Canada to join global Arms Trade Treaty under legislation tabled Thursday

The Liberal government has introduced legislation that will bring Canada's weapons export laws in line with the international arms trade treaty. The bill places restrictions on Canadian companies operating abroad and increases penalties for violations.

Canadian companies that sell arms through foreign subsidiaries will now be subject to new law

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland introduced legislation Thursday to strengthen Canada's arms export control regime. (David Rowland/Associated Press)

Canadian companies that want to sell weapons through foreign subsidiaries will soon require permission from the federal government under strict, new legislation introduced Thursday in the House of Commons.

The bill enables Canada to join the international Arms Trade Treaty — something the Liberals promised they would do during the 2015 election campaign.

Under that global agreement, which involves 130 countries, the federal government is required to implement brokering controls on arms sales.

Last summer, CBC News reported extensively on the activities of a Canadian-owned company that sold armoured vehicles to war-torn African countries — deals that were criticized by a United Nations arms control panel.

The RCMP were asked by the Liberal government to investigate whether the 2012 sale of 131 armoured patrol cars in Libya violated UN sanctions. There were also questions about the company's dealings in South Sudan and Sudan.

The company, Streit Group, denied it had done anything wrong and noted the vehicles were manufactured and shipped from its plant in the United Arab Emirates.

An armoured personnel carrier made by Streit Group is shown in this undated image. (Streit Group)

Global Affairs at the time said there was nothing the Canadian government could do because the sales took place offshore, outside of the jurisdiction of federal arms export regulations.

The new legislation addresses that by saying regulations and domestic permit requirements will now apply to "any person or organization in Canada, as well as to any Canadian citizen, permanent resident, or Canadian organization abroad."

Global Affairs says it will be up to the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency to enforce the legislation.

In a statement, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said: "We committed to introducing this legislation, and I am very pleased that we will, in turn, raise the bar with a stronger, more rigorous system for our country."

Much of the tracking of illicit arms sales is done by UN panels, and experts told CBC News last summer that Canada could help by increasing funding for those investigators.

The federal government said Thursday it will provide $1 million to go toward a UN trust fund that helps countries comply with the arms treaty. It is also spending an additional $13 million to bolster Canada's arms exports regime at home. 

Stricter consideration at home?

The federal government, under both the Liberals and Conservatives, has taken heat over a $15-billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, which has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups.

The company involved in that deal, General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, went through all of the required permits and export requirements, but critics have said the federal government should have reconsidered the deal, especially in light of Riyadh's involvement in the war in Yemen.

The Liberal government signed export permits last year for a $15-billion deal under which London, Ont.-based manufacturer General Dynamics Land Systems is supplying armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. (Mark Spowart/Canadian Press)

The new legislation establishes for the foreign affairs minister new legal obligations for the approval of permits, including consideration of whether the arms will be used: to violate human rights law; for acts of terrorism; or in gender-based violence against women and children.

Fines for breaking the law will increase to $250,000 from the current $25,000.

Canada as a treaty outlier

The legislation still has to be debated by the House of Commons.

Only after it passes will Canada be able to formally join the Arms Trade Treaty, which the former Conservative government refused to sign.

Russia, China, Syria and North Korea were among the other countries that balked at joining the convention.

The United States signed, as did all other NATO members.

At the time, the Conservative government justified its decision by saying it had concerns about how the treaty would affect "lawful and responsible firearms owners."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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