Canada redefines the Libya arms embargo

Conventional Weapons, News

Joël-Denis Bellavance, a reporter with La Press in Montreal, published an article today dealing with Canada’s approval in April of the export of a suitcase-sized drone to the rebel forces in Libya. The export was made in contravention of the UN embargo on supplying arms to Libya.

Bellavance based his story on related documents, heavily blacked out, secured through the Access to Information Act. He sent copies of these documents to Ploughshares on Nov. 22.

In August we sent an open letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs about Canada’s interpretation of this arms embargo.

The new documents reveal that in April former Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon was advised by department officials that the provision of military assistance to Libya’s opposition forces would be contested. A “Memorandum for Action” signed by the Minister on April 11, noted that under the UN Security Council resolution that established the arms embargo against Libya, “Canada generally cannot permit the export of arms to Libya without the prior approval of the UN 1970 Sanctions Committee.” The memo also stated that the arms embargo “encompasses any type of weapon … as well as technical assistance such as the provision of instruction, training or intelligence.” It confirms that the UN arms embargo on Libya precluded the transfer of the Canadian surveillance drone to Libyan opposition forces — the subject of Project Ploughshares’ letter.

However, the memo also provided an interpretive feint for Canada by which it could allow the drone to be exported. It noted that Security Council Resolution 1973 contains language that key partners such as the U.S., the U.K. and France have interpreted as permitting provision of arms to Libyan opposition forces as part of “all necessary measures … to protect civilians.” The memo was clear that this interpretation was not shared by many other states, including NATO allies Italy and Norway.

In the absence of a Ministerial response to the Ploughshares letter, the conclusion to draw from the parts of the April memo not blacked out is that Canada decided that Resolution 1973 overrode the arms embargo Resolution 1970.

This meant that, in the Canadian government’s eyes, the provision of military assistance to Libya’s opposition forces was permissible.

Mr. Cannon authorized the transfer of the surveillance drone.

At a minimum, this action fails to uphold international law. Implementation of an arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council is a legal obligation of all UN member states.

More disconcerting is the precedent set by Canada. In choosing to loosely interpret the applicability of this arms embargo, the universality of the embargo process is undermined, thus rendering a powerful tool of non-military intervention futile. One less political or diplomatic tool also eases the resort to military options.

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