with the treaty's purpose to "establish the highest possible common international standards" for the transfer of arms.

If we required reporting on all of our arms sales, Canadians could at least have an informed debate about where we should draw the line in our policies. Citizens cannot be taken to approve of a status quo premised on their ignorance. Nor are we likely to change what our government refuses to measure – which, as it happens, is exactly how arms dealers like it.

The best time to test the strength of any principle is when there is a risk of a cost. In this case, I do not accept that merely counting our sales to the United States would impose an undue burden, and Canadians should approach any such claim with great skepticism. We deserve to know more.

I am proud to have worked for this government, especially for the many meaningful ways it has advanced human rights – but keeping Canadians in the dark about arms sales is unnecessary.

There is still time to amend Bill C-47, an act to supposedly implement the Arms Trade Treaty.

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