Late last month, the Austrian government hosted a preparatory meeting toward the First Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, which is to be held in Mexico next August. Delegations from dozens of countries, multilateral organizations and civil society gathered at the historic Hofburg Palace in Vienna to discuss matters crucial to the treaty’s implementation.
Yet Canada was nowhere to be found—the only North American state not present. Canada was also absent from the first ATT Preparatory Committee held in Trinidad and Tobago in February. Despite domestic and international calls to join the ATT, Canada has so far opted not to sign one of the most important arms control agreements of our time.
The ATT is a rare diplomatic success story. Only a decade ago the prospects for its adoption seemed almost utopian. But the inherent worth of its noble objectives, coupled with persistent, careful work by progressive states and civil society overcame skeptics. Contrary to most initial predictions, the Arms Trade Treaty entered into force last December.
To promote the universal nature of the ATT, the preparatory process leading to the first Conference of States Parties has been open not only to ratifying states parties, but also to signatories. By refusing to sign the treaty, Canada has solidified its status as an ATT outsider and squandered an opportunity to shape the implementation provisions of the treaty.
Why has Canada refused to partner with the majority of the world’s states in supporting this historic multilateral agreement?
Pro-gun groups in Canada have repeatedly asserted that the ATT will infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners. While a complete and outright lie, this view seems to have influenced the stand taken by the Canadian government. To these groups—and the government—I say: read the treaty. It is readily available on the Internet.
The ATT is not about domestic gun ownership. It is most definitely not about taking guns away from deer hunters in Alberta or rural homeowners in Saskatchewan. Its focus is on controls and regulations that prevent international arms transfers from fuelling human rights violations, genocide and repression of civilians by autocratic governments.
Even the United States, home of the National Rifle Association, has signed the ATT. And while ratification, which requires Congressional approval, will likely be a fraught and lengthy process, the signature by itself allowed the US—in fact, 130 nations thus far—to have a say on how the ATT is to be implemented.
The Vienna conference discussed in part the treaty’s rules of procedure; financing mechanisms that will ensure its sustainability; decision-making rules, such as voting thresholds for procedural and substantive matters; the location, makeup and role of the ATT secretariat; and the rights and responsibilities of states, industry and civil society during subsequent meetings of states parties.
What say did Canada have on these consequential matters? None.
Yet the global norm that will be set will have ramifications for Canada, whether it signs or not. As a regulatory mechanism guided by principles of transparency and accountability, the ATT will likely have an impact on commercial transactions.
It will limit the recipients that are eligible to receive military exports from states parties to the treaty, and may very well affect the bottom line of arms manufacturers. Such is the nature of norms: they help to define acceptable behaviour, and compliance may carry a cost.
But the international community has finally recognized that the costs in human suffering from an unregulated global arms trade are much higher. In the end, the choice was principle over profit.
So what principles were operating when Canada signed a $15-billion contract to supply Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia?
One of the reasons that the Canadian government has given for not signing the ATT is that domestic export control regulations are already at least as strong as those in the ATT. These regulations prevent military exports to countries where “there is a reasonable risk” that goods will be used against civilians.
Such a risk is almost guaranteed in Saudi Arabia, one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The deal was nonetheless allowed to go through and proclaimed an important economic victory for Canada.
I have attended the meetings in both Port of Spain and Vienna as an international civil society representative. It is heartening to see (most of) the global community of nations come together to control the export of arms that kill so many children, women and men every year.
At the same time, it is increasingly hard to find a valid rationale for Canada’s reluctance to embrace the ATT. And the world is taking notice. What’s more, while at one time the international community was surprised by Canada’s obduracy, now it views such behaviour as entirely predictable.