By Elizabeth Walker


Inter Press Service

 Copyright 2001 Global Information Network

NEW YORK, Jun. 29 (IPS/GIN) -- Canada's image as an international peacekeeper has taken a blow with recent claims that the government is fueling wars and human rights abuses abroad through weapons sales.

 According to a new report by the Ottawa-based Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT), many governments considered to be among the most violent and abusive in the world have received a wide range of military equipment from Canadian companies, with the blessing and assistance of the Canadian government.

A second independent report by Project Ploughshares, an ecumenical coalition devoted to research and education related to demilitarization issues, confirms much of the COAT report.

 According to the 1999 records issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canada shipped military products to six countries hosting armed conflicts and where the government was responsible for human rights violations.

Indonesia alone imported more than 13.8 million dollars worth of Canadian military goods in 1999. According to COAT, defence industry reports also suggest that Canadian companies have exported materials to countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Rwanda, although these countries are not listed in DFAIT's report.

DFAIT, which is responsible for promoting the export of military goods and initiating export controls, has denied accusations that Canada is violating human rights and supporting armed conflict through its exports.

Control of arms exports is complex, largely because of the slippery definition of military materials. What is being sold to repressive regimes is never as obvious as large guns or torture devices.

 "When we say military exports, we don't mean bazookas. When we look at these exports, we have to see what it involves," said Andre Lemay, a spokesperson for DFAIT. Many items intended for civilian or commercial use, including certain metals and remote sensing equipment, have a possible military value. These so-called "dual use" goods are part of the reason why exports must be carefully scrutinised.

Despite having what is widely recognized as one of the strictest systems in the world for screening potential exports of military equipment, Canadian arms sales records show that the country consistently fails to meet its proclaimed standards. The approval process for export permits is carried out with room for interpretation.

 This is where the problem lies, according to Ken Epps, program coordinator of Project Ploughshares.

"When it comes to administering a policy, there's an awful lot of leeway that goes into a final decision," Epps says. "Because the process is essentially secret, and it's not subject to any kind of public scrutiny, it's a given that there are exports going to countries that are involved in human rights violations or who are at war."

 The connections between military activities abroad, Canada's domestic corporations, and the Canadian government are tied up in broader issues of economics and trade. Exports are vital to Canada's economy, and people well beyond the defence suppliers and policy makers are in a position to benefit from military dealings.

Canada exports 45.7 percent of its annual GDP, four times the export percentage of the United States, and military exports exceeded 857 million dollars in 1999.

 "The bigger picture is that it's helping other Canadian industries as well. Selling weapons systems to a repressive regime and keeping those governments in power also helps the mining companies and the shoe factories and all the other industries and Canadian companies investing in those countries," said Richard Sanders, coordinator for COAT.

It is the government's business to promote trade, and military exports are no exception. By hosting arms bazaars, sponsoring trade missions, providing financial support for companies to set up booths at military trade shows in other countries, and bringing together trade commissioners and representatives from the military industries, the government makes it possible for Canadian defence suppliers to successfully peddle their wares in other countries, experts say.

 Arms trades closer to home have also come under fire. Current trade policies exempt exports to the United States from permit requirements. The United States is the world's largest military spender and exporter, purchasing almost two-thirds of Canada's military exports -- more than all other countries combined. The U.S. takes advantage of low prices made possible through heavy Canadian subsidies and friendly trade agreements to purchase equipment, principally component parts.

While the Canadian government's guidelines regulate sales of military equipment to countries at war, the United States is not restricted in any way, regardless of its current military involvements. Transactions with the U.S. are not included in the annual reports by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

 "The United States is considered such a great friend of the Canadian government and Canadian industry...They can't conceive of saying no to any possible military export. It's beyond their way of thinking," said Sanders.

Canada has actively promoted greater transparency in the conventional weapons trade, and the detail in the DFAIT reports have few matches internationally. But there is still a long way to go.

 "The benchmark for international arms trade transparency is low, and the Canadian report should do more than set a standard for countries that report little to nothing on arms exports," cautions the Project Ploughshares report.

The exclusion of data from trade with the U.S., as well as the absence of numbers on some Canadian equipment exported for military end-use, leaves DFAIT's reports lacking.

 Although Canada is not unique in its involvement in the arms trade, many groups demand better from a country renowned for its involvement in keeping peace around the world. Canada played a major role in negotiating the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and it was the first country to sign and ratify it. Canada has also been instrumental in the drive for an international criminal court.

"The image of Canada is one of a peaceful nation. We're also a country that has participated in every peacekeeping mission since the concept was created," said Lemay. Canada is a member of more international organizations that any other country in the world, and prides itself on playing by the rules.

 Issues with arms trading may put Canada's reputation for a unique commitment to peace on the line.

"The problem is that it's not out of the ordinary. It's something that all countries can say that Canada is no worse than any one else. The question is, is that the standard that Canada wants to hold themselves to?" said Robert Stewart, a founding director of the Canadian Centers for Teaching Peace.

Elizabeth Walker

Global Information Network