Canada’s arms trade and violence against women

Analysis and Commentary, Armed Conflicts, Conventional Weapons, News, Ploughshares Monitor

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 43 Issue 3 Autumn 2022

By Maya Campo

In 2017, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) became official. A message from the Minister of Foreign Affairs states that the policy’s main objective is to “eradicate poverty” globally by addressing inequality, specifically gender inequality. FIAP is organized into action areas, with a core area of “gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” linked to other action areas, including “peace and security.”

Peace and security are to be achieved by “promoting inclusive peace processes and combatting gender-based violence,” i.e., GBV or violence perpetrated on victims based on their perceived gender identity. The UN Refugee Agency notes that “GBV disproportionately affects women and girls” and this article focuses on this form of GBV, while recognizing that other groups also experience gender-based violence.

When tanks surround and block villages, they can trap occupants and make them more vulnerable to rape, trafficking, and femicide.

Although FIAP is intended to empower women, Canada is still exporting military goods to states that facilitate acts of GBV and, specifically, violence against women and girls. How can the Canadian government continue to sell weapons to these states and still meet the objectives of its feminist international assistance policy?

 GBV and the arms trade

According to Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), arms, some of which are the product of the international arms trade, can be used in direct and indirect acts of GBV. Small arms often facilitate direct acts of GBV, including femicide. Armoured vehicles and explosive weapons can also be used, indirectly, to perpetrate GBV.

When tanks surround and block villages, they can trap occupants and make them more vulnerable to rape, trafficking, and femicide. Bombing an entire village can also indirectly promote GBV. For example, the destruction of healthcare infrastructure can have an undue impact on maternal health or increase the marginalization and/or stigmatization of injured or maimed women.

Congolese activist Annie Matundu-Mbambi notes that weapons are “constantly used as a symbol of power and authority.” Their persistent availability contributes to escalating conflicts. Although arms do not always facilitate direct acts of GBV, the proliferation of arms still results in dire domestic, political, and social consequences for women.

WILPF also explores the connections between gender, masculinity, and arms. Armed conflict often rewards masculine aggressiveness and further relegates women to roles of passive supporter or victim. Thus, armed conflict can encourage the normalization of GBV, specifically violence against women.

Even the prominence of male-dominated hierarchies around the world exacerbates GBV in conflict zones. Already marginalized in these societies, women are frequently targeted during armed conflict.

The Arms Trade Treaty and GBV obligations

In addition to its domestic commitments, Canada has obligations as a State Party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to consider the threat of GBV when exporting weapons abroad. The ATT explicitly recognizes the correlation between GBV and the international arms trade, requiring all States Parties to assess the risk that exports could be used to facilitate GBV or serious acts of violence against women and children (see Article 7[4]). Since acceding to the ATT in 2019, Canada’s control regime goes further; if substantial risks of GBV or serious acts of violence against women and children are found, then the proposed export cannot be authorized.

Canada’s arming of countries that commit blatant human rights violations, including gendered discrimination, can exacerbate GBV in conflicts involving those countries. It is notable that there is no public record that Canadian officials have ever denied the authorization of arms exports to protect against GBV.

The Canadian arms trade and GBV in action

Following are key country profiles that illustrate Canada’s policy incoherency in relation to FIAP and the arms trade.

 Saudi Arabia 

Total value of arms imported from Canada (2016-2021): $8,099,616,306 

Until the recent truce, the war in Yemen had been fueled by coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia, the largest recipient of Canadian arms exports (excluding the United States) for the last six years (see “Analyzing Canadian arms exports for 2021” in this issue).
The conflict has created a humanitarian crisis, especially for Yemeni women and girls, who were already vulnerable in their traditional society. As has been documented in other conflict-affected states, in Yemen, as more women and girls were displaced, more became susceptible to GBV, including sexual assaults, rapes, and sexual slavery. Coalition members, including Saudi Arabia, have been linked to this violence.

We believe that Canada has been arming a country that has facilitated acts of GBV outside its borders.

United Arab Emirates

Total value of arms imported from Canada (2016-2021): $108,978,381  

The UAE is a member of the Saudi-led coalition discussed above. Until the pause in hostilities earlier this year, the UAE continued to contribute to the violence, participating in airstrikes.

As reported by credible human rights monitor Amnesty International, the UAE has been a conduit for the illicit diversion of Western arms, including armoured vehicles and small arms, to third parties in the conflict in Yemen.

These arms have been tied to an increase of GBV, specifically sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery. As reported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the diversion of small arms, in particular, can lead to more domestic killings (women are already disproportionately victims of domestic homicide).

We believe that Canada has been arming a country that has diverted arms to the conflict in Yemen, possibly exacerbating acts of GBV.

Indonesia 

Total value of arms imported from Canada (2016-2021): $31,963,470 

As reported by United Nations News, indigenous West Papuans have been demanding independence from the Indonesian government. The Indonesian military has responded with violence, including the occupation of schools, hospitals, and churches; the burning of villages and animals; and the extrajudicial killing of civilians.

According to West Papuan women’s rights advocate Esther Haluk, women are facing “layers of violence.” As reported by The Guardian, West Papuan women who have been detained have experienced sexual violence, as have those seeking refuge from the Indonesian military and police. Women have also experienced an increase in domestic violence.

We believe that Canada is arming a country whose military and police employ tactics of GBV against civilians.

Promoting equality and peace

Despite its ATT and domestic obligations to assess the risk that arms exports could facilitate acts of GBV, Canada continues to authorize the export of weapons to countries in which such abuses are openly committed. Such actions contradict the letter and spirit of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. If Canada is to contribute in a meaningful way to global peace and gender equality, it must apply FIAP to all international transactions.

Maya Campo was a 2022 Ploughshares Peace Research intern.

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