Critics of Canada's Arms Exports to Saudi Arabia Ignore the Elephant in the Room
By Richard Sanders, coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT)
A July 12, 2016, article in VICE ("Canada isn't being totally honest about its plan to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia") says:
"Critics of the deal, like [Steven] Staples [former President, Rideau Institute] and [Cesar] Jaramillo [of Project Ploughshares], point out that under Canada's export rules, the government can't sell military hardware to a country 'whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.'"
Unfortunately, this isn't true. In fact, the Canada's so-called "rules" are actually just what the govt itself just calls call "guidelines." What's more, these "guidelines" DO NOT say that Canada CAN'T sell weapons to human rights violating govt's. In reality, these "guidelines" merely state that Canada will "closely control" the export of weapons to certain governments. "Closely control." THAT is the operative phrase in the "guidelines." What does that phrase actually mean? In reality, the govt can "closely control" arms exports by actually INCREASING those exports. This appears to be exactly what has been happening over the 30 years that I've been studying Canada's military exports.
To assert that Canada has "rules" and "laws" to prevent or stop weapons sales to human rights violators is a huge deception. It is perpetuated for obvious reasons by the Cdn govt. But less obvious is why mainstream peace activists would also persist in perpetuating this illusion about non-existent "rules" and "laws" that supposedly stop Canada's sales to human rights violators? There are no such rules or laws, they are mere guidelines with key weasel words that actually mean the govt is within its rights to INCREASE the flow of weapons to human rights violators. So why pretend otherwise?
The narrative that Cda has these "laws," fits into the grand myth that this country is a force for peace in the world. This story-line is something that many mainstream peace activists -- especially those frequently chosen to provide pithy quotes for the corporate media -- seem to want to continue to embrace.
There's another problem that needs addressing. The elephant in the room in the media coverage about Canada's weapons sales to Saudi Arabia is somethinmg that even the mainstream peace movement seems to want to shy away from. That huge elephant is the US. The US, not Saudi Arabia, is Canada's biggest recipient of military hardware. We export some $3 or 4 billion to the US every year. The US is a much worse country to export weapons to. They are constantly at war and have killed millions of people around the world in our lifetimes. Canada is no.1 supplier of military equipment to the US. No other country on earth comes even close to Canada in terms of supplying the US with military equipment (mostly in the form of high-tech components for major weapons systems, like warplanes). The US is the warmongering godfather of Saudi Arabia, and so many other notorious human rights violators.
We also sell them complete weapons systems, like the Canadian-made LAVs. While people seem to think this is a recent phenomena, Canada has actually been selling these weapons systems to Saudi Arabia for some 25 years. Cdn LAVs that were sold to the US, clicked literally MILLIONS of miles in Iraq, and were a major contribution to waging the war there. Where is Cda's moral outrage (or even a passing reference) to that fact? It is no where, because Cdns have no idea. Just like so many Cdns have no idea that Canada was in fact very deeply complicit in the Iraq War. This is not only because the Cdn govt and corporate media supported this deceptive narrative, but also because mainstream Cdn peace organisations -- like Ploughshares and the Rideau Institute -- decided to back these myths and then take credit for persuading the Liberal govt to "say 'NO'" to the Iraq War (2003) and to joining the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) weapons program (2004) (See issues 56, 57, 58 of COAT's Press for Conversion! on Canada's deep involvement in BMD.) Following the quick public acceptance of these Canadian peace myths it became impossible to rally people to oppose Canada's deep complicity in the Iraq War and BMD weapons-related programs. While acceptance of these myths helped promote the Liberal government's facade as a force for peace, and boosted support for those mainstream peace groups that credited themselves with these phoney successes, it was detrimental to the peace movement as a whole.
Peace activists should know that our country's military exports to the US are a more serious threat to global peace and human rights than the smaller sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. So why don't those mainstream activists who have frequent access to the corporate media take every opportunity they can to expose and oppose Canada's much bigger volume of weapons exports to the US? Do they just not realise this, or are they making a conscious decision to (1) strategically focus on the Saudi deal and (2) downplay the much bigger problem of Canada's weapons sales to the world's leading warmonger and war profiteer, namely, the US?
