Canada’s arms export data reveals a disturbing trend: billions in military goods flowing to authoritarian governments accused of human rights abuses. Global autocracies now outnumber Democracies, and Canada appears happy to sell arms to the highest bidder.

A Canadian Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) on display in Toronto, Canada, on September 16, 2023. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Canada is aiding some of the world’s most repressive governments with military goods. According to Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) recently released 2023 Exports of Military Goods and Technology report, Canada continues to transfer massive quantities of weapons to antidemocratic governments and states accused of war crimes.

This data contradicts Canada’s self-promotion as a defender of peace and democratic values on the world’s stage and is further evidence of an ongoing trend of Canadian arms flowing into the stockpiles of human rights abusers. The GAC report shows that last year Canada exported military goods valued at CAD $2.143 billion to non-US destinations. Although the United States is typically the largest consumer of Canadian-made weapons, Canada neither regulates nor reports most of its arms exports to its southern neighbor. Including these figures would dramatically increase the total reported value associated with the Canadian arms trade.

According to Freedom House, nearly half of Canada’s reported weapons transfers in 2023 — valued at $1.04 billion, or 49 percent of the total — were destined for authoritarian states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

Booming Business for the Canadian Arms Trade

Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report uses a two-tiered scoring methodology to analyze access to and enjoyment of political rights and civil liberties in each country and some territories, and codes governments as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. These rankings reveal how willing supplier states are to export military goods to authoritarian governments.

The value of these problematic transfers ballooned to $1.544 billion, or 72 percent of Canada’s arms exports, when states labeled “Partly Free” — such as Kuwait, Thailand, and Morocco — were included. While Canada asserts that its arms control regime is marked by a “commitment to human rights around the world,” its weapons dealings clearly indicate otherwise.

Topping the list of autocrats receiving Canadian arms last year was Saudi Arabia, with approximately $904.6 million in military goods. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi Arabia is currently the world’s second largest importer of weapons systems, with most originating in rich states in the Global North, including Canada. Although Saudi Arabia’s deep pockets mean good business for Western arms dealers, the Saudi monarchy remains one of the most repressive governments on the planet, with the third highest execution rate in the world and a codified system of discrimination against women.

Saudi Arabia has been Canada’s largest reported arms export destination for nearly a decade, receiving more than $11 billion in weapons systems, primarily Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) sourced under a 2014 megadeal. This contract, signed on behalf of General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada by a Canadian crown corporation under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, remains the largest arms contract in Canadian history. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, meanwhile, has expressed polite concern over these LAV exports but has nevertheless approved each shipment.

This ongoing transfer of weapons to Riyadh has drawn significant condemnation from the Canadian public and civil society — and not only because of the repressive nature of the Saudi government within its borders. In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition to intervene in Yemen’s civil war, a conflict that claimed an estimated 377,000 lives before a shaky cease-fire was established in 2022. Throughout its intervention, Saudi Arabia deployed Canadian-made LAV-25s and even illicitly supplied these combat vehicles to other combatants in Yemen.

An internal investigation later whitewashed Canada’s complicity in arming the Saudi-led coalition, finding that there was “no credible evidence” that the Saudi military had deployed Canadian weapons to the war in Yemen.

The UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen twice named Canada as a state contributing to the violence in the Yemeni conflict through its massive arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Given the continued flow of Canadian arms, this UN body would likely have continued to criticize Canada’s role in perpetuating the Yemeni crisis had it not been dismantled directly following pressure from Saudi officials.

The Canadian government closely echoes the defense industry’s claims about the benefits of arms exports while decrying human rights abuses abroad.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only authoritarian customer of Canadian arms in the Gulf. Last year, Canada also exported some $13.3 million in arms to the United Arab Emirates, contributing to a total of $177.9 million in weapons transfers over the last ten years. The United Arab Emirates, an absolute monarchy that employs a sophisticated surveillance state to target and detain human rights defenders, is also one of the main parties arming the current crisis in Sudan and partnered with Saudi Arabia in its disastrous intervention in Yemen.

Canada also exported a record-setting $73 million in arms to Qatar, whose abuses were put on full display during the Doha-hosted 2022 FIFA World Cup. This spike may mark a trend toward a larger and more entrenched arms trade relationship between the two countries. It has been reported that Canadian officials have lobbied the Qatari government to procure the same type of LAVs Canada has so readily supplied to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Arming Autocracies

The Canadian government closely echoes the defense industry’s claims about the benefits of arms exports while decrying human rights abuses abroad. But when it comes to Canada arming the abusers, Ottawa’s actions speak louder than its words.

