Canada, Syria, Iran, North Korea: Together against arms control

Last Wednesday, our closest ally and the world’s largest arms exporter became the latest country to sign the Arms Trade Treaty. “This is about keeping weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue actors,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said as he explained the Obama administration’s decision. “This is about promoting international peace and global security.”

Over the past six months, 113 nations have signed onto the agreement, which will oversee the global arms trade and interrupt the steady flow of weapons into the hands of human rights abusers.

The idea is simple: we stop exporting guns, ammunition, tanks and aircraft to countries that intend to use them against children or civilians, creating new humanitarian thresholds, and in the process we make it more difficult for those regimes to commit mass atrocities like what we’re seeing in Syria today.

For decades, the illicit trade of small arms and other weapons has fuelled armed conflicts around the world. Countries like Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to bear the scars and instability caused by arms proliferation. Traffickers enable warlords like Joseph Kony in Central Africa, and Thomas Lubanga in the Congo to recruit child soldiers – itself a crime against humanity. Millions have been displaced, forced to flee their homes and take refuge in foreign lands thanks to the widespread availability of these weapons.

The statistics are alarming. In the past year alone, NGOs estimate that more than half a million people have lost their lives to armed violence. Governments – especially those governments that allow weapons manufacturers to export overseas – have a responsibility to do all they can to prevent this from happening.

One small problem: Canada hasn’t signed on. We’ve refused. What’s worse, our foreign minister has repeatedly rejected the idea in the House of Commons. In June, when asked whether Canada would join, Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird shot back: “We don’t want to see the NDP and Liberals try to bring in through the back door a long gun registry that will only hurt law-abiding hunters and farmers. This is what the Liberals and the NDP want to do next election, and I can ensure you we won’t let them get away with it.”

The notion that an international treaty designed to halt mass atrocities could somehow affect domestic gun ownership laws is ludicrous – no matter what Canada’s recreational firearms lobby claims. He couldn’t be further from the truth. If we’re to take his comments seriously, Mr. Baird is either incompetent or he’s being facetious.

In fact, with Mr. Kerry’s signature, Canada is now the only NATO country that has not signed the Treaty. Germany, France, the United Kingdom and now the United States all support it. Given Canada’s record as a leader in humanitarian disarmament – the Responsibility to Protect, peacekeeping and the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty come to mind – our refusal to join is embarrassing.

Canada is increasingly isolated and alone; in the company of Iran, Syria and North Korea – not exactly champions of human rights.

Earlier this week, Mr. Baird had an opportunity to make amends during his UN General Assembly speech in New York. Quoting Roman philosopher Cicero, Somali poet Gaarriye and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Mr. Baird pleaded with those in attendance to take action. “We are not here to achieve results for governments or political leaders. We are here to protect and defend…”

Yet he pledged nothing on disarmament. While our friends and allies used this opportunity to promote the Treaty, Mr. Baird ignored it altogether.

Tomorrow will mark six months since the Arms Trade Treaty was first adopted by the United Nations. In those six months, a quarter of a million lives have been lost due to armed violence. It’s time to get on with it. The minister needs a ticket back to New York. It’s time to sign.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail.