Why Has Canada Not Signed the Global Arms Trade Treaty?

Josh Scheinert on Canada's perplexing refusal to sign the agreement, which would help curb the trade of illicit arms.
By: /
June 24, 2014
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In March 2013, rebel gunmen seized 31 displaced Darfuris from a UN peacekeeper escort. Nine years after an arms embargo was placed on Darfur, rebel gunmen are still marauding around brandishing arms they’re not supposed to have access to.

Eight days after the abduction, on April 2, 2013 Canada joined 154 other states at the United Nations General Assembly to vote in favour of a global Arms Trade Treaty. After years of lobbying by global civil society, the international community officially sanctioned efforts to try and curb the illicit flow of arms via the Arms Trade Treaty. It has since been signed by 118 states, 40 of whom have ratified it. With ten more ratifications, it will enter into force and put in place a regime that is supposed to make it more difficult for gunmen like those in Darfur to acquire arms.

Of the 154 states that voted for the treaty, Canada is one of 43 that refuse to sign it. Hiding behind a long-disproven excuse, Canada’s concerns centre around the treaty’s potential intrusion into domestic gun regulation. Even before the treaty was passed, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird was raising concerns that it would bring back the Long Gun Registry, even though fellow MPs and experts were saying that that would not be the case. Angela Kane, the UN High Representative for Disarmament has been very blunt in responding to these concerns. “It’s got nothing at all to do with this. You, as a Canadian, you can however many guns as you want. That treaty will not affect it.”

When the United States signed the treaty in September 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry also dismissed any concern that it limits domestic firearms ownership and regulation. “This treaty will not diminish anyone’s freedom, in fact the treaty recognizes the freedom of both individuals and states to obtain, possess and use arms for legitimate purposes.”

Still, Canada refuses to join a growing global effort to curb the trade and flow of illicit arms. The treaty requires states to establish control systems to regulate exports, ensure their arms transfers do not contravene UN Security Council resolutions and make certain that they are unlikely to be diverted from their intended use, maintain records, and report on their efforts to increase global transparency on this issue. An argument that Canada’s strong, existing regulations obviates any need to join the treaty ignores the importance of a collaborative global effort to address this matter.

Perhaps because Canada does not feel the full effect of the illicit arms trade, there is a diminished sense of urgency to see the treaty brought into force. However, Nigeria—a state dealing with numerous actors who should not be able to access arms—issued an appeal in May of this year for more states to join, sign, and ratify the treaty so that it might enter into force.

The Arms Trade Treaty itself is a work in progress. It will not instantly reduce the number of illicit arms used to perpetrate human rights abuses. Actors that should not be in possession of arms will not be forced to give them up immediately while illegal arms dealers will still be in business. But it is a start. Indeed, it will not be as easy for states to evade UN arms embargoes under the new regime. Already, five of the world’s ten biggest arms exporters have ratified the treaty—the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain—while the world’s largest exporter, the United States, has signed but not ratified it. Given Canada’s initial support for the endeavour and the seemingly low cost of participating in the regime, it begs the question of why Canada is not clamouring to participate in it. Indeed, the prospects of improved international peace and security and keeping innocent civilians out of harms way should be seen as a cornerstone of Canada’s national interest.

Canada rightly takes pride in its role bringing about the historic landmine treaty, popularly known as the Ottawa Treaty. Our record since, however, is regrettable. In addition to passing over the Arms Trade Treaty, Canada also refuses to ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which seeks to prohibit a type of weapon that causes unacceptable levels of harm to civilians and has been ratified by 84 states. Canada’s concerns in this case are that full ratification would preclude Canadian forces from co-operating militarily with the United States, which is not a party to the Convention.

By not joining the Arms Trade Treaty, Canada is sitting on the sidelines as the international community works towards the object and purpose of the treaty, which is fivefold:


  • To establish the highest possible common international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms;

  • To prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion;


for the purpose of:

  • Contributing to international and regional peace, security and stability;

  • Reducing human suffering;

  • Promoting cooperation, transparency and responsible action by States Parties in the international trade in conventional arms, thereby building confidence among States Parties.


The treaty also calls for the establishment of a Secretariat and a Conference of State Parties to help foster adherence to and respect for its principles, which largely fall on states to secure. Its norms will help grow the body of international law and can potentially expand the scope of actors implicated in the commission of international crimes.

The failure to create a global regime to regulate the global arms trade has very real consequences for populations around the world. In August 2004, rebel gunmen killed 150 civilians and injured numerous others in the Gatumba transit camp, three kilometres inside the Burundi border near the Democratic Republic of Congo and then home to 8,000 Congolese refugees. The weapons that perpetrated the killing were never recovered. However, tracking research determined that the bullets used to kill the refugees were manufactured in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and China. While China has not signed the Arms Trade Treaty, Bulgaria has signed and ratified it, and of the six states of the former Yugoslavia, all have signed and three have ratified it. In the years ahead, the ATT and its ratifying members will reduce the likelihood of such atrocities occurring in the future as arms and munitions are tracked from buyer to seller.

The Arms Trade Treaty, and the states joining its ranking, are attempting to build a future where massacres like those in Gatumba and Darfur will be more difficult to perpetrate. It is time for Canada to join the effort.