Canadian military hardware good for Colombia’s stability, says envoy

OTTAWA – The federal government’s plan to sell military hardware to Colombia will further stabilize the country and help its economy grow, says the Colombian ambassador to Canada.

But a conflict prevention expert based in the South American country says Canada should insist that human rights monitoring accompany any future sales of assault rifles or armoured vehicles to Colombia.

A government notice posted in January said that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recommended an order amending the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL) to create “new market opportunities” for Canadian companies to sell automatic weapons to the Colombian military.

Baird’s office has subsequently said that the list was actually amended to sell armoured personnel carriers to the Colombian military. Colombia is in the process of trying to formally end its 49-year-old civil war through on-going negotiations with leftist rebels.

Ambassador Nicolas Lloreda said in a recent interview that his country has benefited from the military support it has been receiving since the late 1990s from the United States to fight drug traffickers and eradicate cocoa fields.

“The reason that Colombia is a much safer place, the reason that our democracy and economy is thriving, is in big part we were able to professionalize our armed forces,” said Lloreda.

“The Canadian government has expressed interest in doing something similar, to much less of a scale, and this is what we’re exploring right now.”

Canada has completed a free trade deal with Colombia that was opposed by critics, who argued the deal didn’t give enough consideration to human rights issues. The two countries also have a military co-operation deal.

Javier Ciurlizza, the Bogota-based Americas program director for the International Crisis Group, said in a recent interview that although there’s nothing inherently wrong with Canada deciding to do business with the Colombian military, it should also be supporting efforts to monitor for human rights violations.

“The message, I think, in this war business for Canada and other countries, is for every weapon we sell to Colombia, we want outcomes in terms of human rights,” he said.

“We want monitoring, we want checks, we want a dialogue that will allow, in this case, Canada, to engage in some sort of supervision of what is going on with the human rights violations.”

That would ensure there are “clear indicators to prove that the weapons they sell are not used to kill innocent peasants in the jungles.”

The Foreign Affairs website says Canada’s military co-operation agreement will expose Colombian forces to “Canadian values, including the need to incorporate/promote the respect in human rights in basic military training and in guidelines for operations.”

Ciurlizza said that with Colombia currently engaged in peace talks with the leftist guerilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there are serious human rights implications associated with Canada’s plan to sell military hardware to government forces.

The Colombian civilian justice system is dealing with an estimated 1,700 extra-judicial execution cases involving nearly 3,000 deaths.

“We, in Colombia, still have a very complex agenda in terms of what to do with widespread human rights violations perpetrated by the military, some of them who have been trained and armed, mainly by the U.S.,” said Ciurlizza.

“This is huge. During these peace talks, there was been talk about what to do with these military violations. Is Colombia going to provide an amnesty? Is it going to provide some sort of transitional justice mechanism? Or just prosecute them in civilian courts, military courts?”

Lloreda said Canada has helped Colombia strengthen its military justice system, through exchanges involving lawyers and judges.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that our armed forces are very capable in every aspect and that we have the necessary instruments to make sure everybody abides by the law,” he said.

The government notice says that Canadian weapons exporters will face “very strict controls” under the Export and Import Permits Act before they are allowed to export “prohibited weapons and prohibited devices (as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada), examples of which include fully automatic firearms, electric stun guns and large-capacity magazines.”

Colombia has been added to a list that includes Canada’s 27 NATO allies, along with Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Botswana, where prohibited firearms manufactured in this country may be sold.

Colombia is gradually overcoming its violent legacy, becoming relatively more peaceful, while developing one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas.

“The inclusion of Colombia on the AFCCL does not guarantee that a permit will be issued for the export of these items and all applications will remain subject to the Government of Canada’s case-by-case review process,” says the government notice.

Diane Ablonczy, Canada’s junior foreign affairs minister for the Americas, was in Costa Rica on Friday to highlight the donation of $1.7 million in security equipment to the country’s national police school to help fight drug traffickers and smugglers.

The equipment includes surveillance vehicles, bulletproof vests, helmets, radios and global positioning systems, and is part of a broader Canadian effort to improve security in the Americas.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.