Diminishing Transparency: Once in the top ten, Canada now ranks 24th among most transparent arms-exporting countries

Ploughshares Conventional Weapons

Author Charmila Ireland

In 2008 the United Nations Security Council recognized that “a core element in preventing conflict and securing peace and stability is encouraging predictable, transparent behaviour by all States.” Transparency in the small arms trade can build trust between nations and allow governments and civil society actors to identify trends, gaps, and problems. To achieve transparency, countries need to submit data to the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database and the UN Register of Conventional Arms, and publish annual arms export reports.

Since 2004 the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent research project in Geneva, has evaluated the transparency provided by major exporters1 of small arms and light weapons (SALW), using a Transparency Barometer.

The Transparency Barometer uses the following seven categories for the overall points distribution: (i) timeliness, (ii) access and consistency, (iii) clarity, (iv) comprehensiveness; (v) deliveries, (vi) licences granted, and (vii) licences refused.

These categories assess promptness and consistency in reporting (categories i–ii), clarity and comprehensiveness (iii–iv), and the level of detail provided on actual deliveries, licences granted, and licences denied (v–vii). (SAS 2013)

According to this instrument, Canada has been losing ground in the last decade. In 2003 Canada was the eleventh most transparent among major arms-exporting countries; in 2004 it ranked tenth. But in 2011 it was twenty-fourth.

Canada excels in timeliness, submitting information for the previous year before December 31 to at least one of the reporting instruments indicated above. This allows public scrutiny and can give “early warning about developments that could threaten peace and security” (SAS 2012, p. 295). Canada also consistently reports information on the actual deliveries of weapons, which helps identify potentially “destabilizing accumulations of arms in countries and regions at risk” (SAS 2012, p. 302). Canada’s reports are reasonably comprehensive, but would be improved—and provide greater transparency—if Canada provided more detailed information on specific categories of SALW, intangible transfers, re-exports, and transit and transhipment.

Canada’s reports need to be more accessible, consistent, and clear. Canada has yet to provide reports for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Reports need to provide web links to transfer control legislation, separate government and private industry transactions, and describe measures to prevent diversion.

Canada provides no information in its national report on licences granted and refused. Such information would reveal how Canada interprets its national export criteria and would “alert stakeholders to sensitive and potentially excessive and destabilizing transfers before actual exports occur” (SAS 2012, p. 303).

The Transparency Barometer shows that, although many countries—notably Switzerland, Romania, and Bulgaria—have made progress, almost all need to be more transparent in reporting arms exports. Over the last decade technology has emerged that can allow even poor countries to track, compile, and publish data.

Making information and reports available to the public should be easy for a wealthy country such as Canada. Improving transparency now would also benefit Canada should the government sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty, which requires annual reporting.


1. The Transparency Barometer defines a country as a major exporter if it has exported, or is believed to have exported, at least US$10-million in SALW, their parts, accessories, and ammunition in at least one calendar year since 2001 (SAS 2012, p. 283).


United Nations Security Council. 2008. Small Arms: Report of the Secretary-General. S/2008/258, April 17.

Small Arms Survey. 2013. The Transparency Barometer. SAS website.

Small Arms Survey. 2012. Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Charmila Ireland is Ploughshares’ Peace and Security Intern.

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