Saudi Arabia has regained its title as Canada's top non-U.S. destination for exporting military goods after having been narrowly bumped last year by the United Kingdom, according to a federal report on arms sales.

The report, prepared by Global Affairs Canada and tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, reveals that the Saudi government purchased over $142 million worth of Canadian arms in 2016. That accounted for nearly 20 per cent of all Canadian munitions exports reported in the annual filing.

The report does not factor in arms exports to the United States, due to a long-standing exemption agreement. However, as stated in the report, as a general rule shipments to the U.S. account for nearly 50 per cent of all military good exports from Canada.

military exports indexed 2016

The total value of military goods sold abroad to countries other than the U.S. last year nearly reached $718 million. Canada's NATO partners and traditional allies made up the bulk of the export market, including Australia, which purchased $115.8 million of Canadian-made equipment — second behind Saudi Arabia.

The sales to Saudi Arabia, however, will likely the draw the most attention and potential criticism from human rights groups, which have fought a protracted battle to halt the $14.8-billion sale of light armoured vehicles by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada — a deal approved by the former Conservative government, but green-lit by the Liberals.

saudi exports indexed 2016

The executive director for the anti-armament group Project Ploughshares says the most recent report once again signals an unwillingness on the part of the government to change its stance on Saudi Arabia.

"Just the fact that the top recipient of Canadian military goods is what is known to be one of the worst human rights violators in the world must in my view raise some questions about the purported strength of Canadian military export controls and the country's commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights internationally," said Cesar Jaramillo.

Earlier in the spring, the Liberals tabled legislation that will enable Canada to join the international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which involves 130 countries and regulates the international trade in conventional weapons.

Jaramillo said he is concerned that the Canadian public is still in the dark about exports to the U.S., which is not bound by the provisions of the ATT.

"This is inconsistent with the expectation and the specific obligations of the treaty," Jaramillo said.

Report more transparent, accurate

The structure of the report was significantly overhauled compared to previous years after the ministry promised to increase transparency and accountability last year. These changes respond to many of the demands made by critics of the past few years. Included in this year's report: 

  • A direct reference to the Canadian submission to the voluntary United Nations Register of Conventional Arms Report, which has been updated to reflect actual exports, rather than those authorized.
  • For the first time, the limited number of exports to the U.S. that require a permit are now published. However, a department spokesperson said no data is collected on most arms exports destined for the U.S.
  • Figures on turnaround times for permit approval are also now included.

Also included for the first time are details on export permit denials by the department. The report shows that in 2016, while 3,203 export permits were issued, six were denied.

Ploughshares applauds the changes, but said the information provided on denials underscores the inconsistent application of checks and balances.

"If certain permits are denied for human rights causes when the intended recipient was Thailand, it begs the question of why they are allowable for Saudi Arabia?" the group said.

Even thought two permits were denied for Thailand on the basis of human rights, more than $5.1 million worth of exports — primarily for aircraft and aircraft components — were still approved for shipment to the military dictatorship.

Global Affairs said each specific export permit application is different.

"All applications for permits to export military goods or technology controlled on the export control list are assessed on a case by case basis, looking at the specific item being exported, and the specific end-use and end-users to determine whether the proposed transaction would be consistent with Canada's foreign and defence policies, including with respect to human rights," said spokesperson Natasha Nystrom.

Among the denials was Ukraine, which has been trying unsuccessfully for years to get on to the Canadian government's approved registry of countries where weapons can be sold.

There is no indication precisely what equipment was denied export, but the government cites the ongoing conflict in the eastern portion of the country as the reason for the denial.

Careful wording adjustments

The original copy first posted on the department's website on Wednesday morning was suddenly pulled from the webpage midday as the link went dead.

Hours later, a link to a PDF version of the report was made available, but a comparison between the two versions revealed changes in tone. According to Jaramillo, it is likely due to criticism from various groups last year over wording that changed the focus to economic and commercial factors rather than human rights considerations.

One section of the originally posted report read:

"Canada's export controls are not intended to hamper legitimate trade, but seek to balance the economic and commercial interests of Canadian business with the national interests of Canada."

The revised version posted later in the day:

"Canada's export controls are not meant to hinder international trade unnecessarily, but to regulate and impose certain restrictions on exports in response to clear policy objectives [...] including respect for human rights and international peace and security."

Another edit to the final document included a change from:

"Canada's export controls are rigorous and in line with those of our principal allies and partners in the major export controls regimes."

To the more assertive:

"Canada's export controls are among the most rigorous in the world and are in line with those of our principal allies and partners in the major export controls regimes."

Global Affairs spokesperson Natasha Nystrom, said and editing error lead to a draft version being mistakenly published.

"As part of the improvements made to the report, the language was changed to emphasize the key role of human rights in the export controls process for Canada's international trade in military goods and technology," she said.