Arming Repression? Military Exports to Countries that Violate Human Rights

There is a clear global norm, if not yet enforceable international law, against supplying arms to states engaged in serious and persistent human rights violations. To what extent is it a norm that arms suppliers, including Canada, honor in practice?

The proposed “arms trade treaty” that is now the subject of UN-mandated[i] multilateral negotiations is expected to confirm and reinforce the illegality of supplying arms to countries in which there is a credible risk that those arms will be used to attack civilians and violate the rights of their people. In support of that norm, Canada’s current export guidelines discourage, but do not prohibit, military exports to countries “whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”[ii]

One way to measure the extent to which Canada follows that principle is to compare its performance with that of the rest of the world (a recent Ploughshares report offers a detailed analysis of Canada’s military export performance).[iii] There is currently not enough transparency in the international arms trade system to reliably monitor particular transfers with a view to assessing their likely contribution to human rights violations, but there are compilations of the overall volume of weapons sold worldwide that make it possible to get a good sense of how much of that total volume goes to countries guilty of serious and persistent human rights violations and to identify the comparative records of various suppliers.

For example, Freedom House, a well-established American non-governmental organization that monitors political rights and civil liberties, publishes an annual global survey. For 2005, the last year for which Canadian military export figures are available, the Freedom House survey ranks 192 countries and defines 89 as “free”, 54 as “partly free”, and the remaining 49 as “not free”.[iv] The latter category correlates strongly with states identified by human rights monitoring groups as among the worst offenders.

By that measure, roughly 25 percent of all states are serious and persistent human rights violators – so, the question is, do arms suppliers avoid arms shipments to such countries as a way of reducing the likelihood that their products will be used for illegal purposes (human rights violations) and thus generally honor the norm against supplying repression?

Canada’s most recent report on military exports covers the three years 2003-2005,[v] and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) register of international transfers[vi] of major weapons systems provides figures for the global trade during the same period. In the three years 2003-2005 worldwide exports of major weapons went to 131 countries, of which 36 were in the Freedom House “not free” category. So 27 percent of arms recipients in that period were major human rights violators – roughly the same proportion of countries that regularly and seriously violate the rights of their citizens according to the Freedom House measure.

That suggests there was no particular effort by suppliers as a group to avoid sales to such countries. Furthermore, roughly one-third of the volume of major arms transferred in those three years went to human rights violating countries, indicating rather a strong willingness – even a modest preference – to sell to repressive regimes.

The US record, according to the SIPRI figures, is actually better than that of the global supplier group. The US sold major weapons to 60 countries during those three years (2003-2005), of which 10, or 16 percent, were in the “not free” category. At the same time, 20 percent of the total volume of its export, almost $20 billion worth, went to “not free” countries – generally indicating a slight bias against supplying arms to human rights violators.

Canada’s record is both better and worse than the US record. Canadian reporting on arms sales (excluding the United States because Government reporting does not include sales to the US) includes all military commodities, major weapons systems as well as small arms, other military equipment, and parts and subcomponents. With all of these categories included, Canada sold to 72 countries during the same three years, of which 9, or 13 percent, were in the “not free” category, indicating a stronger than average record of avoiding sales to repressive regimes. However, when measuring volume, fully 25 percent of all Canadian exports went to “not free” countries. And since 25 percent of all countries in the world fit that category, the record suggests that Canadian policy does not result in any real avoidance of shipments to repressive regimes.

But that is not quite the full story. Canadian exports are heavily concentrated, so what the figures show is not so much that Canada has a tendency to sell to repressive regimes generally, but that it has a rather strong tendency to sell to Saudi Arabia. The repressive Saudi kingdom – by the Freedom House measure it is among the eight most repressive regimes on the planet – has become a favorite customer of Canadian military commodities, especially light armored vehicles. If sales to Saudi Arabia are removed, the proportion of Canadian military goods going to repressive regimes drops to just over 2 percent (the primary customers being Egypt, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) – showing a significant inclination to avoid military sales to repressive regimes.

Lloyd Axworthy’s 1996 instruction, as Minister of Foreign Affairs,  that the permit approval process pay more rigorous attention to security issues and to threats of hostilities in recipient countries called for “a strict interpretation of human rights criteria”[vii] in military export permit decisions. That strictness seems to have been generally applied during the period 2003-2005, but it has clearly not produced any reluctance to export armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah heads a calcified monarchy whose management of an oil-rich economy consists largely of ignoring crisis-level unemployment while brandishing the world’s most ostentatious displays of private wealth – all that in a region saddled with chronic and multilayered conflict, deeply rooted underdevelopment, and broad swaths of debilitating poverty.

As a result, the King and his extended family remain vulnerable to any internal opposition that stands a chance of winning the support of the country’s lavishly funded armed forces. Of course, the Royals have not survived this long by ignoring the obvious. The King has in fact taken care to employ divide and rule tactics to create a splintered military – tactics that have included building up the Saudi Arabia National Guard as a tribal force to protect the Royal family from both internal rebellion and the regular Saudi Army. For more than a decade Canada has been a steady supplier of military commodities to Saudi Arabia, primarily light armored vehicles for that same National Guard.

All of this leads to at least three basic conclusions. First, there is no evidence that global arms suppliers collectively now make a point of avoiding arms sales to countries engaged in serious and persistent human rights violations. Second, as long as Canada sees Saudi Arabia as a legitimate arms customer its record of controlling arms to human rights violators is not much better than that of the rest of the world. Third, since the record of global arms suppliers suggests indifference to repression in recipient countries, an Arms Trade Treaty that tries to put some teeth into a global norm against the supply of arms to human rights violators will have to have clear enforcement mechanisms and compliance standards.[viii]


[i] Resolution A/63/240, voted on December 24, 2008 (

[ii] Report on Exports of Military Goods From Canada, 2003-2005, (Export Controls Division, Export and Import Controls Bureau, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, 2007)

[iii] For a detailed analysis of Canadian military export control performance see this special report from Project Ploughshares: Kenneth Epps and Kyle Gossen, On the Record: An audit of Canada's report on Canada's military exports, 2003-05 (Project Ploughshares. January 2009),

[iv]Combined Average Ratings - Independent Countries 2005” (

[v] Report on Exports of Military Goods From Canada, 2003-2005, (Export Controls Division, Export and Import Controls Bureau, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, 2007)

[vi] SIPRI’s Arms Transfer Database,, searched for data on years 2003 through 2005.

[vii] “Annual Report on Canada’s Military Goods Exports Tabled in Parliament Today, Press Release No. 205, December 11, 1997, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (

[viii] An imperative endorsed by a recent UK House of Commons (Foreign Affairs Committee) Report on nonproliferation: Global Security: Non–Proliferation, Fourth Report of Session 2008–09, 3 June 2009.

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