Montreal Canada – Human rights advocates accuse Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government of misleading the public about arms sales to Israel, which have come under closer scrutiny amid deadly Israeli bombings on Gaza.
At issue is legislation that prohibits the government from exporting military equipment to foreign actors if there is a risk it could be used in human rights abuses.
But regulatory gaps, combined with a lack of clarity about what Canada sends to Israel, have complicated efforts to end these transfers.
Dozens of Canadian civil society groups this month exhorted Trudeau to end arms exports to Israel, arguing that they violate Canadian and international law because the weapons could be used in the Gaza Strip.
But facing growing pressure since the start of Israel's war on Gaza on October 7, the Canadian Foreign Ministry has tried to downplay the state's role in helping Israel build its arsenal.
“Global Affairs Canada can confirm that Canada has not received any requests, and therefore issued no permits, for complete weapons systems for major conventional weapons or small arms to Israel for over 30 years,” the ministry told Al Jazeera in an email on Friday. .
“Permits granted since October 7, 2023 concern the export of non-lethal equipment.”
But advocates say this misrepresents the total volume of Canada's military exports to Israel, which totaled more than $15 million (C$21.3 million) in 2022, according to the government's own figures.
It also highlights the country's long-standing lack of transparency regarding these transfers.
“Canadian companies exported more [$84m, $114m Canadian] in military assets in Israel since 2015, when the Trudeau government was elected,” said Michael Bueckert, vice-president of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, an advocacy group.
“And they have continued to approve arms exports since October 7 despite the clear risk of genocide in Gaza,” Bueckert told Al Jazeera.
“Incapable of defending its own policies, this government is misleading Canadians into believing that we do not export weapons to Israel at all. As Canadians increasingly demand that their government impose an arms embargo on Israel, politicians try to pretend that the arms trade does not exist.”
Lack of information
Even if Canada cannot transfer complete weapons systems to Israel, the two countries have “a consistent arms trade relationship,” said Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Plowshares, a peace research institute. .
The vast majority of Canada's military exports to Israel are in the form of parts and components. These generally fall into three categories, Gallagher explained: electronics and space equipment; military aerospace exports and components; and finally, bombs, missiles, rockets and general military explosives and components.
But beyond these broad categories, which were gleaned by reviewing Canada's domestic and international reports on arms exports, Gallagher said it's still not clear “what these real pieces of technology are.”
“We don’t know which companies export them. We don’t know exactly what their end use is,” he told Al Jazeera.
Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera's question about the “non-lethal equipment” the government has approved for export to Israel since October 7.
“What does that mean? Nobody knows because there's no definition of it and it could really be any number of things,” said Henry Off, a Toronto-based lawyer and member of the board of directors of the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR).
Lawyers and human rights activists also suspect that Canadian military components are arriving in Israel via the United States, including for installation in combat aircraft such as the F-35 jets.
But these transfers are difficult to track because a decades-old agreement between Canada and the United States – the Defense Production Sharing Agreement of 1956 – created “a unique and comprehensive set of loopholes granted Canadian arms transfers to the United States,” said Gallagher.
“These exports are processed with zero transparency. There are no regulations or reporting on the transfer of Canadian-made military components to the United States, including those that could be transferred back to Israel,” he said.
The result, he added, is that “it's very difficult to challenge problematic transfers if we don't have the information to do so.”
National and international law
Despite these obstacles, Canadian human rights advocates are pressuring the government to end its arms sales to Israel, particularly in light of the Israeli military's continued assault on Gaza.
Nearly 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past four months, and rights activists have painstakingly documented the impact on the ground of Israel's indiscriminate bombing and widespread destruction of the enclave. The world's highest court, the International Court of Justice, also determined last month that Palestinians in Gaza face a plausible risk of genocide.
In this context, the elimination of arms transfers to Israel actually constitutes a demand from “Canada [to] respect its own laws,” said Off, the Toronto lawyer.
Indeed, Canada's Export and Import Permits Act requires the Minister of Foreign Affairs to “refuse applications for permits to export and broker military goods and technology…if there is a substantial risk that these articles compromise peace and security.”
The minister should also refuse exports if they “could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law” or in “serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children,” the law specifies. .
At the same time, Canada is also a party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a United Nations pact that prohibits transfers if states know the weapons could be used in genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of war and other violations of international law.
But according to Off, despite a growing list of human rights violations by Israel since October 7, Canada “has approved the transfer of military goods and technology that could fuel them.”
Late last month, Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights wrote a letter to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, demanding an immediate end to the transfers. The group said it would consider next steps, including possible legal action, if no action was taken.
“It takes a village”
Canada nevertheless insists that it maintains one of the strictest arms export control regimes in the world.
When asked whether his government intended to end arms transfers to Israel, Trudeau told Parliament on January 31 that Canada “places human rights and the protection of human rights 'man at the center of all our decision-making processes'.
“That’s always been the case and we’ve always made sure we’re responsible in how we do it. We will continue to do so,” the Prime Minister said.
Project Plowshares' Gallagher, however, told Al Jazeera that Canada maintains “a certain level of permissiveness” in which countries it chooses to arm, including Israel.
“More … than [27,000] Palestinians killed, the vast majority civilians; “a large part of the Gaza Strip has been completely destroyed,” he said, referring to the Israeli offensive. “This is obviously an operation that is not being conducted within the bounds of international humanitarian law, which should influence the risk assessment carried out by Canadian officials. »
And while Canadian arms exports to the Israeli government pale in comparison to other countries – notably the United States, which sends billions of dollars in military aid to Israel each year – Off said: “All difference is a difference.”
“It takes a village to make these instruments of death and it should make a difference if we removed Canada's contributions,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the pressure on Canada also sends a message to other countries “potentially aiding and abetting the massacre of Israel.” of Gaza.”
“If you send weapons to countries committing serious violations of international humanitarian law, you will be held accountable. »