The CANSEC arms fair, Canadian arms exports and concerns about their impacts on human rights in Colombia
Christyn Cianfarani, the president of CADSI, “the national voice of more than 900 Canadian defence and security companies” and the organizer of the annual CANSEC arms show in Ottawa, has previously addressed a Senate committee noting arms exports and human rights.
She commented: “Our companies – 90 per cent of which are SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] – are not experts in foreign policy or human rights practices. They do not have the resources to make judgments in this arena, particularly as practices and policies vary widely around the world and seem to be changing more quickly than ever.”
Notably though, Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries (CADSI) members also include massive companies like BAE Systems, Bell Textron, Boeing, Elbit Systems, General Dynamics, Irving Shipbuilding and Lockheed Martin.
In that same presentation, Cianfarani cautioned about new legislation that would prevent the granting of export permits for controlled goods if there is a “substantial risk” that the good could be used to commit human rights violations.
Rather than welcoming this safeguard, she highlighted: “We hope this does not mean lengthier permit approval times and we urge the government to ensure that the department is properly resourced to carry out these functions.”
And Cianfarani told Senators that CADSI is opposed to permits for the export of “controlled goods” to the United States. She stated: “Requiring export permits for Canadian defence goods purchased by the U.S. government would put at risk at least $1 billion per year in Canadian defence industry business.”
Project Ploughshares highlighted: “Canada only partially reports on military exports to the United States—Canada’s largest customer. The data in the latest report includes export values for only four of the 22 categories of the munitions list. Thus huge amounts of data remain off the public record, despite Canada’s obligation under the [Arms Trade Treaty] to be both transparent and universal in reporting foreign arms exports.”
Colombian state forces, particularly the anti-riot police ESMAD, responded to National Strike protests with excessive violence. WOLA noted that “many of the ESMAD’s weapons, including tear gas and ‘bean bags’, are purchased with the Colombian government’s own funds through U.S. arms sales programs.” On November 23, 2019, members of the ESMAD shot 18-year-old Dilan Cruz in the back of the head with a “bean bag” weapon. The high school student died two days later. He was at the protest in Bogota because of the difficulties students like him have accessing higher education in Colombia.
Cianfarani has also argued: “We must remember that these goods cannot leave the United States without passing through the American export regime — International Traffic in Arms — which, like ours, is one of the world’s toughest.”
The US export regime that Cianfarani describes as “one of the world’s toughest” has allowed for $237 billion in arms sales between 2016 and 2020 to countries including Colombia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Egypt and the Philippines.
Calls to end US military exports to Colombia
On May 14, 2021, US Representative James McGovern sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that called “for a suspension of U.S. direct assistance to Colombian National Police; an end to U.S. commercial sales of weapons, equipment, services, or training to ESMAD riot police; and a freeze on any grants or sales of riot or crowd control equipment to all Colombian public security forces, police, and special units until concrete and clear human rights benchmarks are established and met.”
Given Canada exports $1 billion annually in “defence goods” to the US, and the lack of transparency that Project Ploughshares has highlighted about these exports, it’s important to also situate Canada in calls to ban the sale of US weapons to Colombia.
Photo: PBI-Colombia accompanies Berenice Celeita of the Association of Research and Social Action (Nomadesc) at a meeting with US Representative McGovern in Washington, DC in December 2021.
Canadian military sales and impacts on human rights in Colombia
In several articles, we have highlighted the impacts of the export of Canadian “military goods” including armoured vehicles and helicopters to the Colombian military.
In June 2017, the Canadian armoured vehicle manufacturer INKAS exhibited at CANSEC. In July 2021, the Colombian National Police used an INKAS Huron armoured carrier to stop delegations travelling to Cali for a National Strike popular assembly.
SITU Research and Amnesty International have also detailed how Colombian security forces assaulted a peaceful protest in the Siloé neighbourhood of the city of Cali on May 2, 2021. They confirmed the presence of two helicopters in the area during Operation Siloé. Witness testimony said the National Police helicopters fired at demonstrators seeking refuge in houses in the neighbourhood. Given this testimony, we remain concerned that Canada has sold Bell CH-135 and Bell 212 helicopters to the Colombian military and police.
In November 2019, when the national strike first began, Webinfomil.com also reported that the Colombian National Police would “deploy its entire fleet of Bell 407 Halcón surveillance helicopters in the main cities of the country, where the most important concentrations are expected to occur.”
Those “main cities” would include Cali where Nomadesc is based.
Photo: A Colombian national police Bell 407 helicopter.
In its 2013-14 annual report, the Canadian Commercial Corporation, also a member of CADSI, described the sale of these helicopters to Colombia as a “success story”.
They stated: “As per the CCC contract with Ministry of Defense, four Bell 407 helicopters were delivered to the National Police; and two Bell 412 helicopters were delivered to the Naval Aviation Group [the Colombian navy]. The aircraft were manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron Canada Ltd. of Mirabel, QC.”
Nomadesc has tweeted: “Colombians do not want more weapons, no more massacres, no more disappearances, no more threats, no more fear. #StopTheGenocide. We demand truth, justice and guarantees of non-repetition. Don’t send us any more weapons. That has made them accomplices of Barbarism.”
CANSEC arms show, May 31-June 1
This year, Peace Brigades International-Canada will be present as activists, organizations and communities protest the CANSEC arms show at the EY Centre in Ottawa.
Last year, PBI-Canada also organized a webinar just prior to CANSEC that highlighted concerns about Canadian arms exports and militarization of territory featuring Celeita (Nomadesc) and speakers from Mexico and Denesuline lands in northern Alberta.
The video of that webinar can be seen here.
This year, we will be organizing another webinar the day prior to CANSEC that will explore similar themes and concerns. Stay tuned for more on this!
Murray Thomson, who helped to found Peace Brigades International as a global organization in 1981, was a regular presence at protests against CANSEC, including the one below in May 2018. He passed away in May 2019 at 96 years of age.