Canada’s arms export practices

KEN POLE  –  Mar 5, 2018

The recent decision by Rodrigo Duterte, the internationally controversial President of the Philippines, to cancel a $234 million deal to buy 16 combat-configurable Bell 412EPI helicopters after hearing that the contract might include restrictions on what the helicopters can be used for, has refocused attention on Canada’s arms export practices.

This came to light after the Canadian government (which had previously been brokering the deal through its own Canadian Commercial Corporation, CCC, an agency that facilitates international trade) began responding to allegations the helicopters could be used against Philippine citizens – some of whom are allegedly being corrupted and radicalized into ISIS insurgents.

Assisted by CCC, Montreal-based Bell Helicopters had been negotiating the sale for some time, but it took on a high profile when a purchase agreement was signed Feb. 7 at the biennial Singapore Airshow, the largest in Asia. Under a government-to-government contract through the CCC, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) was to get the twin-engine Bells as part of the Philippines’ overall military modernization program. Although no contract value was announced, it is a matter of public record that Duterte’s government had allocated $234.1 million.

The PAF has flown older single-engine Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopters and had begun adding 412s to its fleet in the 1990s, most recently taking delivery of eight in 2015 as part of its modernization program.

“We are honored that the Bell 412 will continue to serve the Philippines […] for many more years,” Sameer A. Rehman, managing director of Bell Helicopter Asia-Pacific, said in Singapore. “Being a part of the armed forces of the Philippines is a privilege and responsibility that we at Bell Helicopter take very seriously. We look forward to bringing these aircraft into service quickly to serve the citizens of the Philippines.”

That prompted Canada’s minister of international trade minister, François-Philippe Champagne, to announce almost immediately that the government was taking a second look at the plan, which it had previously defended on grounds that the aircraft would be used for search-and-rescue and disaster relief missions.

The about-face evidently was precipitated by a senior Philippine military officer’s confirmation that the helicopters also would be used in “internal security operations.” Human rights and arms-control activities have accused Duterte and his regime of extrajudicial killings, torture and other atrocities while fighting Islamic militants in the southern Philippines and communist insurgents elsewhere.

During an official visit to the Phillipines in November 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had expressed concerns about extrajudicial killings, particularly those related to Duterte’s openly-violent crackdown on the narcotics trade.

In confirming his order to the Philippine Air Force, Duterte said its equipment had to be free of any constraints if it was to be used effectively. “Most of the guns, bullets and whatever, weapons of war […] invariably could be used against the rebels and the terrorists,” he told reporters in Davao City on Friday. “Do not buy any more from Canada -- or from the United States -- because there is always a condition attached.  If I cannot use the gunships, the helicopters, then I might as well surrender this government to them.”

The government’s position on the helicopters is being compared with its support for the sale by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni-controlled Army has been reported to have been using earlier LAVs against Shia militants.

Last August, a short video obtained by Radio Canada International from Shia activists ostensibly showed the LAVs deployed several months earlier around the Shia-dominated city of Awamiyah.

When concerns were expressed about the $15-billion contract for newer LAV3s, just before his Conservatives were unseated by the Liberals in October 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said cancellation would only wipe out Canadian jobs.

“This is a deal, frankly, with a country, notwithstanding its human rights violations, which . . . is an ally in the fight against the Islamic State,” Harper told reporters in Rivière-de-Loup, Que. Moreover, it was “a contract that any one of our allies would have signed.”Renewed criticism early in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration brought a similar defence. In April 2016, his foreign affairs minister at the time, Stéphane Dion, released documents showing his approval of the exports. The documents indicated that Dion had been convinced by federal officials that they were satisfied that the Saudis would not use the LAV3s against their own people, that they would be used in the fight against Islamic State militants.\However, the controversy isn’t about to go away thanks to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a collaboration of the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

In promoting a March 22 presentation at the school by Srdjan Vucetic, association professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, the Balsillie School said in a March 5 email that the Canada-Saudi deal “is likely to be remembered as the Trudeau government’s first scandal” despite the fact that it is rooted in a former Conservative administration.

“Situating this deal in a historical-comparative context and using the best available quantitative arms trade data, this analysis advances two main claims,” it said in the email.

