Paper tigers: Canada’s pursuit of military exports has left a trail of secrecy and lax standards

Cesar Jaramillo Conventional Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 1 Spring 2015

On paper, Canada has “some of the strongest export controls in the world” (FATDC 2014). But recent developments make them seem like little more than paper tigers. The sale of Canadian manufactured light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia is only the most egregious recent example of Canada’s ignoring its own guidelines in the pursuit of commercial gain.

The Saudi deal

When a $14.8-billion deal to sell Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia was first announced in February 2014, it was presented as a job-creating economic victory for Canada (Gutoskie 2014). As Project Ploughshares stated at the time (Epps 2014), it was more than possible that the deal was incompatible with existing export controls, which aim to prevent the shipping of Canadian-made military goods to known human rights offenders who might use this equipment against their own citizens. This January, however, young Saudi activist Raif Badawi received the first 50 of 1,000 lashes for publicly criticizing the Saudi regime. Because his wife and children have been granted asylum in Quebec, the Canadian media are taking a special interest in his ordeal.

Thus the story of the Saudi deal has been revived. And it is suddenly disturbingly apparent that Canada inked the largest military exports contract in the country’s history with one of the world’s worst human rights violators.

Canadian considerations of human rights seem to have been lost in the pursuit of a lucrative deal. This raises fundamental questions about Canada’s commitment to the promotion of human rights and other international humanitarian standards.

The raison d’être of export controls

Canada’s export control policy guidelines state that Canada “closely controls” military exports to governments with “a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens.” Before export permits are issued, the safeguards call for a case-by-case assessment to determine that “there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.” “Wide-ranging consultations are held among human rights, international security and defence-industry experts” at Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada and the Department of National Defence and “as necessary, other government departments and agencies” (FATDC 2014).

Given Saudi Arabia’s well documented and indisputably poor human rights record, it is hard to fathom that there is “no reasonable risk” that they will be used against the civilian population.1 The ultimate raison d’être of export control policies is to “closely control” sales that could be used in situations antithetical to Canadian values and principles. It is precisely when there is a prospective deal with an oppressive regime, like the one in Saudi Arabia, that they become most relevant.

The fact that the announcement of the arms deal in 2014 apparently came in advance of crucial steps laid out in the guidelines casts doubt on the independence and thoroughness of the government’s internal consultation process.

Tried and tested approach?

This most recent deal to ship Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia should not be seen in isolation. A pattern can be seen when examining other export deals—for example, Canada’s nuclear cooperation agreements (NCAs) with India and China—as well as the expanding list of countries to which Canada will sell automatic firearms.

The India deal opened the door to permission to ship Canadian uranium to a ‘rogue’ nuclear weapons state, one of the very few outside the nearly universal Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (Maclean’s 2012). This agreement clearly undermines NPT aspirations to universal membership, by providing rewards instead of disincentives to a state outside the NPT. Both the Canadian and Indian governments have provided public assurances that Canadian uranium will not be used for nuclear weapons (Maclean’s 2012). However, by receiving uranium from Canada, India will free up domestic uranium for military purposes.

The NCA with China is different in that China is one of five nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT. However, there are still concerns about Canada’s ability to ensure that Canadian uranium does not facilitate vertical proliferation—an increase in the arsenal of a nuclear-armed state. In this case, Canada chose to forgo international best practices and standards by, for example, taking the dubious step of skirting involvement by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (Meyer 2014).

Documents obtained in 2014 by Embassy magazine show that the government was well aware that the deal to ship Canadian uranium to China would be seen as “weak” (Meyer 2014). A key reason: Canada knew China wanted to process Canadian uranium in a conversion facility not under IAEA safeguards. The solution: Amend export protocols to allow shipments to banned sites in a process to be governed by ad hoc “administrative arrangements.” The nature of such arrangements, alas, remains strictly confidential (Meyer 2014).
There are striking similarities between the Saudi arms deal and these recent nuclear cooperation agreements.

  • Commercial interests prevailed: Commercial interests trumped other considerations—whether about human rights or nuclear security and nonproliferation—even when sensitive materials/goods were involved.
  • Economic spin: These deals were presented as an economic victory for Canada, while downplaying—or downright ignoring—the human rights or nuclear security risks.
  • Secrecy: Citing confidentiality, the government does not give the public enough information to ascertain the extent of the risks. In the Saudi deal, the government has refused to say whether it sought or received assurances on how Canadian-made equipment would be utilized. In the case of the NCAs, the nature of Administrative Arrangements that govern the highly sensitive trade in uranium has not been made public.
  • Lax standards/rejection of international standards: In all cases one can see a rejection of international standards and best practices. Canada has not signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), but has argued that domestic regulations and safeguards are as strong as, or stronger than, ATT provisions. In the NCA with China, the government bypassed IAEA standards and opted instead for a series of secret Administrative Arrangements.

A downward trend

The expanding list of countries to which Canada will sell automatic weapons provides another example of the downward trend in the scrutiny of military exports. Only countries on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL) are permitted to purchase Canadian-made automatic firearms. The steady expansion of the number of countries on the list is another troubling testament to the continued erosion of export control standards for Canadian military goods.

In the latest amendment to the AFCCL, reported by the press in late January, the government “quietly amended the export law to permit Canadian shipments to Israel and Kuwait of prohibited weapons such as banned handguns or automatic weapons” (MacCharles 2015). The number of countries on the AFCCL has tripled—from 13 to 39—since it was established in 1991.

While the export of automatic weapons is indeed restricted, there is a market for these weapons—and thus an incentive to produce them. The initial list of countries on the AFCCL was comprised essentially of NATO allies. Over time it expanded to include countries such as Botswana, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia. As markets have become saturated and national defence budgets decline, Canadian arms manufacturers have sought new markets for their goods—and the government has often amended regulations to permit the resulting deals.

Being on the AFCCL is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for a country to purchase Canadian weapons. Appropriate export permits must still be issued and appropriate assessments made of the potential recipient, including human rights assessments.


Unfortunately Canada has developed a troubling pattern of ignoring or overriding its own military exports standards, as stringent as they may be, to realize commercial sales where they are not warranted. Case after case demonstrates that export controls are only as strong as the willingness of the government to implement them.


1. See, for example, AI 2015, Banco 2014, BBC 2012, Bronner & Slackman 2011, Culzac 2014, Freedom House 2014, Human Rights Watch 2015.


Amnesty International. 2015. Human rights in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Banco, Erin. 2014. After two decades of protests, Saudi Arabian women still cannot drive. International Business Times, November 7.

BBC. 2012. Saudi man executed for “witchcraft and sorcery.” BBC News Middle East, June 19.

Bronner, Ethan and Michael Slackman. 2011. Saudi troops enter Bahrain to help put down unrest.” The New York Times, March 14.

Culzac, Natasha. 2014. Saudi Arabia executes 19 in one half of August in “disturbing surge of beheadings.” The Independent, August 22.

Epps, Kenneth. 2014. Arms export win is human rights loss. The Ploughshares Monitor. Spring.

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 2014. Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada 2012-2013.

Freedom House. 2014. Freedom in the World 2014.

Gutoskie, Shannon. 2014. Largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canada’s history. Government of Canada news release, February 14.

Human Rights Watch. 2015. Saudi Arabia.

MacCharles, Tonda. Conservatives amend law to allow export of prohibited weapons to Israel, Kuwait. Toronto Star, January 28.

Maclean’s. 2012. Harper’s civilian nuclear trade deal ends Canada’s long freeze on armed India. November 6.

Meyer, Carl. 2014. Canada new nuclear deal with China could be seen as “weak”: Docs. Embassy, April 16.

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