Inside Politics

UPDATED: Where are arms sales numbers, DFAIT?

UPDATED UPDATE: Read David McKie's story on the 2007-2009 numbers released March 11.

UPDATE: This afternoon, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon tabled his department's 2007-2009 Report on Exports on Military Goods From Canada.

NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar, who has been demanding the report for the past few weeks, said that while he's happy the latest report is finally public, it's a shame the government decided to table the document on a Friday afternoon just before Parliament takes a week off.

Dewar also said the process the department uses to produce these reports is too slow, and secretive, given the importance of knowing what weapons Canada sells to countries in areas of the world such as the Middle East.

Despite this release, there is an interesting back story to these reports, which you'll find in the narrative below.

Once I have had time to read and make sense of this latest report, I'll produce an update.

* * *

In 2006, Canada sold about $360 million worth of arms, such as bombs torpedoes and rockets, to such countries as Chile, France and Oman. It sold aircraft and so-called "specially designed components" to Egypt.

That was then. What about now?

With a number of countries in the Middle East now wracked by conflict, the extreme example being Libya, advocates concerned about arms sales are beginning to ask questions about what Canadian companies export and to whom. And one of the best ways to track that information is through the export permits companies must obtain from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Wondering about present-day arms sales is perfectly legitimate, given that there is concern some weapons could end up in the wrong hands, or on the wrong side of an armed conflict, and that Canadian arms could be responsible for the killing of innocent victims.

It would be easier to address these concerns if we had similar statistics to the ones I quoted at the beginning. But we do not. And here's why.

If a company wants to sell a weapon abroad, it must apply to the Department of Foreign Affairs for a permit, according to the rules of the Export and Import Permits Act. Foreign Affairs gathers the statistics from these permits to produce annual reports, which detail what we're selling, the dollar amounts and to what countries.

Arms permits data, 2003-2006: Sales by country
(Click red markers for details, or see the data)



Arms permit data, 2003-2006: Sales by type and country
(click markers for details, or see the data)

The department is supposed to table these annual reports in Parliament. Foreign Affairs rightly points out that there's no legal requirement for the department to do this. However, as was made clear by an explanation in a document about these reports that I obtained through access to information, "the practice of producing a military report is one that is shared by many like-minded countries, including EU member-states, Australia, the U.S., and so on." The explanation goes on to describe this disclosure as a "voluntary transparency." 

I filed this access-to-information request after we did a series called Arming the World in 2007. Back then, we raised questions about the lack of transparency regarding these so-called Reports on Exports of Military Goods. Foreign Affairs hadn't tabled a report in a number of years and said it was in the process of finalizing details to publish reports from 2003-2005, which it eventually did.

What became clear was that officials recognized they were late in filing these reports, and they talked about glitches such as the burden of dealing with paper records. They vowed to increase their "efficiency" with a move to dealing with records from companies in electronic format. Better days were ahead. The department went on to table its 2006 report. And then everything stopped. The "efficiencies" they depended upon to produce these reports with more regularity appear to have disappeared.

Attempting to get an interview has been impossible, despite repeated attempts.

As many journalists working on Parliament Hill are only too aware, email seems to be the government's preferred choice of communication, a better way to control the flow of information and keep on message. I received an emailed response from the department, which didn't provide much more detail than the document obtained through access to information.

I am certainly not accusing either the Canadian government or exporters of anything nefarious. There are strict rules about that we can sell and to whom, though the laws say little about arms that may make their way to despotic regimes via third countries or other circuitous venues.

What I am saying is that it's perfectly legitimate to ask about what we're selling and to whom, if nothing else than to rest assured we're not unwittingly complicit in the spilling of innocent blood. But without the kind of detail that Foreign Affairs provided about arms shipments back in 2006, it's impossible to be assured of anything. So the questions linger.

In most cases, the department would explain it policies in an interview. For example, why the delays in submitting these reports, especially when they talked about improvements back in 2007? Why where there so many glitches when other countries are about the publish their reports?

So far, this is all the department is prepared to say:

"The Government of Canada is finalizing the report on military exports from Canada for the period 2007-2009 and it will soon be tabled in Parliament."

That's not good enough. The department offered the same kind of assurances back in 2007.

If you have opinions about this story or any insight into the lack of transparency, please feel free to contact me at david_mckie@cbc.ca.

Tags: behind the numbers, david mckie, foreign affairs

Comments are closed.