Technology & Trade

Canada should sign the arms trade treaty now

in Program

Among the likely explanations for the Liberals’ resounding election victory is that Canadians were drawn to Justin Trudeau’s promise to resume Canada’s proud tradition of global leadership through co-operation and compromise and to soundly reject the Harper government’s bellicosity, its distain for multilateralism, and its appeal to nativist instincts.

The new prime minister should quickly move to demonstrate Canada’s return to moral global leadership by fulfilling a key campaign pledge: to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty. Signing the ATT represents an opportunity for Canada to reclaim its status as a once-lauded leader on international peace and security. That reputation was squandered under the Harper administration — which short-sightedly rebuked the international human rights and humanitarian law principles that formed the basis of Canada’s global authority.

Canada had long been revered as the moral compass on human security, leading the world’s efforts to ban landmines, pressing for a reasoned pathway toward nuclear disarmament, and standing up for middle powers around the globe. But nearly a decade of Harper government caused the country to lose its prominence in fighting for justice and human rights; the nation simply left the playing field. Trudeau has the opportunity to restore Canada’s reputation as the staunch defender of human rights. He should seize this opportunity and sign the ATT as soon as he takes office.

The Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force on Dec. 24, 2014, is the first treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms, ranging from fighter aircraft and warships to small arms and light weapons. These are the weapons responsible for conflict, deaths, and immeasurable human suffering around the world. Canada is the only NATO member that has yet to sign the treaty and has remained out of step with its allies in supporting this important effort to keep weapons out of the hands of the most irresponsible and oppressive regimes.

The Harper government refused to sign the ATT over concerns about the potential political backlash by gun owners. Canada, like the United States, has an active gun lobby that has campaigned intensely against the ATT and connected the treaty to the now-defunct gun registry. But contrary to these messages meant to incite fear, the ATT has nothing to do with domestic gun control. In fact, the treaty establishes criteria that regulate only the international arms trade to prevent weapons from being used to contribute to human rights abuses and terrorism.

Canada’s adherence to the ATT could go a long way toward strengthening a global norm for more responsible arms transfers and ensuring that these weapons are not used to contribute to human suffering. Canada was the 13th largest arms exporter between 2010 and 2014, and under the Harper administration, Canadian arms exports rose to their highest level since 1991, with Saudi Arabia, India, and Colombia among the largest recipients. Critics have also highlighted Canada’s provision of arms to other known human rights abusers during the Harper years, such as Egypt, Libya and Nigeria, as a trend that should be reversed under a new Trudeau administration. Signing the ATT will send a message that the Canadian arms trade will not conduct business as usual and the store will close for some of the world’s most abusive regimes.

In the first 24 hours after his victory, Trudeau vowed to cancel Canada’s purchase of the F-35 fighter jet and to withdraw from the anti-ISIS air campaign. Both those decisions will take time to fully realize. With a quick stroke of the pen, Trudeau can demonstrate his commitment to international peace and security and show that his government will re-enter the multilateral arena from which Canada has been sorely missed.


Brian Finlay is President and CEO of the Stimson Center. Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Stimson Center and served as the consultant to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty process during the treaty’s negotiations.

This piece originally ran in The Torronto Star, October 27, 2015


Photo credit: Francis Storr via flickr

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