To answer this, let's get back to Canada's meaningless arms-export "guidelines". These "guidelines" also say that Cda will "closely control" military exports to countries "at war" and even to govts that are likely to soon be at war (ie., "under the threat of war.") Unfortunately, the vast majority of Cdn weapons exports (ranked by value) go straight into the arsenals of countries that ARE at war, like the US and our other NATO allies. So much then for Cdn "guidelines" to "close control" weapons exports. They are a total farce. The other thing is that NO export permits are even required for ANY Canadian military exports to the US. The US is totally exempt from Canada's whole export-permit process. Controlling Canadian arms exports to the US seems then to be totally beyond our reach. Is it a lst cause that we shouldn't deign to raise? Would it make people just want to give up the struggle? Are activists really so driven by the need to feel that they can solve managable problems, that we shouldn't reveal to them that the real problems we face are actually much bigger and more complex than they thought?
To answer that question, let's look at another problem. The VICE article describes the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) as "an agreement that would impose restrictions on the international sale of, amongst other things, armored combat vehicles and large-calibre artillery systems which would certainly include the LAV III."
Unfortunately this isn't the case. The ATT is also a farce. Although much heralded by some mainstream peace, human rights and development organisations, the ATT does absolutely NOTHING to stop the so-called "legal" arms trade between govts. The treaty's sole purpose is to stop the illicit or illegal weapons trade, which is a small fraction of the so-called "legitimate" trade in weapons between states, like Cda's totally legal military exports to the US and Saudi Arabia. (Among the several millions of dollars that Project Ploughshares received from Harper's Conservative govt, they received hundreds of thousands in govt contracts related to studying and promoting the ATT.)
Think about it. If the ATT was going to do anything to actually stop the ongoing flow of billions of dollars worth of weapons every year between govts like Cda, the US, Saudi Arabia and other nations at war or smashing human rights, why would the ATT have the support of most of the world's largest weapons producing/exporting nations? Every state member of the NATO military alliance supports the ATT. If the ATT was going to stop this flow of weapons, why on earth would it be supported by most of the world's largest weapons producers and exporters?
But the bigger question for progressives to deal with is this: Why is the ATT being supported and promoted by some of the world's largest human rights and development agencies, like Amnesty and Oxfam? It's also supported by all of Cda's parliamentary political parties. Large mainstream NGOs aren't just suppoirting the ATT because some receive significant financial support from their arms trade-friendly govts. Some NGO supportyers don't receive govt funding. The answer has something to do with these NGOs acceptance of the prevailing mainstream narratives and myths that are perpetuated by govts and the corporate media.
And, it is very important to remember here that these big NGOs also rely on the public for donations. The public will support these NGOs financially if they are seen to be backing huge, successful campaigns and initiatives like the ATT, which appears -- on the surface -- to be a big step forward in the struggle to oppose the global arms trade. Unfortunately, it's not. The ATT is a big step towards regulating and controlling the illegal trade in weapons. This is actually welcomed by most of the govt's that facilitate the the weaponstrade.
A good analogy might be with the struggle to abolish the slave trade 200 years ago. Imagine if during that struggle, the major slave-trading govt's of the day put forward a treaty that opposed only the illicit or illegal slave trade that they themselves didn't control. Such a treaty treaty would not do anything to stop the "legal" trade in slaves between states, but would only stop the transfer of slaves to illicit or illegal slave owners. This farcical Slave Trade Treaty, like today's Arms Trade Treaty, would do absolutely nothing to stop anything but a fraction of the ongoing trade. Anyone can see why the big slave exporters and the big weapons exporters (and their friends in govt), would really like such farcical treaties. They would want the public to see these treaties as proof that they were doing something positive to control the trade in slaves and weapons. What we really need to deal with is why progressives who profess to oppose the slave trade and/or the weapons trade (and who are most quoted in the corporate media) would support such farcical treaties. Why would they present these treaties as a major part of the solution?
Getting the large mainstream peace, human rights and development groups on board the ATT gives the legal arms trade what amounts to a much-needed seal of approval. This stamp of approval, like putting "Fair Trade" stickers on most of the world's so-called "legal" weapons exports, is something that clearly benefits arms producers, exporters and the govts that are complicit with them. Is the role of progressive movements to sign over public endorsement for the so-called legal trade in weapons and give our okay to the "control" mechanisms which facilitate that horrible trade?
Rather than trying to help regain credibility for the ludicrous myth that Canada is a global force for peace and human rights, progressives should be trying to debunk those myths and lay them to rest once and for all. We need to confront the grave contradictions within progressive movements and try to have a more radical analysis that digs at and unearths the root of the problems we face. Otherwise we progressives may be part of the very problems we are trying so hard to confront.
For a critical analysis of the Arms Trade Treaty please see these articles on the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT) webpage.