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An Azeri army unmanned combat aerial vehicle is transported during the parade to mark the victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Baku, Azerbaijan Dec. 10, 2020.AZIZ KARIMOV/Reuters

Human-rights and arms-control advocates told MPs Thursday they fear the department of Global Affairs cannot be relied upon to effectively police exports of military goods and suggested ways to boost or augment scrutiny.

They told members of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee that they believe Global Affairs is grappling with accommodating competing interests – export promotion versus export control – and that this undermines the department’s ability to conduct effective reviews.

Peggy Mason, a former Canadian ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations, and now president of the Rideau Institute, a policy and advocacy group, recommended Ottawa create an independent agency to scrutinize arms exports.

“We have seen a cynical pattern of Global Affairs suspending new export permits under the glare of media scrutiny, announcing an internal investigation and then lifting the suspension when the media hype dies down, all the while in most cases continuing the actual exports anyway under existing permits,” Ms. Mason told the committee.

There are precedents for her suggestion. Back in 2013, the federal government transferred responsibility for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to the Department of Health from the Department of Agriculture and Agri-food following controversy about meat inspection and the handling of both a listeria outbreak and a big recall of contaminated beef.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an arms-control advocate, told MPs they should create a new Commons committee to accomplish the task.

“There is a clear gap between rhetoric and practice around Canadian arms exports, and it is high time for strict parliamentary oversight of this important aspect of Canadian foreign policy,” he said.

“A place to start might be the establishment of a subcommittee of this standing committee on foreign affairs and international development to ensure compliance with domestic and international law, including Canada’s obligations under the [global] Arms Trade Treaty,” Mr. Jaramillo said.

Back in 2016, the governing Liberals used their majority on the Commons foreign affairs committee to defeat a motion by former NDP MP Hélène Laverdière to create such an oversight role for MPs.

Last year Canadian government records show companies exported more than $3.9-billion of military goods to countries other than the United States. Ottawa does not make public sales of military goods to the United States but independent arms-export monitors have previously estimated annual U.S.-bound exports to be $1.5-billion to $2-billion annually.

Arms-control advocates point to two past investigations into arms exports conducted by Global Affairs, one that began in 2017 and one that commenced in 2018.

Both focused on exports of military goods to Saudi Arabia – one of them on shipments from the $14-billion contract to send combat vehicles to Riyadh from Canada – and both ended by concluding nothing was amiss.

In October, the department of Global Affairs was asked to investigate whether Canadian-made target-acquisition gear on Turkish drones was being used in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and whether this contravenes arms-control law.

This came shortly after The Globe and Mail reported that the federal government had issued export permits in May for seven MX-15D targeting devices made by L3Harris Wescam of Burlington, Ont., and shipped to Turkey despite a moratorium on approving permits for new arms shipments that Ottawa first enacted in late 2019.

Such a probe amounts in part to a reflection on whether the department has been doing its job properly when it comes to stopping exports that are being used to harm civilians, breach international law or have been diverted from their intended customers.

“When the minister announces an investigation by Global Affairs, he is really asking officials to determine whether they gave him bad advice the first time round. How likely are they to do that?” Ms. Mason told MPs Thursday.

Asked to respond to the criticism, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs said Canada takes its commitment to the global Arms Trade Treaty seriously. Christelle Chartrand said the department is setting up an arms-length advisory panel of experts to study “best practices” by other countries “to ensure that our system is as robust as possible.”

At the heart of Global Affairs’ mandate is promoting sales of Canadian goods and services abroad. The department’s annual plan talks of its responsibility to “foster the expansion of Canada’s international trade and commerce.” Separately, the Export Controls Division inside Global Affairs has a potentially conflicting duty: to scrutinize exports of restricted goods such as military equipment and to stop these shipments when necessary.

Witnesses Thursday pointed to the case of Saudi Arabia, where Canada has declined to halt exports in the $14-billion armoured-vehicle contract between the Canadian government and the Saudi monarch. Earlier this year, Canada was for the first time publicly named as one of the countries helping fuel the war in Yemen by a panel of independent experts monitoring the conflict for the United Nations and investigating possible war crimes by the combatants, including Saudi Arabia.

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