More than a few eye-brows were raised by the Canadian government’s recent decision last month not to sign the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) now open for signing and ratification by many states. This is even more puzzling for some given the fact that Canada voted for this resolution back in early April of this year.

International arms control treaties can address a variety of topics, ranging from the limitation of troop and weaponry levels in certain regions, reducing the size of nuclear weapon stockpiles (such as the START series of treaties), and outright bans on certain types of weapons (such as the 1992 Convention on Chemical Weapons). These treaties, while not ending conflict or ensuring peace in and by themselves, aim to limit the devastation of war caused by certain weapons, as well as to downsize the scale of conflicts when they do arise. Canada has often been a party to such negotiations, signing the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 (and indeed, recently announced renewed funding for clearing of cluster munitions in Laos) , and more famously, leading the charge in banning landmines in the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, otherwise known as the Ottawa Treaty signed in 1997. Therefore, it would seem to be a not inconsistent move for Canada to sign on to the latest arms control treaty to be put before UN member states, the Arms Trade Treaty, and yet, Canada has not.

As of October 2nd, 2013, 7 countries have ratified the ATT, while 113 have signed on. Canada is not among those 113. Why could this be? Looking at the proposed aims of the ATT, it seeks to establish “international standards for regulating or improving the regulation of the international trade in conventional arms” as well as “prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion”. It would apply to the trade of ammunition, small and light weapons (SALW) in addition to other conventional weaponry (such as tanks, heavy guns, warships, military aircraft, etc.) as well as prosecute brokers and dealers of this weaponry to conflict zones.

However, certain groups in Canada have urged the federal government not to sign the treaty alongside 113 other states, including the United States, by raising fears that this would cause higher prices on imported ammunition, parts, and firearms, as well as speculative fears that this could lead to a revival of the recently discarded Long-Gun Registry. The government has appeared to have sided with these groups, such as the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, and Canada’s National Firearms Association, in voicing its opposition to the treaty, despite the inclusion of a pre-ambulatory clause stating “Mindful of the legitimate trade and lawful ownership, and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical, and sporting activities, where such trade, ownership and use are permitted or protected by law,” reportedly at Canada’s insistence, placing it on side with other opponents to the treaty.

What could have caused this apparent change of stance over the course of six months? Perhaps domestic politics within Canada can help explain this head-scratcher. This summer saw the government embroiled in a Senate expense scandal that won’t go away, high polling numbers for opposition parties, and a certain lack of focus unusual for the Harper Conservatives. Could the spectre of the hated Long-gun registry help the government rally its base? Of course this is mere conjecture, and of little consolation to the supporters of the treaty. However, when the United States, one of the largest arms exporters in the world and a hotbed of domestic gun-support, is signing on to an arms control treaty, it makes one wonder why Canada appears so ready to oppose it.


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