By arming dictatorships, Canada undermines global stability and tarnishes its own reputation in an increasingly fractured and unstable international arena.

By arming dictatorships, Canada undermines global stability and tarnishes its own reputation in an increasingly fractured and unstable international arena. Canadian officials should challenge the world’s autocrats, not provide them with the means to repress. These concerns are amplified when considering the general shrinking of democratic space worldwide. For the first time in two decades, the global community is comprised of more autocracies (seventy-four) than democracies (sixty-three).

A recent study from University of Copenhagen professors proved the obvious: arms flows and access to modern military technologies help to solidify authoritarian governments. “Jumping the Gun: How Dictators Got Ahead of Their Subjects,” a substantial study of nondemocratic state stability and arms procurement between 1820–2010, shows that authoritarian governments are significantly more resistant to democratization and pro-democracy movements when they can procure advanced weaponry.

The arms export data recently released by the Canadian government also reveals a grim new record for arms exports to another persistent human rights violator. In 2023, Canada sent Israel $30.6 million in military goods, the largest annual amount since records began in 1978.

This revelation comes amidst significant pressure on Canada to halt the shipment of arms to Israel due to the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) widespread violation of international humanitarian law throughout its ongoing military campaign in Gaza, dubbed Operation Swords of Iron, which was launched in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas-led attacks.

Calls for Canada to stop arming authoritarian governments accused of war crimes are not merely appeals to a higher moral standard but are grounded in concrete legal obligations.

At the time of writing, the operation, now in its ninth month, has killed more than thirty-seven thousand Palestinians — mostly civilians — and injured approximately eighty thousand more. Recent findings show that more than five thousand children remain buried under the rubble resulting from Israel’s relentless campaign of air strikes, which has constituted the most destructive bombing campaign of the twenty-first century.

Due to a lack of transparency in Canada’s arms control system, it is unclear what types of weapons systems Canada has transferred to Israel. The system only provides information on the broad categories of military technologies exported in each calendar year. GAC’s recently released report indicates, however, that these exports included technology utilized in military aircraft, components of bombs and other munitions, and parts of radars and electronic equipment for military end-use.

The reported arms exports do not, however, include those transferred from Canada through the United States, the largest provider of military goods to the IDF. These exports include millions of dollars worth of Canada-origin components integrated into each American-made Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, of which Israel has procured dozens. The F-35 has played a major role in Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, with Israeli officials boasting of its effectiveness in the operation.

Moral and Legal Obligations

In March 2024, the New Democratic Party introduced a motion in Canada’s Parliament that called for, among other things, a cessation of arms transfers to Israel. To the surprise of many, the motion, after significant amendments, passed in a late-night vote, winning the support of both Prime Minister Trudeau and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly.

However, the actual extent of this motion was soon watered down. Instead of halting actual arms shipments to Israel, this new policy only freezes the authorization of future, hypothetical arms exports. Previously approved arms transfers, including nearly $30 million authorized in the first two months of Israel’s operation in Gaza, are unaffected. This half-baked policy remains even after the International Court of Justice found in late January that Israel’s conduct in Gaza could plausibly amount to genocide, and UN experts explicitly called on states to stem the flow of arms that could be used in the violence.

Calls for Canada to stop arming authoritarian governments accused of war crimes are not merely appeals to a higher moral standard but are grounded in concrete legal obligations. Canada, along with nearly two-thirds of the world’s states, is a party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first international treaty that aims to minimize the grave humanitarian consequences of the global arms trade.

States party to the ATT cannot transfer arms if such exports pose an overriding risk of being used in violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law. They are also barred from providing weapons to foreign states or actors that would be used in war crimes or other crimes against humanity (which, notably in the case of Israel, includes apartheid). This threshold has evidently been crossed with several of Canada’s arms trade relationships, even if Ottawa would like to pretend otherwise.

Canada’s disregard for its international obligations under the ATT constitutes a breach of international law while sending a troubling message to some of the world’s most repressive governments: human rights violations and antidemocratic practices will not be condemned but rewarded. And as global military spending reaches all-time highs, including amongst those repressive governments, the world’s bullies have surely taken note that Canada is open for business.

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