“The first is that Liberal governments are just as likely as Conservatives to encourage exports of Canadian military goods, including goods going to human rights-abusing customers. Second, Canada’s overall arms exporting behaviour is similar to the behaviour of its ‘international do-gooder’ peers, Sweden and the Netherlands. This leads to a more philosophical discussion: what does arms trade mean for feminist foreign policy?”

In today’s political environment in Ottawa – witness the Liberal budget’s high-profile treatment of Trudeau’s pro-feminist agenda – it’s a valid question. But then there’s Rudyard Kipling’s petic 1911 observation that “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”? If true, what then? Hopefully Vucetic will provide some useful insight.

Last year, it fell to a woman, our widely-regarded Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, to introduce draft legislation which would enable Canada to accede to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which supposedly would regulate this global arms trade when ratified by a required number of states.

Under the Conservatives, Canada was the only NATO member and G7 country not to sign the treaty, possibly because of Harper’s manifest dislike of the UN.  

Assuming that Freeland’s bill, C-47, sees the the light of day as legislation, it would harmonize our laws with the ATT. The government has committed $13 million to “implement new brokering controls, improve transparency, and support enhancements to Canada’s export controls” and a further $1 million for the UN Trust Facility Supporting Cooperation on Arms Regulation.

However, the package of proposed amendments to the Export and Import Permits Act and the Criminal Code, tabled in the House of Commons last April 13. However, it didn’t receive second reading (approval in principle) until last October, when it was referred to the House Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. That, unfortunately is where C-47 sits today and if anyone can force the agenda, it’s Freeland.

In a blog last year, Vucetic noted that in addition to committing UN signatories to restricting the flow of conventional weapons to areas of conflict where there is risk of human rights violations, the ATT adds a “layer of accountability” which can be monitored by exporters’ domestic populations.

“Although the ATT decidedly cannot stop members from selling weapons to whomever they deem fit, it does make deals with human rights-abusing buyers more costly politically,” he said, citing the Saudi LAV3 deal as “an outstanding case in point” for Canadian arms control and human rights organizations.

“Treaty membership would have made officials in Ottawa think twice before supporting a sale of weapons to a government with one of the worst human rights record in the world,” he argued. “But would Canadian membership in the ATT have actually stopped the Saudi deal, and others like it? Research shows that Canada’s support of international human rights tends to hit a hard wall when it comes to the arms trade.”

Vucetic used a working paper to comparing Canada with Sweden, where Margot Wallström is not only foreign minister but also deputy prime minister in the current centre-left coalition government. “Wallström has gained international headlines for her ‘feminist foreign policy,” he wrote. “An important part of this agenda has revolved around a moratorium of sorts on military cooperation with Saudi Arabia — a country notorious for its lousy record on women’s rights — and an attempt to make Swedish arms exports contingent on the recipients’ ‘democratic credentials.”

Prime Minister Kjell Löfven’s minority Social Democrat government, supported by the Green Party, had been working on the bill since taking office after the 2014 general election. “Sweden will maintain strict and effective export controls of military equipment,” Wallström said at one point, vowing “to tighten the export regulations to non-democracies.”

Her vehicle is a draft bill presented last June to the Council of Legislation, which reviews bills before they are put to parliament, the Rikstag, for debate. Among other things, if adopted this year as expected, it would insert a democracy criterion” into Sweden’s arms export legislation, requiring prospective customers’ history to be taken into account when considering an export licence.

“Whatever the epilogue of these Swedish goings-on, they are already shaping arms trade debates well beyond Sweden, including the ones in Canada,” Vucetic wrote. “Joining the ATT will serve as a reminder to the Trudeau government about its unedifying role in the LAV scandal; indeed, the government may well be asked to commit to a ‘never again.”

Since that was written before the Bell Helicopter deal exploded, this “never again” policy may already be unofficially in place regardless of the economic repercussions.

Even so, Vucetic swrote, “how to support indigenous defence industries while also reducing trade with human rights-abusing actors […] is likely to remain a major policy challenge for Canada in the ATT era, as indeed it is for most arms-exporting democracies.”

– Ken Pole (5 March 2018)