Is Canada serious about small arms control?

The Canadian government is trying to weaken a global agreement to track and control small arms exports, claiming that efforts to track global arms flows would be too expensive and risk invading privacy.

If that argument sounds familiar, it should: the government used the same argument when it abolished the long gun registry.

Is Canada’s vocal pro-gun lobby influencing the government to water down the treaty? If this is the case, the government risks making life much easier for warlords and other unsavoury characters across the world just to pander to its electoral base (Jeff Davis, “Canada says tracking global arms sales ‘unrealistic’,” Postmedia news, 6 July 2012):

In talks at the final round of Arms Trade Treaty negotiations, now taking place in New York, federal government officials warned the treaty could result in privacy violations and exorbitant administrative bills.

Their objections echo those expressed by the Conservative government about Canada’s now-defunct long-gun registry, repealed recently after a caustic and divisive national debate.

Canada’s position on the arms treaty negotiations was outlined in a speech earlier this week by mid-level diplomat Habib Massoud, a deputy director in the department of foreign affairs’ non-proliferation and disarmament section.

“In Canada’s view, detailed reporting about each and every transaction can, in certain circumstances, be both impractical and unrealistic,” Massoud said in the speech. “The sheer volume of such transactions would overwhelm virtually any administrative system now in existence.”

The Canadian government’s view, Massoud said, is that any new arms tracking secretariat should be “minimal, small, and flexible” and should be funded out of existing UN budgets.

“We should try to avoid, as much as possible, creating any new bureaucracies or taking on any new financial commitments,” Massoud said.

The Canadian government is also pushing for language in the treaty’s preamble affirming “respect” for the lawful ownership of firearms by private citizens. Specifically, Canada asked that the treaty recognize the use of “firearms for recreational purposes, such as sport shooting, hunting and other similar forms of lawful activities.”

The treaty should also include measures, Massoud said, to safeguard “the legally protected information of private companies or the personal information of private individuals.”

Canada was initially a strong proponent of the treaty during preliminary discussions when federal Liberal governments were in power. However, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada stands out as one of only a few countries — including Israel — pushing for recognition in the treaty of lawful public ownership and recreational use of firearms.

Discussions towards a global arms trade agreement began in earnest in 2006, and the 193-member UN General Assembly is expected to approve the treaty late this month, following four weeks of negotiations.

According to Oxfam America, only 52 countries have laws governing arms brokers, and only half of those have criminal or monetary penalties for illegal gun sales.

On Monday, as negotiations began in New York, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Sweden penned an editorial in The Guardian that called the illicit trade in weapons a “growing threat to humanity.”

“The overwhelming majority of UN member states have shown a true desire to address the problems posed by unregulated trade in conventional arms,” the foreign ministers wrote. “Now is the time for us to deliver.”

The United States opposed any Arms Trade Treaty when George W. Bush was president. That position shifted under Barack Obama, breathing new life into the project.

The U.S. now supports a treaty, but is concerned about provisions that would make it more difficult for American businesses to export weapons and ammunition to legitimate buyers.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that progress on conventional arms control has been lagging in recent years.

“Our common goal is clear: A robust and legally binding arms trade treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence,” Ban said. “It is ambitious, but it is achievable.”

Kenneth Epps, of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian arms-control advocacy group, said Canada is clearly less enthused about the treaty than European nations.

“The really disappointing thing here is that it’s clear from this statement that Canada is not going to be pushing for the kind of strong treaty civil society groups like ourselves have been calling for — for more than a decade,” he said.

Epps said the Harper government’s focus on domestic ramifications may weaken the final treaty.

“The attention to the domestic firearms situation in Canada is masking what could be a much better approach by Canada to address a humanitarian issue, and that is the worldwide impact of conventional weapons,” he said.

Since 2009, a global declaration in support of stronger arms trade regulation has been in circulation and has received 149 Canadian parliamentary signatories.

Non-governmental groups point out that currently there are more regulations placed on the trade of bananas than arms, and the lack of rules is allowing the weapons and ammunition trade to proliferate.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs minister John Baird, Rick Roth, says that Canada is “committed to keeping arms out of the hands of criminals, terrorists and human rights abusers” but that it will not stand behind a treaty that burdens hunters, farmers, and law-abiding owners of firearms.

“An arms-trade treaty should not punish those engaged in the lawful trade or use of conventional arms,” he said.

“It is important that the (treaty) recognize the legitimacy of the legal and responsible international trade in conventional weapons and that it respects the lawful ownership of firearms by responsible private citizens for personal and recreational uses, such as sport shooting, hunting and collecting.”

Photo credit: DND

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