A lacklustre performance: Canada’s input at the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations was at best unimpressive and at worst harmful

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 3

Canada’s participation in the ATT conference could be charitably described as lacklustre. Avoiding any sign of leadership, its performance during the conference was punctuated by occasional interventions that in some instances moved negotiations backwards.

No one had high expectations of Canada in advance of the conference. Throughout the preparatory process Canada had taken a back seat, participating consistently but never signaling interest in taking a turn at the wheel. It was as though Canada had never recovered from a failed attempt to join the 2008 group of governmental experts that produced the first UN report on the ATT. Excluded from this early ATT activity, Canada found it easier to use domestic budget cuts as an excuse to avoid action. In the first three weeks of Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) meetings for the 2012 conference, Canada did not submit a single written statement.

On some treaty fundamentals Canada was a quiet member of the “progressive” group of states. Its 2007 submission to the UN Secretary-General—a high point in Canadian support for a strong treaty—stated, “Canada believes that a comprehensive legally binding international instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms is in the interest of both individual States and the broader international community” (UNGA 2007). Its opening statement to the July treaty conference identified core criteria “which would prohibit the transfer of weapons” (Canada 2012)—an important endorsement of the principle that states must deny transfers that pose substantial risk of breaching international law and norms.

But Canada also lost track of the global plot in its preoccupation with domestic concerns. Canada’s first formal PrepCom statement in July 2011 provocatively called for the exclusion of shooting and hunting firearms from the scope of the treaty—to strong opposition from many states. A year later Canada dropped the exclusion call to propose preamble text to recognize lawful weapons ownership and the legitimate trade and use of conventional arms for recreational and other activities. Some states objected to this preamble language, but it is included in the draft text.

During negotiations following the opening statement, Canada made a few verbal interventions that repeated points from the statement, including support for reporting provisions that could create loopholes in the treaty. Canada emphasized that the detail of state reports should not compromise national security, commercial confidentiality, or personal privacy. Yet these are categories open to state interpretation. Citing national security, a state could choose not to report weapons transferred to its armed forces, for example. On the final day of negotiations Canada objected to the draft provision on brokering, offering alternative text and, more disconcertingly, threatening to invoke the treaty’s reservation provision if Canada’s text were not adopted.

Canada’s final intervention supported the U.S. call for more time. This was a significant misreading of the widespread consternation in the room following the U.S. statement.

Canada concluded the treaty conference on a more positive note. It was one of 90 signatories of a statement expressing disappointment with the conference results and vowing to secure a treaty as soon as possible.

Canada. 2012. Statement by Canada at the Opening of the Arms Trade Treaty Diplomatic Conference July 2012. United Nations website.

United Nations General Assembly. 2007. Towards an arms trade treaty: establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms: Report of the Secretary-General. A/62/278 (Part II), August 17.

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