06/03/2013 04:12 EDT | Updated 08/03/2013 05:12 EDT

John Baird Says Canada Not Among 60 Nations Signing Landmark Arms Treaty

OTTAWA - Canada isn't saying whether it will join more than 60 other countries in signing a landmark treaty to regulate the multibillion-dollar global arms trade.

The federal government hasn't decided whether it agrees with the UN's arms trade treaty, despite having voted to move it ahead in the first place, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Monday.

"We believe that any treaty regarding the sale of munitions that helps move the international community closer to world-leading standards is a good thing," Baird said during question period.

"We participated actively in these discussions. I think we have an obligation to listen before we act, and that is why we will be consulting with Canadians before the government takes any decision."

Those who ratify the treaty will have to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and components and to regulate arms brokers, though it won't control the domestic use of weapons in any country.

The treaty also prohibits the transfer of conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, and if they could be used in attacks on civilians or civilian buildings such as schools and hospitals.

In defending the decision not to sign immediately, Baird suggested the government sees a potential link between signing on to the treaty and the now-abolished long gun registry.

He accused the opposition of trying to find a back door to setting up the system anew by suggesting Canada should sign on — a suggestion the New Democrats called ridiculous.

"This is about people in places like the Congo. This is actually about preventing Syria. This is about what happened in Sudan," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.

"It was a very poor display of our minister of foreign affairs on a very serious subject, and he should not only apologize but he should get up and explain: what the hell was he thinking?"

What impact the treaty will have in curbing the global arms trade — estimated at between $60 billion and $85 billion — remains to be seen. A lot depends on which countries ratify and which ones don't, and how aggressively it is implemented once it comes into force.

The United States has said it will sign soon, making it a point of saying they don't see the treaty as a threat to gun laws in their country.

The treaty "will not undermine the legitimate international trade in conventional weapons, interfere with national sovereignty, or infringe on the rights of American citizens, including our Second Amendment rights" to bear arms, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Baird's spokesman later said Canada was instrumental in ensuring language in the treaty that would also recognize legitimate civilian use of firearms for sporting, hunting and collecting.

Given the fact the U.S., with its strong pro-gun lobby, will sign the treaty makes Canada's position all the more depressing, Dewar said.

"This is an important global issue. This is about preventing more conflict. And so it shows you how far behind we are, that this government is living in the past," Dewar said.

"They will not recognize the present circumstances nor the future of how we avoid conflict. And so it is embarrassing. It's unfortunate."

Word that the U.S. — the world's largest arms dealer — would sign is critical, but the treaty's ultimate strength rests on support by all major arms exporters and importers.

Key arms exporters including Russia and China and major importers including India and Egypt abstained and have given no indication yet that they will sign it.

Britain and France, however, have signed alongside emerging exporters such as Brazil and Mexico.

The Control Arms Coalition, which includes hundreds of non-governmental organizations in over 100 countries that promoted an arms trade treaty, said many violence-racked countries including Congo and South Sudan are also expected to sign in the coming weeks and months, and the coalition said their signature — and ratification — will make it more difficult for illicit arms to cross borders.

The coalition said the treaty is designed "to protect millions living in daily fear of armed violence and at risk of rape, assault, displacement and death," stressing that more than 500,000 people are killed by armed violence every year.

Oxfam urged Canada to sign.

"By not signing the arms trade treaty today, Canada did not listen to the millions of people that live in fear of armed violence," Lina Holguin of Oxfam Quebec said in a statement.

"For the past ten years, Canada has heard from Canadians, members of Parliament, arms exporter countries and countries affected by armed violence about the urgency to control and open the arms trade to scrutiny."

— With files from The Associated Press

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