The corrupting influence of the arms industry

A stark warning about America — the “warfare state”

In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower cautioned the United States against what he saw as an alarming alignment of corporate and military interests, a relationship he famously called “the military-industrial complex”:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.

Warning against this “acquisition of unwarranted influence”, he predicted that:

The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Enter Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a career officer in the American military, a lifelong Republican and now a distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at William and Mary University:

Today we have become what Eisenhower’s worst nightmare predicted in his farewell address. We’ve become beholden to that complex, that this year [2019] marked its greatest year in history. It sold more weapons than anybody else in the world, at a greater total billion dollar figure than ever before…

We are the merchants of death for seven billion people….

Those comments were included in a riveting broadcast of the CBC programme Ideas on 28 September 2020.  Both an online summary of that hour-long discussion and the broadcast itself can be accessed here.

For another excellent webinar featuring Colonel Wilkerson, this time on the topic of The Future of Grand Strategy in a Post-COVID World, click here.

 Update on Belarus: negotiation and mediation can work

We first discussed the massive unrest in Belarus in the wake of their disputed presidential election in a segment of our 31 August blog item entitled: Let’s not turn Belarus into an East-West competition. In the words of the International Crisis Group:

Instead of competing, Russia and other European states would be better advised to work together to help Belarusians chart their own path forward.

So far, western countries seem to be treading carefully, with Canada and the UK imposing targeted sanctions that include President Alexander Lukashenko, and the EU following suit (after internal squabbles on other issues) but falling short of sanctioning President Lukashenko himself.

For details of the Canadian sanctions, click here.

Some Canadian experts, like Andrew Rasiulis, a former senior Canadian defence official, believe that such economic penalties could influence Russia to support dialogue and de-escalation:

The Russians don’t want another Ukraine…. They don’t want another problem on their border.

The impact on the President of Belarus may be less than hoped for, however, in the view of International Crisis Group expert Olga Oliker:

Sanctions send a signal to Belarus and the international community of EU states’ frustration with a fraudulent election and continued violent crackdowns on protesters and opposition figures…. However, they are unlikely to change Lukashenko’s calculus and policies.

Canada, Latvia and other western countries have called for mediation and, in an emailed comment, Rasiulis added:

I was pleased to see that Foreign Minister Champagne from the onset of the crisis has been calling for de-escalation and the need for creative Canadian diplomacy to help achieve a peaceful resolution.

Canadian company arming Belarus riot police undercuts our mediation message

The Government of Canada has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the heavy-handed tactics of Belarus authorities in suppressing peaceful protests:

Canada joins its partners in the international community in condemnation of the crackdown on peaceful protestors following the presidential election in Belarus.

But recent evidence of widespread use in Belarus of Predator riot-control vehicles, manufactured in the United Arab Emirates by Streit Group, an Ontario company, is bound to raise new questions about Canada’s adherence to the international standards to which it is bound since acceding to the global Arms Trade Treaty in 2019.

The Globe and Mail, which broke this story on 23 September, quoted Franak Viacorka, a Belarussian journalist, stating:

The Predators became the symbol of the crackdown, because at every rally, at every protest, at every gathering we see these blue Predators. We saw them used to fight and shoot [water] at the protesters; we saw them used to divide columns [of protesters] into several parts; we saw them used to block the streets and create an artificial fence every Sunday when people approach the Presidential Palace.

Control over military goods manufactured in Canada is only one element of the Arms Trade Treaty. Another key requirement is to regulate “arms brokering”, and Bill C-47, the national legislation giving effect to the ATT obligations, makes it absolutely clear that a brokering permit — for the transfer of military and other controlled equipment from one foreign country to another by a Canadian company — should be denied if there is a substantial risk of its use in the commission or facilitation of serious human rights abuses.

Despite the clear legal requirements enshrined in Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act, as amended by Bill C-47, Canadian officials responded to a Globe and Mail query with the argument that they were reluctant to enforce the rules unless they were dealing with a “pariah” state like North Korea or where Canadian materials or designs were being used.

RI President Peggy Mason, who chaired a 2000-01 UN Expert Group on arms brokering, expressed dismay at such dissembling:

The whole point of the brokering regulations is to stop companies evading the law in their home jurisdiction by setting up shop somewhere with weaker enforcement. Canada’s do-nothing approach undermines the whole enterprise.

Whither Canada?

Both in terms of “smart” or targeted sanctions and a willingness to promote de-escalation and a peaceful resolution, Canada has taken a very constructive approach to the unrest in Belarus.

But concrete Canadian steps to stop, or at least impede, the supply to Belarus of riot control vehicles in widespread use against peaceful protestors are also urgently needed.

We call on the Government of Canada to immediately take steps to enforce Canadian brokering controls against the Streit Group in respect of its supply of riot control vehicles to Belarus.  

Reminder: Group of 78 Webinar Series on UN Peacekeeping continues with focus on Canada’s role

On Monday, 5 October at 7 pm EST, Panel Four of the Group of 78–hosted, and Rideau Institute–sponsored, webinar series on The Future of UN Peace Operations will take place. Click here to register if you have not already done so. The focus of this panel discussion is on Contributions by Canada to UN peace operations.

The recordings of the Keynote Address and the first two panels are now available on the Group of 78 Youtube channel.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons (Predator water cannon, Minsk)

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