On the Record: The First Public Audit of a Federal Report on Canada’s Military Exports

Kenneth Epps Conventional Weapons

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2009 Volume 30 Issue 1

In January, Project Ploughshares released On the Record: An audit of Canada’s report on military exports, 2003-05. This report is available here.

Balancing military exports

The Canadian government has long attempted to strike a balance in its authorization of arms shipments to other nations. On the one hand, it has a vested interest in maintaining a Canadian arms industry. The industry is important as a domestic source of equipment for the Department of National Defence and provides thousands of skilled and well-paid jobs across Canada. The enduring challenge is to maintain production lines when DND procurement is irregular and comparatively limited. Historically, the challenge has been met by exporting to foreign governments, often to the extent that suppliers become dependent on these sales.

On the other hand, Canada takes seriously its role as a responsible arms exporter and endeavours to ensure that Canadian military goods are not used illegally or irresponsibly. Compared with the controls imposed by many weapons suppliers, Canadian export controls are restrictive. Suppliers of military equipment must conform to regulations that do not apply to suppliers of civilian equipment.
The Canadian government also has been vocal in promoting stronger restraints on international arms transfers, especially those that rein in the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. Recently Canada endorsed the negotiation of a legally binding international arms trade treaty, to be based on principles drawn from existing international law and state responsibilities. These principles include a higher, universal standard of transparency that would cast a brighter light on a notoriously secretive trade and hold states more accountable for their military export decisions.

The latest report on Canadian military exports audited

Has Canada successfully achieved that balance between supporting and restricting Canadian weapons exports? Arguably, the most important source of information to help answer this question is the periodic Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada published by the Export Controls Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Beginning in 1991 annual reports compiled military export data for a single calendar year. Only the latest edition, released in late 2007, covers a three-year period: 2003 to 2005. Taking advantage of the longer reporting period, Project Ploughshares conducted a detailed “audit” of the 2003–2005 report to determine “the propriety, compliance, and adequacy” of Canadian exports controls.

The audit analyzes the published data and makes comparisons with other sources to build a detailed picture of Canada’s export control practice. It notes that most exported Canadian military equipment is shipped to partner states with which Canada has security or arms control agreements. The UK, Australia, and New Zealand were among the largest four reported recipients of Canadian military equipment during the documented period. Saudi Arabia was the top reported recipient, importing armoured vehicles and other equipment worth almost a quarter of the global total during the three years of the report. Saudi Arabia has privileged status within Canada’s export control regime as a state on Canada’s “Automatic Firearms Country Control List.”1

However, Saudi Arabia is governed by an autocratic regime well known for human rights violations. There are significant risks that the Canadian armoured vehicles supplied to Saudi Arabia will be used to breach international human rights laws. This case suggests that Canada does not always adhere to its own control guidelines—in this case the close control of exports to states where human rights abuse is a serious concern. As well, during the years 2003–2005 Canada exported military goods to other states where there were concerns about serious human rights infractions. Unfortunately, in most cases limited detail in the Report precludes assessment of the risks of misuse of the goods shipped to these states.

If Canadians are to gain confidence in Canada’s export control system, sufficient detail must be released to make a public assessment of the efficacy of the system. The audit reveals that the clearest failings of the 2003–2005 Report concern transparency. Most strikingly, the Report includes no data on military transfers to the United States because the US is exempt from the export control process under unique US-Canada defence trade agreements. The estimated value of Canadian military shipments to the US is twice the value of shipments to all other recipients combined, yet no information on this trade is available from the Report. Other transparency problems relate to the timeliness and extent of detail of the published data, as well as to the lack of such data as export permit information, which is provided by other supplier states.


The audit recommends improvements to Canadian export controls in two broad areas. First, it calls for closer adherence to existing and emerging export control standards to ensure that transfers of Canadian military goods meet evolving supplier norms and do not contribute to violations of international law. Second, it identifies several measures that are necessary for Canadian arms export practices to meet the expected transparency standards of an international arms trade treaty. In early February Project Ploughshares met with officials from the Export Controls Division and the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to discuss the audit and its recommendations.

The results of the audit suggest that the balance in Canadian export authorization is tipped toward industry support and economic benefits. During the period 2003–2005 some transfers of military goods to some destinations merited closer control. An adjustment may be needed in Canada’s balancing act. To ensure that Canadian controls meet emerging international standards, improvements are needed both to Canada’s military export authorization system and to its reports on that system. An upgrade in Canadian export control policies and practices could avoid the perception of a double standard arising from Canadian promotion of universal norms that it fails to meet.



  1. The Automatic Firearms Country Control List indicates the group of states with which Canada has struck bilateral defence research and production agreements.
Spread the Word