Gun-control groups, opposition question inclusion of firearms advocate in recent arms-trade talks

Gun-control groups, opposition question inclusion of firearms advocate in recent arms-trade talks

By Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News March 9, 2013

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar has accused the Harper government of letting the gun lobby dictate Canada’s position at global arms negotiations.

Photograph by: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press , Postmedia News

OTTAWA — Gun-control advocates and opposition parties want to know why the Harper government has consistently included a prominent firearms advocate in Canadian delegations at international arms-control talks in recent years.

They believe Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA) president Steve Torino’s presence alongside Canadian diplomats is tied to what they say are Canadian efforts to weaken a new Arms Trade Treaty being negotiated at the United Nations.

Torino, whose organization represents 15,000 gun owners across the country, also co-chaired a government-appointed advisory panel that recommended making it easier to obtain and own handguns and assault rifles in Canada last year — a recommendation Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly rejected.

The gun-control advocates, who favour a tougher international arms treaty, can attend arms-trade talks as observers, and usually do alongside many other firearms advocacy organizations.

But unlike Torino, they have not been included in any official delegation since 2009.

“When Canada goes to the negotiating table, it’s doing it exclusively from the perspective of Canadian firearms owners,” said Kenneth Epps of arms-control group Project Ploughshares.

Epps believes that is why Canadian diplomats have been instructed by the Harper government to “play a low-key, minimal role” at arms treaty talks, as revealed in documents obtained by Postmedia News, and why their main objective is to safeguard Canadian gun owners’ rights.

This included proposing sporting and hunting weapons be excluded from the arms treaty in 2011 — a proposal that was publicly scorned by such countries as Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria and ultimately defeated.

Rick Roth, spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird,  would only say that the delegation’s make-up rests with the minister, and that Torino is there to “advise the Government of Canada on any potential implications of an Arms Trade Treaty for Canadian firearms owners.”

CSSA spokesman Tony Bernardo said Torino, whose expenses are covered by taxpayers when he serves as a member of Canada’s delegation, participates as an “accredited expert,” and that he does not represent the firearms association or Canadian gun lobby.

A CSSA newsletter to members stated in November that “Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, CSSA President Steve Torino (who serves on Canada’s UN delegation) and the rest of the Conservative caucus have our backs as they alone hold back the crushing tide of UN intervention.”

But Bernardo maintained Torino simply provides advice from his experience as an importer and exporter of guns to ensure the new Arms Trade Treaty doesn’t unduly impact Canadian gun owners.

“He’s a firearms dealer,” Bernardo said. “He’s not representing CSSA. Not even close.

“When he was on the delegation in the past, his job was to be a reference to the Canadian government on the legitimate trade of firearms.”

Bernardo said Torino was not available for an interview.

Epps said prior to 2006, gun-control groups and firearms advocates were both invited to sit on Canadian delegations, which helped provide balanced advice to the government as it formulated its position.

Documents obtained by the CBC last year showed Foreign Affairs officials recommended against including Torino on the Canadian delegation to the June 2011 round of Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.

A briefing note for a separate arms-control conference last year and obtained by Postmedia News shows he was added “on the instructions” of Baird’s office.

Torino’s affiliation with the Canadian Shooting Sports Association is listed in the briefing note, but a line has been drawn through it.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar accused the Harper government Friday of letting the gun lobby dictate Canada’s position at global arms negotiations.

“It is a funny way of actually supporting the negotiations when first the Conservatives instruct our diplomats to drag their feet on the treaty, then they appoint Steve Torino to be the only civil society representative on Canada’s delegation,” he said in the House of Commons.

“This is the same person who recommended removing restrictions on hand guns and assault rifles in Canada.”

Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia worried Torino’s presence and the Harper government’s position on the Arms Trade Treaty are specifically designed to curry political favour with domestic gun owners.

“The government is cultivating its political base,” he told Postmedia News. “It doesn’t want these people to turn their backs on it.”

Diplomats from around the world will gather in New York from March 18-28 in an effort to finalize the Arms Trade Treaty, which would establish common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms, and likely establish a reporting framework as well.

While Canada will send a delegation, the government would not say Friday whether Torino would be a member.

lberthiaume@postmedia.com

Twitter:/leeberthiaume

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

A cache of 75 firearms and other weapons seized by Canadian border guards at the Coutts, Alta., crossing in 2012.

Photograph by: Postmedia News, handout , Postmedia News

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