Canada’s largest-ever arms deal to Latin America and the Caribbean

December 1, 2023

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2023

In June 2023, the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) announced a landmark arms deal with the Colombian Ministry of National Defense valued at $418-million (CAD). The deal covers the design, manufacture, delivery, and in-service support of 55 light armoured vehicles (LAV IIIs) by General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-C) of London, Ontario.  

Selling LAVs to the southern market

The six-year arms deal is Canada’s largest-ever to any country in Latin America and the Caribbean. The ultimate end-user of the LAV IIIs under the 2023 contract will be the Colombian Army, which, along with the rest of Colombia’s armed forces, is undergoing modernization. The LAV IIIs will reportedly be armed with Samson 30mm Remote-Control Weapon Stations (RWS), produced by Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.  

Colombia first procured 46 Canadian-made LAVs following two contracts in 2013 and 2014. The 2023 contract would therefore bring the total number of Canadian LAVs in Colombia’s arsenal to 101.

Latin American states Peru and Chile have also procured GDLS-C LAVs over the last decade. In all these cases, the CCC signed the deals on behalf of GDLS-C. As a result, the Government of Canada is ultimately responsible for the terms of these contracts, guaranteeing deliveries to these Latin American governments and payment to GDLS-C.

The appeal of the LAV

GDLS-C has produced and sold thousands of LAVs over decades of activity, with its largest customers Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The LAV is an eight-wheeled combat vehicle. But, despite its name, it is not “light”; the variant destined for Colombia boasts a maximum weight of more than 20,000 kilograms.

LAVs are flexible in use and can be deployed by both conventional militaries during armed conflicts and by police and security forces in urban settings. LAVs have seen extensive use in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. As well, they were deployed to the war in Yemen by the Saudi government, which also diverted some to Yemeni forces. During the Arab Spring, the Saudi National Guard diverted a segment of its LAV-25 fleet to the Kingdom of Bahrain to violently suppress protestors.

Other sales to Colombia

Between 2012 and 2022, Canada exported military goods worth $56.1-million to Colombia. Included were some Canadian-made INKAS armoured vehicles that were reportedly deployed during nationwide protests in 2021; photos of their involvement were circulated on social media networks, according to Peace Brigades International-Canada.

Colombia has also purchased Canadian military aerospace goods. According to documents obtained by The Maple, Bell Helicopter Textron Canada is under contract to provide four 412 helicopters to the Colombian Navy and four 407 helicopters to the Colombian National Police; the documents also indicate that the CCC is pursuing a further contract on behalf of Viking Air to provide the Colombian Ministry of National Defense with Twin Otter aircraft.

Click on image to view PDF of graph

Accusations of human rights abuses

Colombian security forces have recently been condemned for using excessive force against civilians on several occasions, with some civilians killed. Such circumstances should raise red flags for Canadian officials when they are evaluating the potential that Canadian military goods, including LAVs, could be used to commit human rights violations in Colombia.  

Following more than a year of social unrest in Colombia, in April 2021, tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets to oppose proposed tax and healthcare reforms by the government of President Iván Duque Márquez. Colombian security forces, including the national police and particularly the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios or “ESMAD”), responded with excessive force. Instead of quelling protests, the crackdown helped to fuel a more rigorous reaction: a national strike (Paro Nacional).

Colombian security forces, in turn, stepped up their violent response. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2022 linked the deaths of 25 protestors and bystanders to Colombian security forces, most from the firing of live ammunition. According to the report, the Colombian Ombudsperson’s Office also received reports of more than 100 instances of gender-based violence. Amnesty International reported that some protestors were forcibly disappeared by the government and determined that the actions of Colombian security forces during the National Strike contravened international law.

According to Colombian human rights organization Defender La Libertad, more than 100 cases of eye trauma were caused by the widespread and frequently indiscriminate firing of non-lethal ammunition into crowds; some Colombians were left permanently blind. On some occasions, national police fired from moving armoured vehicles. Reports also indicate that state repression during the National Strike disproportionately affected Indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.

Although the 2023 Canada-Colombia LAV contract was officially announced by the CCC this past June, Colombian media began reporting on the deal as early as May of 2022. Given that negotiations for deals of this size typically occur over long periods, it appears likely that negotiations between the CCC and the Colombian Ministry of Defense occurred during the National Strike and repression by Colombian authorities, which began in April 2021 and persisted in different forms throughout the year.

Arming human rights abusers

In response to abuses by security forces during the National Strike, human rights organizations have called on states to stem the flow of arms to Colombia as those arms could be used against civilians and in instances of excessive force. Amnesty International Canada urged the Canadian government to suspend arms transfers to Colombia until “Colombian security forces fully comply with international law and standards on the use of force.”

Most abuses during the National Strike were tied to the Colombian National Police and ESMAD, which has since been reformed under the current government of Gustavo Petro. The end-user of the CCC’s 2023 LAV deal has been listed as the Colombian Army, which is distinct from the National Police.

However, both the National Police and the Army fall under the jurisdiction of the Colombian Ministry of National Defense, raising serious questions about the ability of the Ministry to ensure that the bodies under its control observe human rights obligations.

States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, including Canada, must refuse arms transfers if officials believe that there is a substantial risk that those exports could result in human rights abuses.

The recent 2023 Canada-Colombia LAV contract, Canada’s largest-ever arms deal to a country in Latin America and the Caribbean, was lauded by the CCC as a success story for Canadian manufacturers. At the same time, however, the contract is sending more Canadian-made military goods into an environment in which human rights violations and breaches of international law have been widely reported.

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