Montreal, Canada – Human rights advocates are accusing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government of misleading the public over weapons sales to Israel, which have come under greater scrutiny amid the deadly Israeli bombardment of Gaza.
At issue is legislation that prohibits the government from exporting military equipment to foreign actors if there is a risk it can be used in human rights abuses.
But regulatory loopholes, combined with a lack of clarity over what Canada sends to Israel, have complicated efforts to end the transfers.
Dozens of Canadian civil society groups this month urged Trudeau to end arms exports to Israel, arguing they violate Canadian and international law because the weapons could be used in the Gaza Strip.
But in the face of mounting pressure since Israel’s war on Gaza began on October 7, Canada’s foreign affairs 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 not issued any permits, for full weapon systems for major conventional arms or light weapons to Israel for over 30 years,” the department told Al Jazeera in an email on Friday.
“The permits which have been granted since October 7, 2023, are for the export of non-lethal equipment.”
But advocates say this misrepresents the total volume of Canada’s military exports to Israel, which totalled more than $15m ($21.3m Canadian) in 2022, according to the government’s own figures.
It also shines a spotlight on the nation’s longstanding lack of transparency around these transfers.
“Canadian companies have exported over [$84m, $114m Canadian] in military goods to 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.
“Unable to defend its own policy, this government is misleading Canadians into thinking that we aren’t exporting weapons to Israel at all. As Canadians increasingly demand that their government impose an arms embargo on Israel, politicians are trying to pretend that the arms trade doesn’t exist.”
Lack of information
While Canada may not transfer full weapons systems to Israel, the two countries enjoy “a consistent arms trade relationship”, said Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher at Project Ploughshares, a peace research institute.
The vast majority of Canada’s military exports to Israel come in the form of parts and components. These typically 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 examining Canada’s own domestic and international reports on weapons exports, Gallagher said it remains unclear “what these actual pieces of technology are”.
“We don’t know what companies are exporting 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 what “non-lethal equipment” the government has approved for export to Israel since October 7.
“What does this mean? No one knows because there’s no definition of that and it really could be quite a number of things,” said Henry Off, a Toronto-based lawyer and board member of the group Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR).
Human rights lawyers and activists also suspect that Canadian military components are reaching Israel via the United States, including for installation in fighter jets such as the F-35 aircraft.
But these transfers are difficult to track because a decades-old deal between Canada and the US – 1956’s Defence Production Sharing Agreement – has created “a unique and comprehensive set of loopholes that are afforded to Canadian arms transfers to the US”, said Gallagher.
“These exports are treated with zero transparency. There is no regulation of, or reporting of, the transfer of Canadian-made military components to the US, including those that could be re-transferred to Israel,” he said.
The result, he added, is that “it is very difficult to challenge what are problematic transfers if we do not have the information with which to do so”.
Domestic, international law
Despite these hurdles, Canadian human rights advocates are pressuring the government to end its weapons sales to Israel, particularly in light of the Israeli military’s continued assault on Gaza.
Nearly 28,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past four months and rights advocates have meticulously documented the impact on the ground of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, and its vast destruction of the enclave. The world’s top court, the International Court of Justice, also determined last month that Palestinians in Gaza face a plausible risk of genocide.
Against that backdrop, eliminating weapons transfers to Israel is effectively a demand for “Canada [to] abide by its own laws”, said Off, the Toronto lawyer.
That’s because Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act obliges the foreign minister to “deny exports and brokering permit applications for military goods and technology … if there is a substantial risk that the items would undermine peace and security”.
The minister should also deny exports if they “could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws” or in “serious acts of gender-based violence or serious acts of violence against women and children”, the law states.
Meanwhile, Canada is also party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a United Nations pact that bans transfers if states have knowledge the arms could be used in genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other violations of international law.
But according to Off, despite a growing list of Israeli human rights violations since October 7, Canada “has been approving the transfer of military goods and technology that might fuel” them.
Late last month, Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights wrote a letter to Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly demanding an immediate end to the transfers. The group said it would consider next steps, including possible legal action, if action is not taken.
‘It takes a village’
Still, Canada insists that it maintains one of the strongest arms export control regimes in the world.
Asked whether his government intends to end arms transfers to Israel, Trudeau said in Parliament on January 31 that Canada “puts human rights and protection of human rights at the centre of all our decision-making”.
“It has always been the case and we have been consistent in making sure that we are responsible in the way we do that. We will continue to be so,” the prime minister said.
Gallagher, at Project Ploughshares, told Al Jazeera, however, that Canada maintains “a level of permissibility” in choosing which countries it chooses to arm, including Israel.
“More than [27,000] Palestinians killed, the vast majority civilians; much of the Gaza Strip absolutely destroyed,” he said, referring to Israel’s offensive. “This is obviously an operation that is not being conducted within the bounds of international humanitarian law, which should be colouring the risk assessment performed by Canadian officials.”
And while Canadian weapons exports to the Israeli government pale in comparison to other countries – notably the US, which sends billions of dollars in military aid to Israel annually – Off said, “Any difference is a difference.”
“It takes a village to make these instruments of death and it should make a difference if we cut off Canada’s contributions,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the pressure on Canada also sends a message to other countries “potentially aiding and abetting Israel’s slaughter of Gaza”.
“If you send arms to countries committing serious violations of international humanitarian law, you will be held to account.”