Canada Shamed in Refusing to Sign UN Arms Treaty

Once again Stephen Harper’s government has embarrassed Canada on the international stage. In April Canada joined 153 other nations in voting to pass a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty at the United Nations General Assembly.

Harper-ParliamentBut this week, as more than 65 countries around the world, including Canada’s major allies, formally signed on to this landmark agreement, Canada waffled and refused to present the treaty to the Canadian Parliament for signing. The Globe and Mail termed the decision “bizarre” as only Iran, Syria and North Korea – all human-rights pariahs – are on record as opposing the treaty.

The Arms Trade Treaty marks a significant achievement in international negotiations.

The treaty covers small arms and light weapons, missiles, tanks, combat vehicles, aircraft and warships. Most importantly, it prohibits the export of arms intended for use against children and civilians, in crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.

Canada was seen as dragging its feet throughout the treaty’s development. Back in 1997 Canada took a major leadership role in leading discussions to ban land mines, and was highly praised for its efforts. This time around it was the U.K., Mexico, Japan and Kenya that led the way. In late March when 32 countries formally backed Kenya’s initiative to bring the treaty to the UN General Assembly for a vote, Canada was conspicuous in its absence.

In the final vote, our diplomats supported the treaty, but Canada’s increasing reluctance to take leadership roles in these negotiations is a cause for concern and risks sabotaging its reputation as a champion of human rights.

Assault-Weapons-Flickr-Creative-Commons-ChayakThe Star even asks,

Has the Conservative government lost its moral compass? The Arms Trade Treaty is intended to curb the uncontrolled flow of weapons and ammunition to criminal regimes, terrorists and others who commit war crimes, terrorism, piracy, organized crime, atrocities and human rights abuses.

Why would Canada oppose such a treaty? Look to the gun lobby.

During the negotiation phase two years ago, Canada sought to have all sporting and hunting firearms explicitly excluded from the treaty. The Mexican delegation strongly objected, stating that, “in their experience, a great number of arms confiscated from its notorious gangs are sporting and hunting firearms that have been modified and transformed into assault weapons.”

Observers at the time stated that Canada’s insistence on this exclusion might derail the negotiations. Canada’s position attracted the scorn of countries like Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico and Australia, and under intense pressure Canada eventually dropped its request for the exclusion of civilian firearms. In its place, the Canadian delegation settled for a statement in the treaty’s preamble recognizing “the legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities, where such trade, ownership, and use are permitted and protected by law.”

Although Canada voted in favor of the treaty at the United Nations on April 2, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that his government would take its time in deciding whether to actually sign the treaty. When pressed in Parliament this week by New Democrat MP Paul Dewar to “sign the deal now,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the government instead “will be consulting” with Canadians, the provinces, industry and others before making up its mind.

Why the hesitation to take a clear position and sign the treaty now? The treaty only applies to National Firearms Associnternational weapons trade. It does not apply to domestic gun sales or require control on guns used in Canada. Some gun owners, however, believe that it will, and gun organizations in Canada and in the U.S. have been stoking their fears.

In the United States, the National Rifle Association has been seeking “emergency donations” to stop the U.S. from ratifying the treaty. In Canada, the National Firearms Association argues it will be used as an excuse to establish a new gun registry.

Baird even suggested in the House of Commons that the opposition might want to use the treaty to revive the long-gun registry that the Conservatives killed and “bring [it] in through the back door.” But as The Star points out,

That makes no sense. The treaty focuses on cross-border weapons transfers. It doesn’t interfere with national sovereignty, legitimate arms sales or domestic gun laws.

The Globe and Mail speculates that Harper may  be stalling until after the Conservative Party’s convention in Calgary later this month. Gun owners make up a significant part of the party’s base, and Harper’s government is currently facing enough criticism without having his core membership turn against him over an issue like this.

The Globe also notes that the fight against the long-gun registry  provided a dependable “cash cow” for conservative fundraising in the past. Feigning opposition to this arms treaty to placate gun owners’ concerns could significantly add to the party’s coffers once again.

That thought is cynical to be sure, but past experience has shown that this Prime Minister carefully calculates his every move. In the meantime, he must also deal with how his waffling on this issue affects Canada’s international reputation. Others may not appreciate the subtleties of domestic Canadian politics and will judge Canada accordingly.