Canada's Checkered History of Arms Sales to Human Rights Violators

By Webster, David; Associate Professor of History et al. | The Canadian Press, February 14, 2018 | Go to article overview

Canada's Checkered History of Arms Sales to Human Rights Violators


Webster, David, Associate Professor of History, University, Bishop's, The Canadian Press


Canada's checkered history of arms sales to human rights violators

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: David Webster, Associate Professor of History, Bishop's University

The Canadian government has been taking flak lately for its arms sales.

Helicopters destined for the Philippines could be used for internal security in President Rodrigo Duterte's harsh crackdowns, critics charge.

The $12-billion sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia has also embroiled Justin Trudeau's government in controversy.

In response, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to review both deals, suggesting Canada is toughening up arms sales restrictions based on human rights grounds.

But how did Canada get into the international arms trade, anyway?

A look at the history of how Canada started selling weapons overseas following the Second World War reveals that, contrary to Freeland's implication, Canada actually used to be much more restrictive on arms sales than it is today.

Canada has not made human rights any more central to its arms export policy than it was in the 1940s -- in fact, it's reduced oversight and the consideration of human rights issues when it comes to selling arms.

"Canada's export controls are among the most rigorous in the world," the government states.

It "strives to ensure that, among other policy goals, Canadian exports are not prejudicial to peace, security or stability in any region of the world or within any country." In the post-Second World War period, Canada did not exactly "strive to ensure" these things -- but it did say no when there was a risk of any of them happening.

How Canada got into the arms trade

Indeed, Canada entered the arms trade cautiously and carefully. After the Second World War, Ottawa was willing to pass surplus military equipment in Europe to allied governments.

But sales to less reliable countries, and those who might actually use the weapons, always required approval by the full cabinet. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted that "great care should be taken with respect to all sales of weapons and supplies of war to foreign governments."

The first test came in 1946, when cabinet agreed to sell six million 30-calibre cartridges and four million magazines to the Dutch army just as it was about to embark on a colonial war in Indonesia. But when the Dutch asked for 10,000 Sten machine guns for use in Indonesia, Canadian officials turned them down.

"We have no reason to believe that Canadian public opinion would support such a sale, nor would it be in the Canadian interest to make the sale," according to one document from the day, now filed at Library and Archives Canada.

Why?

The guns would probably be employed in the "'pacification' of the native population," exposing the government to "severe domestic and international criticism for supplying these arms" and potentially "prejudic(ing) for a long time our commercial relations with the Indonesians."

Any further talk of helping the Netherlands -- a close Canadian ally -- was blocked by the Department of External Affairs

No to China

Cabinet did get to decide on a proposal in 1946 to sell warships to China, then a pro-American regime desperately fighting off the advances of Mao Zedong's Chinese communists.

The Canadian government certainly sympathized with the Chinese Republicans. And the sale of 10 or 11 surplus Canadian frigates would have netted Canada some $2 million -- the equivalent of $27 million in today's money. …

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