Amid celebrations over UN arms treaty, worries about Canadian gun lobby influence
The UN voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve a new arms trade treaty. (TIMOTHY A. CLARYTIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
The champagne was flowing Tuesday afternoon in the office of the Canadian charity Project Ploughshares.
Hours earlier, the United Nations in a 154-3 vote agreed to approve an arms trade treaty, a pact that has the promise to regulate the cross-border sale of conventional weapons. In theory, the treaty should stop arms makers from being able to sell so easily to countries with spotty human-rights records.
Tanks, combat aircraft, naval vessels, missiles and launchers, and even small arms are among the items covered in the treaty.
“This is a terrific thing; in the past, bananas have had to pass more regulations to be exported across a border than a gun does,” John Siebert, a former Canadian diplomat now working with Project Ploughshares, said in an interview with the Star.
Even though Siebert said he and his colleagues are gratified by the treaty’s success, he and his disarmament group colleagues are worried. Officials with the Department of Foreign Affairs have privately told Project Ploughshares that they’re concerned about a potential backlash from the sport gun lobby in Canada.
“This treaty really shouldn’t affect the sport shooting lobby, but they’re still worried, and so the Canadian government is worried,” Siebert said. “It’s really up in the air. Canada voted for the treaty, but we’ve had some indications that Canada won’t sign the agreement, or won’t sign it immediately. Until the foreign minister says something we won’t know for sure.”
Siebert said Canada is especially concerned about Canadian Sporting Shoots Association official Tony Bernardo, whose agency claims on its website to be “very politically active at the provincial and federal levels in the fight to preserve Canada’s long firearm tradition, and the right of responsible Canadians to have unrestricted lawful access to firearms.”
While Siebert says disarmament officials from groups such as Project Ploughshares, Oxfam and Amnesty International have been members of past Canadian delegations with the arms treaty alongside representatives of the gun lobby, the most recent Canadian contingent only the gun lobby represented, but not disarmament groups.
CBC News reported Bernardo's colleague Steve Torino was a last-minute addition to the Canadian delegation, and his inclusion came against the advice of DFAIT staff.
If it's hard to imagine Canada voting in favour of the arms trade ban and then refusing to sign it, consider the remarks of Foreign Affairs Deputy Director Habib Massoud last year, who said the Conservative government is worried that tracking arms sales could inappropriately spotlight “the legally protected information of private companies.”
“In Canada’s view, detailed reporting about each and every transaction can, in certain circumstances, be both impractical and unrealistic. The sheer volume of such transactions would overwhelm virtually any administrative system now in existence.”
Project Ploughshares recently documented how Canadian-based Pratt and Whitney has routinely built airplane components and sold them to manufacturers in the U.S. and Brazil, who then sold the fully-constructed planes to conflict zones such as Angola and Colombia.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead