Trading principles: How Canada’s pursuit of military exports has left a trail of secrecy and lax standards

Cesar Jaramillo Conventional Weapons

Briefing 15-1
Published February 5, 2015

Cesar Jaramillo

Briefing 15.1

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On paper, Canada has “some of the strongest export controls in the world” (FATDC 2014). However, even if the provisions of Canada’s export safeguards are stringent, 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 from military exports.

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). The announcement was made by Industry Minister Ed Fast at the London, Ontario headquarters of General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), the Canadian subsidiary of U.S. defence giant General Dynamics Corporation. GDLS will supply Saudi Arabia with an undisclosed number of armored vehicles and related services, but few specific details are known.

The contract, which will reportedly create and sustain approximately 3,000 jobs a year, was brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), a Crown corporation tasked with arranging contracts between Canadian manufacturers and foreign governments.

What the government’s announcement did not mention was the possibility that the deal would be incompatible with existing export controls. At the same time, there was little public scrutiny about the safeguard mechanisms in place 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 he was sentenced to for his public criticism of the Saudi regime. The archaic sentence—to be carried out in weekly flogging sessions until the total is reached—drew the ire and condemnation of the global community. Because his wife and children have been granted asylum in Quebec, the Canadian media took a special interest in his ordeal.

Thus the story of the Saudi deal was revived. But this time the focus was not on the Canadian government’s rosy depiction of the contract as a boost to the Canadian economy. Instead, it suddenly became disturbingly apparent that Canada had inked the largest military exports contract in the country’s history with one of the world’s worst human rights violators.

Overall assessment: “Not free”

The bleakness of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is hard to overstate. Organizations that track international human rights agree: Saudi Arabia is among the “worst of the worst” (Freedom House 2014a) violators of human rights in the world. Human Rights Watch (2015), Freedom House, and Amnesty International (2105) all condemn the consistent, systematic repression of the Saudi civilian population by the governing regime.

Year after year, Freedom House (2014b) leaves little doubt about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia with the same blunt assessment of the country: “not free.” The Washington, DC-based organization tracks and rates human rights records around the world. On a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the worst, Saudi Arabia earned a 7 in each of three key metrics: Freedom, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties (2014b). The 10 states that earned this score are collectively categorized by Freedom House as the “worst of the worst.” Others on the list include Somalia, North Korea, and South Sudan.

Citizens in Saudi Arabia have few political rights. The House of Saud has governed as an autocratic monarchy since its ascendancy more than 80 years ago. While some regimes are unable to control elements in society that violate human rights, in Saudi Arabia it is the government that is directly complicit in these violations.

Civil liberties fare no better. Freedom of speech is severely censored; freedom of association, freedom of the press, and academic freedom are restricted. Hundreds of thousands of websites have been blocked. Women are subjected to systemic discrimination; for example, it is illegal for them to drive (Banco 2014). The state enforces its views of religious truth and imposes harsh penalties, including beheadings, for crimes such as witchcraft, apostasy, sorcery, and fornication (Culzac 2014; BBC 2012).

Canadian considerations of human rights seem to have been lost in the pursuit of the lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia. 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.” Further, 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” (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 the Canadian-made vehicles will be used against the civilian population. In fact, documentary evidence shows the Saudi government’s proclivity to use force against civilians. In Bahrain in March 2011, it sent armoured vehicles to help quell civilian protests (Bronner & Slackman 2011; Chulov 2011).

The contracted items include troop carriers, communications hubs, and mobile gun systems that can operate in both rural and urban settings. Should an Arab Spring-type uprising occur in Saudi Arabia, there is little doubt that the vehicles would be utilized to quell protests and suppress the civilian population.

According to Canada’s export control guidelines, “once an application to export goods or technology has been received, 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).

Canada’s deal with a country universally regarded as a human rights pariah raises many questions. How credible are Canada’s export control policy guidelines if the pertinent human rights safeguards are not triggered by such a deal? What sort of record must a country have to actually trigger those safeguards? Should the review process include the views of experts outside government?

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.

A question of timing (and optimism)

Project Ploughshares has established that at the time the Saudi deal was announced in February 2014, and as late as May 8, 2014, the export permits for the $14.8-billion deal had not been issued. In early February 2015, it was not known if the permits had been completed. What is clear is that the deal was announced without any indication that a human rights assessment had been conducted, and despite the absence of an exports permit.

This raises a few questions:

  1. Is it not odd to announce the largest military exports deal in Canadian history without having conducted the required export control assessment?
  1. In the course of due diligence, would General Dynamics Land Systems and/or the Canadian Commercial Corporation not have noted that the deal with Saudi Arabia would be squarely incompatible with Canada’s export control safeguards, given Saudi Arabia’s dire human rights record and well documented involvement in the repression of Bahraini protesters?
  1. What if the deal were found to contravene Canada’s export control safeguards after the official announcement? Would Canada forbid the exports? What would be the consequences for GDLS and the CCC?
  1. Did GDLS begin production of the military equipment before the export permits were issued? What if the permits didn’t materialize?
  1. Was the announcement of the sale made on the assumption that the export permits would eventually come through? What was this assumption based on? Would that not be a highly risky assumption for any reasonable observer, given what is known about the recipient nation?

Only if and when a shipment under the contract with Saudi Arabia is confirmed, will the Canadian public know that the export permits were in fact issued. This, in turn, will be confirmation that a human rights assessment was conducted—and the deal was nonetheless allowed to continue.

The fact that the announcement came in advance of crucial steps casts doubt on the independence and thoroughness of the government’s internal consultation process. The confidence evident in the announcement makes it hard to conceive that the export permits could be denied. This raises other questions. Is the vetting process properly shielded from commercial interests? Perhaps most importantly: Is there any realistic scenario in which the deal could actually be reversed?

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 other exports deals are examined—for example, Canada’s nuclear cooperation agreements (NCAs) with India and China, both signed by the current federal government, 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.1 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 IAEA involvement (Meyer 2014).

Documents obtained in 2014 by Embassy magazine under an access to information request 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 prevail: Commercial interests trumped other considerations—whether about human rights or nuclear security and non-proliferation—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.

Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, India’s status as a rogue nuclear state outside the NPT, and the rejection of IAEA standards in the NCA with China are all well documented realities. Still, an increasingly liberal interpretation of ‘commercial confidentiality’ has been utilized to keep the public in the dark about the nature and implications of lucrative deals that the Canadian government actively pursues and facilitates with questionable regimes.

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. The other NPT states parties with nuclear weapons are the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. Four nuclear-armed states remain outside of the NPT framework: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.


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.

Chulov, Martin. 2011. Saudi Arabian troops enter Bahrain as regime asks for help to quell uprising. The Guardian, March 14.

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

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

Freedom House. 2014a. Global findings, Freedom in the World 2014.

—–. 2014b. Saudi Arabia, 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. The 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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