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Here’s What Canada’s Vote to End Arms Sales to Israel Means for Antiwar Effort

Canada’s Parliament passed a nonbinding motion to end arms sales to Israel — but not arms purchases from Israel.

Demonstrators attend a pro-Palestinian rally outside Union Station in Toronto, Ontario, on March 16, 2024.

This week Canada’s House of Commons passed a resolution that supported ending future arms exports to Israel. As the motion was nonbinding, activists reacted to the vote by promising to force the governing Liberal Party to respect the decision.

It wasn’t immediately clear that the Liberals would respect the decision, despite the overwhelming number of Liberal members of Parliament (MPs) who voted for it. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada would not revoke existing permits to export military goods to Israel. Immigration Minister Marc Miller warned that the motion could have negative consequences on Canada’s ability to evacuate people from Gaza. Both MPs voted in favor of the motion.

The motion was introduced by the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), an opposition party that currently has an agreement to support the minority Liberal Party and not vote against a confidence motion that would trigger an election. The NDP’s nonbinding opposition motion called for, among other things, the recognition of Palestinian statehood and a complete ban on arms traded between Canada and Israel.

Right before the vote, however, the Liberal Party proposed several amendments, which the NDP agreed to, that significantly watered the motion down. Notably, the Liberals’ amendments removed all reference to Palestinian statehood and changed language about arms exports and imports from a broader call to suspend “all trade in military goods and technology with Israel” to a narrower directive to “cease the further authorization and transfer of arms exports to Israel to ensure compliance with Canada’s arms export regime.”

The Liberals’ text makes the further authorization contingent on ensuring “compliance with Canada’s arms export regime” — text that many fear leaves the door to the apparent arms embargo being circumvented.

The motion passed late Monday night with the full support of the NDP, Bloc Québécois and an overwhelming majority of Liberal MPs. Writing on X, formerly Twitter, Alex Cosh, the journalist who has broken the most news related to Canada’s arms trade with Israel, called the amendment “a disgraceful capitulation.” The group Labour Against the Arms Trade posted: “It’s not clear from the Government’s response that Melanie Joly will cancel existing permits for military exports to Israel. Let us be clear: We will continue mobilizing with allies until all such permits are canceled.”

As a resolution, the decision is considered the opinion of the House of Commons under Canada’s parliamentary rules, rather than directing public policy. The government isn’t bound by the decision, even if the House of Commons, government MPs included, voted in support of it.

Indeed, when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh tweeted that the motion “forced” the Liberals to stop selling arms to Israel, his post had a context note added to it that reminded readers that resolutions don’t force any action to be taken. Even if the motion hadn’t been amended, it wouldn’t have forced any action at all.

However, the day after the vote, Joly confirmed to the Toronto Star that the government would be ending its arms shipments to Israel.

Despite the wishy-washy position of the Liberals, the vote is morally significant: The Canadian Parliament has taken a position that suggests that sending arms to Israel right now would violate Canada’s arms export policies. Therefore, a majority of Canadian MPs believe that what Israel is doing with its arms violates human rights. Before this vote, just two Liberal MPs, Julie Dzerowicz and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, publicly supported an arms embargo.

That may be little comfort, considering that since October 7, Canada has sent more arms to Israel than ever before. At a value of 28.5 million Canadian dollars, that amount exceeded any year of arms exports to Israel in the past 30 years by 2 million. Canada has also delayed the sale of night-vision goggles and armored vehicles.

Also amended out of the motion was action to stop the flow of weapons in the other direction. Where the NDP had called for a two-way arms embargo, the updated language ignores the fact that Canada also imports weapons from Israel.

That includes $43 million worth of Spike LR2 anti-tank missiles, which are made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, a company that is owned by the state of Israel. This purchase is part of a massive procurement of weapons that Canada plans to send to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be used in Latvia.

None of these sales would be impacted by the language in the nonbinding motion. Canada could continue to purchase military gear from Israel without anyone claiming they’re violating the text that their party voted in favor of.

But it’s possible that Monday night’s vote is a turning point. Certainly, social movement groups have been putting sustained pressure on politicians to do anything they can to try and stop Israel’s campaign against Gaza, and Canada’s exports to Israel are currently facing a legal challenge. A group of Palestinians are arguing that exporting weapons to Israel amid the ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza violates several international treaties, as well as Canada’s Export and Import Permits Act.

Considering how cagey Canadian politicians have been about allowing weapons to be sent to Israel — for example, claiming that no full weapons systems have been sent despite the fact that Canada doesn’t produce full weapons systems, or claiming that no lethal weapons have been sent even though tools that aid lethal weapons have been sent — the easier fight will be to force the government to adhere to the Liberals’ revised motion text.

Far more difficult though, will be convincing Canada to stop buying weapons from Israel, especially considering mounting pressure on NATO countries to increase their military support for Ukraine. The day after the vote, Canada announced another shipment of ammunition to Ukraine and actively participates in the coalition to expand Ukraine’s drone capacity.

Brent Patterson from Peace Brigades International questions how Canada could pass this motion while also welcoming the biggest arms manufacturers in the world to a weapons trade show in Ottawa, planned for the end of May 2024. Patterson lists some of the companies that will be present at the CANSEC 2024 arms show, including “BAE Systems, Bell Textron, Boeing, Colt, Elbit, General Dynamics, L3 Harris, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Rheinmetall,” all of which have made money off of Israel’s campaign against Gaza.

Since the war began, more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 13,000 children, and some 8,000 people are missing.

Activists who want Canada to both stop importing arms from Israel and stop exporting military equipment to Israel are ultimately at the same place that they were last week, though now armed with the moral victory of Liberals supporting this motion. As it was social movement pressure that created the conditions for the Liberals to vote in favor of their amended motion, it will be social movement pressure that will force them to actually follow the will of Canadians who do not want their government supporting Israel’s genocide.

On Instagram, the group World Beyond War posted a checklist of what needs to happen for a full arms embargo to be implemented. They have checked off step one: commit to ending future arms exports to Israel. But for this to be a full arms embargo, World Beyond War says four more things need to be checked off: Canada must implement a policy that suspends arms exports to Israel, previously promised arms deals need to be cancelled, the loophole that allows weapons to pass through the United States to Israel needs to be closed, and Canada needs to stop purchasing arms from Israel.

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