Customers or allies? The dilemma of Canada’s AFCCL

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In late 2017, the government of Canada added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearm Country Control List (AFCCL) of 40 states to which Canadian weapons producers can legally export automatic firearms. This decision was made in the fourth year of an increasingly entrenched conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region involving separatist forces, Russian forces posing as irregulars, and Ukrainian government forces, which, so far, has resulted in more than 25,000 casualties and 10,000 dead.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 3 Autumn 2018 by Paul Esau

If Canada claims to closely control all arms shipments to states involved in conflict or with a significant history of human-rights abuses against their own civilians, why does the government believe this is the moment to explore shipments to a country engaged in both?

One reason: Canada is fulfilling NATO and UN obligations by standing firm against aggressive Russian action in the region, the annexation of Crimea, and violations of the 2015 Minsk II agreement. Yet it is difficult to understand how Ukrainian autonomy can be achieved through the transfer of Canadian automatic weapons to the area, or how the addition of Ukraine to the AFCCL is consistent with Canadian military export policy.

Since the AFCCL amendment, Global Affairs Canada has refused to say if export permit applications for the transfer of automatic firearms to Ukraine have been received or approved. However, in mid-August, a million-dollar deal to export PGW Defence Technologies sniper rifles was announced. Canada also has 200 Armed Forces personnel deployed on Operation UNIFIER in Ukraine, has donated nearly $700-million in non-lethal assistance since 2014, and the Department of National Defence (DND) is allegedly considering the construction of a joint Canadian-Ukrainian ammunition plant in Ukraine.

Another possibility: the Canadian government considers the conflict-ridden state a market ripe for penetration. While Ukraine has not been a significant recipient of military goods in recent years (under $200,000 per year since 2014), the AFCCL has often been used as a list of potential customers for military goods.

Exposing the Automatic Firearms Country Control List

Prior to the Mulroney government’s passage of Bill C-6 in 1991, which created the AFCCL, the Canadian Criminal Code prohibited the possession of automatic firearms by all groups or individuals other than Canadian military and police forces, effectively eliminating the private export of Canadian-made weapons. Bill C-6 amended the Criminal Code and the Export and Import Permits Act to allow the direct export of automatic weapons to countries on a specific list, ostensibly only NATO members and close allies.

The Bill’s timing was poor. In August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a chain of events that culminated in the January 1991 invasion of Iraq by a U.S.-led coalition. During this short war, in which the Iraqi Army was easily defeated, Western forces found themselves fired upon by weapons they had earlier sold to Hussein, especially during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Only months before Bill C-6 was introduced, Mulroney lectured U.S. President George H.W. Bush on U.S. contributions to the arms trade and proposed an arms-transfer-control initiative that targeted sales to the Middle East.

While the government claimed in 1991 that the AFCCL would be populated only by close allies and strategic partners, parliamentary debate on Bill C-6 made it clear that the immediate point was to facilitate exactly the sort of arms shipments that Mulroney had condemned. Multiyear efforts by Foreign Minister Joe Clark to arrange the sale of more than a thousand light armoured vehicles from a GM Diesel factory in London, Ontario to Saudi Arabia had finally borne fruit, and the government was desperate to close the deal.

Of the 13 countries on the original 1991 list, three (Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Australia) were not NATO members. The only criterion for inclusion on the AFCCL was and is an intergovernmental defence, research, development, and production arrangement with Canada. Arrangements might be established shortly before the addition of the country to the AFCCL, often before the announcement of a large contract.

The AFCCL was originally envisioned as a convenient solution to an immediate dilemma: the need to create a loophole in Canadian law to allow the export of weapons into the Middle East in the aftermath of war. The government has been steadily widening the loophole ever since.

Expanding the club

Today, the AFCCL includes 40 countries (see Figure 1), with Japan and Mexico under consideration. Between 1991 and 2008, only seven countries were added. Since no procedure exists for removing countries from the list, it is likely the AFCCL will continue to grow, further diluting whatever purpose it once served in limiting the Canadian export of automatic weapons.

Still, not all proposed additions make it onto the AFCCL. In 2012, the Canadian government began the ongoing practice of eliciting submissions on AFCCL candidates. While Austria, India, Ireland, Kuwait, and Switzerland were considered, only Kuwait was added to the list.

In recent years, the addition of countries to the AFCCL has been generally followed by a substantial transfer of arms. In January 2013, Colombia joined the AFCCL club and a deal to export 24 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) worth $65.3-million from General Dynamics Land Systems (the new iteration of GM Diesel’s London division) was announced a day later, despite continuing armed conflict in the country. Later that year, the government wanted Chile, Peru, Brazil, and South Korea added to the AFCCL. When the first two were added in 2014, the Peruvian armed forces promptly ordered 32 LAVs from General Dynamics.

As the AFCCL expands, its main benefit—exclusivity—becomes increasingly diluted. Because no mechanism exists to remove countries from the list, deteriorating human rights or conflict situations have had little impact upon membership. Countries have been added to the list despite their involvement in serious regional or civil conflict, and despite egregious human-rights violations in the recent past or present.

Recommendations to improve the AFCCL

The AFCCL should be expanded to, or replaced by, a “Weapons System Country Control List” that would clearly indicate which countries could purchase any major Canadian weapons systems (including firearms). This would expand the advantages of the AFCCL (transparency and clarity) to all export decisions on small arms and light weapons, weapons systems such as LAVs, and naval vessels or aircraft.

Candidacy for the AFCCL should require more than an intergovernmental defence arrangement. Criteria such as the risk of weapon diversion, a state’s human rights record, and cooperation with UN Security Council embargoes, as well as Arms Trade Treaty membership, should be considered.

The AFCCL should be subject to ongoing review, and a mechanism created to allow the removal of states from the list.

The loophole that allows the Canadian Department of National Defence to transfer automatic weapons to states not on the AFCCL should be closed.

In future

The root incentive for Canadian exports of automatic weapons is economic. DND procurement alone cannot keep Canadian weapons producers in business; weapons exports are a way to subsidize the cost of keeping these companies in Canada.
The AFCCL began as a response to the threat of economic extortion by GM Diesel and Diemaco to slash production or relocate if enough markets were not found for their weapons systems. In the long term, increasing the general transparency and effectiveness of the AFCCL will require that major Canadian military producers no longer depend for survival on export contracts for weapons systems.

Paul Esau is pursuing a PhD in History at Wilfrid Laurier University. During the spring term, he was an intern at Project Ploughshares. His Master’s thesis was entitled Disarming Security: Project Ploughshares, the Just War and the New World Order.

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