Putting the Control into Canada’s Automatic Firearms Country Control List

Kenneth Epps

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2008 Volume 29 Issue 2

The Canadian Government recently expanded the list of states eligible to receive Canadian automatic weapons. This may be good news for Canadian firearms manufacturers, including Kitchener’s Colt Canada, but bad news for anyone concerned about Canada’s control of arms exports. In a world already awash in small arms and light weapons, Canada is obligated to ensure that the growing list does not facilitate weapons diversion or misuse.

In the April announcement of its intention to enlarge the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL) from the current 20 states to 31, to include all NATO members, the Government (2008) specifically pointed to “the valuable contributions that Canada’s defence industry makes to the nation’s prosperity.” The decision will increase the available market by more than 50 per cent. If, for example, Colt Canada successfully obtains orders it is currently seeking from newly listed AFCCL states the Czech Republic and Slovakia, these exports certainly will add to the plus side of Canada’s balance of trade.

But automatic firearms are prohibited in Canada for a reason, and any decision to make them more available elsewhere requires close scrutiny. The death and destruction so easily and extensively perpetrated with automatic firearms demand particularly stringent export controls. This is true whether they are the C-7 rifles produced in Kitchener or the more ubiquitous AK-47 Kalashnikovs produced in Russia.

Canada acknowledged its responsibility to impose additional control on the export of automatic weapons when it established the Automatic Firearms Country Control List in 1991. The list, an export control instrument unique to Canada, turns the typical control process on its head. Instead of starting from a presumption that a state may receive Canadian military equipment unless there are reasons to preclude the transfer, as happens with the other classes of Canadian weapons, the AFCCL establishes a presumption against automatic firearms exports. Only states on the AFCCL are eligible to receive the weapons; all other states are, by definition, ineligible.

There is a refreshing transparency in the AFCCL procedure that is often missing in the export of other military goods. Eligible states are known and no ambiguity exists in the status of states not on the list.

However, it is important to note that being listed on the AFCCL does not guarantee that a state can receive automatic weapons shipments from Canada. Exporters of automatic weapons still must apply for export permits to ship their products outside Canada. Canadian officials must review the permit requests against criteria that include whether the recipient is at war or under threat of hostilities, or whether the government has a record of serious human rights violations. This means that Turkey, one of the states recently added to the AFCCL, should be ineligible to receive automatic firearms while it continues to fight Kurds in northern Iraq.

At the same time there are weaknesses to the AFCCL that the recent expansion makes worse. As a list of states, the AFCCL is ultimately only effective to the extent that it is a limited list. As the list gets larger—and the increase by more than half is significant—then its restrictive role declines. Canada has relatively effective controls in approving arms shipments, but its post-delivery monitoring and follow-up procedures are poor to nonexistent. As more states are eligible to receive automatic weapons, the chances of diversion into illegal channels after a sale become greater.

There are also questions about the fate of weapons displaced by imports of Canadian automatic firearms. This factor is particularly relevant to Eastern Europe, where most of the additions to the AFCCL are located. The new NATO members are seeking to replace their former Soviet Bloc standard weapons with NATO regulation equipment. If and when Colt Canada is successful in selling C-7s, there will be new surpluses of AK-47s entering the international market, following many older East European weapons on a well trod path. Nothing in the AFCCL places conditions on the disposal or sale of weapons made surplus by imports of Canadian automatic firearms.

The AFCCL’s most dangerous weakness is that it is based solely on whether a member state has “an intergovernmental defence, research, development and production arrangement with Canada.” This explains why the list has been expanded to include all NATO members. The AFCCL process does not require a state to meet important international norms and obligations. This explains why the list includes Saudi Arabia. Situated in a region saturated with weapons and led by an autocratic regime that denies basic rights to women and is regularly cited for serious human rights violations, Saudi Arabia should be ineligible to receive any class of Canadian military goods. Instead, it was unapologetically added by the government to the original AFCCL in 1991 after a hastily assembled intergovernmental arrangement and, more pointedly, the placing of billion-dollar orders of armoured vehicles equipped with machine guns. As the Saudi Arabia case blatantly demonstrates, the AFCCL is prone to economic opportunism that has little to do with Canadian defence requirements.

The AFCCL is a flawed but redeemable made-in-Canada arms control instrument. With greater conformity to international obligations related to small arms exports, it could become a more effective regulatory instrument in Canada and a model for other arms-exporting states. Until this is done, however, there are risks that Canadian shipments to states on the AFCCL could add to the widespread misuse of automatic weapons. In the interim, observers would be prudent to withhold applause for the economic benefits of the government’s expansion of the AFCCL.


Canada, Government of. 2008. Order amending the Automatic Firearms Country Control List. Canada Gazette, April 19.

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