OTTAWA – Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland wants to re-examine Canada’s legislation to join a global arms control treaty after criticism that it gave her too much power, says the Liberal head of the committee studying the bill.
Liberal MP Bob Nault said Freeland also wants to take a second look at another heavily criticized portion the bill: that it contains a loophole that could lead to weapons flowing to countries with poor human rights records.
The House of Commons foreign affairs committee, which Nault chairs, is studying the bill, which would allow Canada to join the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty aimed at regulating the trade of a wide range of armaments from handguns to tanks.
Groups such as Amnesty International have urged the government to amend the bill to close a loophole they say would allow Canada to sell arms to the United States, with no assurances they could not then be transferred to countries that abuse human rights, including Saudi Arabia.
Alex Neve, Amnesty’s Canadian secretary general, testified that the proposed bill isn’t strong enough to prevent “diversion” of its U.S.-bound exports to rights abusing countries.
He said a recently released U.S. Department of Defence audit found that it could not account for $1 billion worth of U.S. weapons, including tens of thousands of assault rifles, hundreds of mortar rounds and hundreds of armoured vehicles exported to Kuwait and Iraq.
Nault said he recently discussed the issue with Freeland and “she’s quite prepared to look at some amendments.”
“We’re hearing that people feel we can do a better job, we can do more,” Nault added.
Peggy Mason, head of the Rideau Institute think tank, told the committee the bill gives too much discretion to the foreign affairs minister to approve arms exports. Human rights groups say the problem with that was exemplified last year when former foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion approved export permits for a large chunk of the controversial $15-billion sale in light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.
She said that a “key step in bringing Canada into line with the ATT involves placing hard limits on this discretion.”
Nault said a committee meeting set for Thursday was postponed so the government could take a closer look at amendments put forth by the NDP to potentially strengthen the bill.
The government didn’t want to use its majority on committee to force passage of the bill, he added.
Helene Laverdiere, the New Democrat foreign affairs critic and committee member who proposed amendments, said she is happy with the decision to postpone hearings so the government can contemplate changes.
“It’s better than outright refusal,” she said. “But we have to wait to see what they come back with.”
The former Conservative government kept Canada out of the UN treaty because it feared it was a back door way to bring back the federal gun registry, which it abolished in 2012 as the fulfillment of a long-standing election promise to its rural base of supporters.
Nault said he doesn’t believe the treaty contains any provision that would affect lawful gun ownership in Canada. But he added he is “comfortable we could put some language in there to assure domestic gun owners that this would have no impact on them.”