OTTAWA — Six months after the federal government opened the door to the export of Canadian-made weapons to Ukraine, which is locked in a war with separatist rebels, it remains a mystery as to whether any have actually arrived.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced in December that the government was adding Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is a list of countries eligible for arms exports.
As a result, Canadian companies and individuals can now apply to Freeland for permission to export prohibited weapons and other previously banned equipment to Ukraine.
But Global Affairs Canada has refused to say whether any requests for a permit to export arms to Ukraine have been received, let alone approved.
"Each permit application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis to ensure its consistency with Canada's international obligations and foreign policy and defence priorities," Global Affairs Canada spokesman John Babcock said in an email.
"For reasons of commercial confidentiality, the department does not comment on any applications for export permits."
Freeland's decision to add Ukraine to the firearms control list was greeted with applause from Kyiv, which has long lobbied for more military assistance from Canada and the West as government troops fight Russian-backed separatists.
But it stoked anger from Russia as well as concern from arms-control and human-rights groups, who say rights violations have been perpetrated by both sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
More than 10,000 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in the fighting in the region known as the Donbass, while another 20,000 have been wounded and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes.
Opponents of Canadian arms exports have worried about these weapons adding to the carnage.
"Canada's support for Ukraine's sovereignty, security, and prosperity has nothing to do with the risk that Canadian-made automatic firearms exported there might be misused," said Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares.
At the same time, Jaramillo was both puzzled and concerned by the government's refusal to say whether any permits had been received or approved, given that the Liberals have committed to annual reports on arms exports.
"The AFCCL, which was conceived as a way to restrict the flow of certain prohibited arms and components to a select few trusted recipients, has become less and less restrictive," Jaramillo added.
"An overly broad interpretation of commercial confidentiality can undermine the government's stated commitment to transparency around the arms trade."
Ukraine is the 40th country on the list, which is dominated by NATO allies but also includes Australia, Botswana, Chile, Colombia, Finland, Israel, Kuwait, New Zealand, Peru, South Korea, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.
An internal report obtained through access to information shows that the government approved the export of more than $717 million worth of military equipment in 2016, though that figure does not include exports to the U.S.
Yet the federal government has found itself under fire in recent years for approving the sale of arms to several countries with questionable human rights records.
Those sales include a multi-year, $15-billion contract for the provision of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The internal report said that country was the top non-U.S. destination for Canadian arms in 2016, with exports worth $142 million.
The government also faced pointed questions earlier this year about its plan to sell military helicopters to the Philippines despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticizing its human-rights record only a few months earlier.
The deal was eventually scrapped by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte after a public outcry prompted the Trudeau government to reconsider the sale.
— with files from Jim Bronskill
— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
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