Trying to Keep a Secret

By Saul Chernos | 1989-08-01 12:00:00

The international arms trade has a reputation for secrecy, and ARMX '89, a private military exhibition, which was held May 23 to 25 in Ottawa, was no exception. Because the show was for military eyes only, it was difficult to determine who was exhibiting, what was exhibited, and who was buying.

Judith Wyatt told the Kingston Whig Standard, "I'm an informed citizen and I want the facts before I begin a crusade." She said Major Gerald Buck, ARMX Liaison Officer for the DND, refused to reply in writing to her questions about ARMX. In a phone interview with PEACE, however, Buck insisted that ARMX is democratic. He said, "The private sector is democratic. They can determine who can go to their shows and who doesn't. Isn't that democracy? They're paying for it. Democracy is based on the ability of a person to determine who they're going to interact with."

A peace group predicted that weapons buyers from Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea would attend and that exhibitors would include CAE Electronics Ltd. This Montréal company manufactures computer-based simulation training equipment for aircraft which are being test-flown by the U.S. Air Force over Nitassinan (see pp 14, 15). The same craft and equipment are also used in Colombia, El Salvador, Thailand, and other countries with questionable human rights records.

Those who inquired about human rights violators attending ARMX '89 received conflicting replies. In a February, 1989 letter to Wyatt, ARMX coordinator Lt. Col. Stuart Northrop said, "this is controlled by the Department of External Affairs. Invitations have been sent to a number of countries but this is privileged information."

A May 10 letter from Margaret Ford, acting director of the Human Rights and Social Affairs Division of External Affairs, stated that "in some cases, [Canadian companies] will not be able to obtain export permits to sell their products to certain countries or under certain circumstances." Ford did not address the possibility that Canadian military components, exported to an approved country, might end up in finding their way to a third nation without Ottawa's consent.

Defence Minister Bill McKnight's May 4 letter to Wyatt said that "the Canadian government neither condones nor promotes exhibits of arms whose potential buyers may include countries that have unacceptable human rights records."

In the May 23 Toronto Star, Wolfgang Schmidt, vice-president of Baxter Publications, flatly denied any sales at ARMX '89 to human rights violators. He also insisted that no transactions would be made at ARMX and that no weapons brokers would attend.

This denial contradicts Northrop's May 31 statement to PEACE Magazine, that "People may have signed contracts. I sure hope so. Otherwise they wouldn't come back. . . I don't know if any were signed. With all shows, it's contacts, meeting the right people, and following up." Northrop said DND privatized ARMX because the show "became too commercial."

ARMX, an acronym for the Armed Forces Training and Simulation Exhibition, was held by the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) at Canadian Forces Bases in 1983 and 1985. In 1987 - when responsibility for the biennial exhibition was passed on to Canadian Defence Quarterly, a military trade magazine published by Baxter Publications Inc. of Toronto - accountability shifted from the public to private business.

The Globe and Mail was among the closest in finding out who was invited to ARMX. Schmidt told the Globe that, except for Warsaw Pact nations, representatives from countries listed in the Ottawa diplomatic pages of a travel industry guide would be invited. The guide lists Chile, El Salvador, South Africa, and what the Globe termed "other so-called pariah states."

Baxter Publishing, which owns a community newspaper in Welland, Ontario, refused accreditation to news media it suspected might be critical of ARMX. "I'm not going to let in a magazine which is obviously against ARMX," Schmidt told PEACE Magazine. "It's not a trade magazine. It has a totally different opinion." Another periodical, This Magazine, also was denied entry.

A protest march and rally May 22 attracted more than 2,000 people from as far away as the Yukon. The next day, during a nonviolent civil disobedience action, demonstrators attempted to block the gates to Lansdowne Park and more than 145 people were arrested.

Despite their failure to overcome ARMX's secrecy completely, protesters claimed victory. Maggie Helwig of Toronto credited the opposition for "bringing ARMX into the open -. We obviously didn't stop ARMX, but we blew their cover."

Saul Chernos is an associate editor of PEACE.

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1989

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1989, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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