Canada and the arms trade treaty.

Author:Regehr, Ernie

The international arms trade has to date avoided serious international control measures, but in the fall of 2006 the UN General Assembly launched a process designed to bring the regulation of military exports into the arms control mainstream. The proposal for an Arms Trade Treaty, designed to make it more difficult to arm repression and fuel conflict, is about to be studied by a UN experts group, and even though formal negotiations are not imminent, the debate has already begun to articulate basic transfer principles and to point to changes in national export control systems that will become necessary. As a second-tier military exporter of some significance, and as an advocate of an arms trade treaty, Canada is in a position to promote controls based on agreed standards, transparency, and peer scrutiny and ensure that international well-being and respect for human rights will become the key test of responsible national export control policies and practice.

Le commerce international des armes a jusqu 'a present echappe aux mesures de controle internationales serieuses, mais l'Assemblee generale de l'ONU a, a l'automne de 2006, entrepris de ramener les exportations militaires dans le giron du controle des armes. Le projet de traits; sur le commerce des armes, qui vise a compliquer la tache aux fournisseurs qui alimentent la repression et les conflits, est sur le point d'etre etudie par un groupe d'experts de l'ONU et, meme si des negociations officielles ne sont pas imminentes, le debat a deja commence a articuler les principes de transfert fondamentaux et a degager les modifications des systemes nationaux de controle des exportations qui s'imposeront. A titre d'exportateur militaire de deuxieme volet d'une certaine importance et de defenseur du traite sur le commerce des armes, le Canada est en mesure de favoriser des controles fondes sur des normes acceptees, sur la transparence et sur l'examen attentif des pairs et de veiller a ce que le bien-etre international et le respect des droits de la personne deviennent l'epreuve cle de la politique et des pratiques responsables en matiere de controle des exportations.


The military supply lines to Pakistan and Burma (Myanmar), two countries of current notoriety, run directly through the UN Security Council, with branch lines from Europe, Asia, and even Canada. China, France and the United States are the prime military benefactors of Pakistan, while China and Russia do the same for Burma. German); Sweden, Switzerland, the Ukraine, Indonesia, and Canada (more on Canadian-built Bell helicopters later) have at various times also tried to help satisfy Pervez Musharraf's prodigious appetite for military goods, while India, Serbia, and the Ukraine have done the same for General Than Shwe.

Arming the world is a big and largely unregulated business, a reality that any despot worthy of the name knows and exploits. But in the fall of 2006 the international community took a first small but formal step toward changing that. The United Nations General Assembly, with only one dissenting vote, agreed to explore the creation of "common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." (1) The objective is to stop arming repression and exacerbating conflict, and the resolution preamble sums up the developing consensus that the absence of standards "undermines peace, reconciliation, safety, security, stability and sustainable development." (2) The proposed instrument is a treaty, and Canada's Ambassador for Disarmament told the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament earlier in 2007 that "a comprehensive, legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty could provide important international and human security benefits, notably by curtailing the irresponsible trade in all types of conventional arms." (3)

Action in one sense has been a long time coming. Ideas for regulating arms transfers, long advocated by nongovernmental organizations, have been on the edges of UN disarmament discourse since its founding. But, given the economic, political, security, and regional interests that meet and compete in the global arms trade, the idea of an arms trade treaty (ATT) actually made it into the political mainstream with surprising speed after it was proposed in 1997 by Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and a group of fellow Nobel Peace Laureates.

A second step in the process has now also been taken. In 2007 the Secretary-General canvassed and reported on the views of UN member states regarding the feasibility of the treaty. And the third step has already been committed--in 2008 an international Group of Governmental Experts will study the feasibility and parameters of a treaty. (4) After that the steps will become rather more challenging as they pick their way through the maze of producers, sellers, buyers, brokers, and dealers that populate the buoyant and lucrative international arms trade.


World military spending reached about $1.2 trillion in 2006. (5) Some 20 percent of that, $200 billion plus, went to arms procurement. Most procurement is for the arsenals of advanced industrial states whose primary source is domestic production. Less than a fifth of world military procurement is from foreign sources--i.e. is traded internationally. The US Congressional Research Service (CRS), which annually tabulates global arms sales and deliveries, reports that in 2006 international arms deliveries reached a value of just under $30 billion, of which about two-thirds went to developing countries.

In the second half of the 1980s the arms trade was more than double current levels, but post Cold War declines in military spending led to significantly reduced procurement budgets. In recent years military spending has returned to or exceeded Cold War levels, but the bulk of the increases are by the US, and because it relies primarily on domestic production for its military equipment, there has not been a corresponding increase in international arms transfers.

The industry that supplies the arms trade is now thoroughly globalized and is at once heavily concentrated and diffuse. Its concentration is owing to the relatively few companies and fewer countries that carry out the complicated systems integration that is now the key function of the prime contractors that produce major weapons systems. It is diffuse because those prime contractors rely on a global network of designers, developers, and builders of the components and subsystems that they assemble into a single, major weapon system.

Canada's military industry, while producing some complete systems like armored vehicles and aircraft, is an important part of the network of component and sub-system suppliers. That network is also expanding to emerging industrial economies outside the usual European-North American axis of production. While some of these produce major weapons systems--e.g. China and India, largely on the strength of robust national demand from their own forces, as well as Brazil, Israel, the two Koreas, Indonesia and South Africa--the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks transfers of major weapons systems, identifies at least 30 additional countries that regularly produce military goods for export.

In recent years the permanent five members of the UN Security Council have accounted for 75-90 percent of all arms exports. A secondary group of about five suppliers provides 10 percent or more of all exports, with all others supplying the rest. SIPRI and the CRS in their most recent reports show Canada to be second or third from the top among second tier suppliers (making it the seventh or eighth highest supplier and accounting for about 2 percent of the world total).


While Canada is one of the world's top 10 military suppliers, it ranks high among the minor suppliers rather than being in the company of major suppliers. Even so, this country's overall role is understated in the government's most recent annual report on military exports (figures for 2002). "Canada's military export totals are modest by world standards," says the report summary. "Based on figures in the UN Register, Canada accounts for less than 1 per cent of the world arms market." The UN Register of Conventional Arms, a valuable voluntary reporting mechanism which is discussed briefly below, is not the place to go for reliable arms transfer data. Canada's status as an arms supplier would be more accurately described as modest by Russian and American standards, but high by world standards.

Canadian export figures tabulated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), based on mandatory reporting by industry of exports shipped in accordance with export permits, are considerably higher than those reported by SIPRI ($365 million in 2005) and the CRS ($600 million in 2006). Methods of collecting data and of valuing transfers differ among all the sources and thus they are not readily comparable. In 2002 Canadian exports to non-US customers reached $678 million. (6) Ottawa does not track sales to the US because no export permits are required, but independent tabulation by Project Ploughshares of direct sales to the Pentagon, as arranged through the Canadian Commercial Corporation, (7) indicates that in 2002 Canadian prime contracts with the US Department of Defence reached $650 million. During much of the Cold War exports to the US were tallied and showed that, in addition to prime contracts with the Pentagon, Canadian firms subcontracted with US producers for sales that matched the levels of prime contract sales. If that pattern still holds, the value of prime contracts and subcontracts together would be closer to about $1.3 billion per year--indicating total annual military exports of about $2 billion. A note on methodology in the Annual Report for 2002 explains that while figures for exports to the US are not included, they "are estimated...

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