An unparalleled look into Canada’s arms trade

Analysis and Commentary, Conventional Weapons, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 2 Summer 2021

In October 2020, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (FAAE) began a study into the export of Canadian weapons to Turkey, following Turkey’s illicit provision of Canadian arms to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Just before Canada halted certain weapons exports to Turkey in April 2021, the FAAE committee released nearly 1,000 pages of government documents on Canada’s arms deals with Turkey. Although heavily redacted, the documents provide an unmatched look into the Canadian arms trade, including previously confidential memoranda to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, hundreds of pages of internal correspondence by Global Affairs Canada (GAC), and never-before-seen Canadian export permits for weapon systems.

Many lessons will be learned from this wealth of new evidence—and many questions raised. Here, we begin what will doubtless be an ongoing study with the examination of Canada’s evolving response to Turkey’s military interventions, beginning in 2019.

Canada’s evolving response to Turkey

The issuing of new permits to export Canadian weapons to Turkey was first suspended in October 2019, after Turkey invaded northern Syria. At that time, the Canadian government determined that there was a risk that the invasion could increase regional instability, exacerbate the already fragile humanitarian situation, and roll back progress against ISIS.

In April 2020, GAC introduced a list of “exceptional circumstances” that would exempt certain arms exports to Turkey from the suspension. At first, those circumstances centred on use in NATO operations. However, as time went on, the list grew well beyond the bounds of the alliance.

The assessment in the memo failed to adequately address the many alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) perpetrated in the region by militias that had been deployed by Turkey.

As well, by the spring of 2020, Turkey’s incursion into Syria was being touted by the federal government as the reason to approve the export of Canadian-made WESCAM surveillance and targeting sensors to Turkey, for use by Turkish military forces in Syria. According to a Memorandum for Action (BPTS:01794-2020) signed by then Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne on May 1, 2020, the Turkish occupation of northern Syria wasn’t increasing instability; rather, it was providing a barrier against a potential Syrian government offensive into the region, thus “protecting civilians.” (It should be noted that the memo explicitly states that the exports were not being used “in support of a NATO cooperation project,” although such a project was the only exception publicly listed at the time.)

The assessment in the memo failed to adequately address the many alleged violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) perpetrated in the region by militias that had been deployed by Turkey. Such violations were only possible because of Turkey’s operations in the region, which were, in turn, made more effective by Turkish use of WESCAM sensors. This direct link between militia activity in the region and WESCAM sensors makes militia activity a valid topic for analysis when assessing the risks related to weapons exports to Turkey.

The memo also indicates that Canadian officials ignored contemporary reports from the UN and Amnesty International that determined that Turkish airstrikes in Syria had very likely violated IHL by, among other acts, targeting civilian sites, almost certainly with the same kind of WESCAM surveillance and targeting sensors that were again being made available to Turkey. Instead, these officials determined that there was “no substantiated evidence of the Turkish military committing human rights violations in Syria.”

In a September 2020 Memorandum for Action (BPTS:03389-2020), presented to the Minister of Foreign Affairs only weeks before the latest eruption of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, GAC introduced four new items to the list of exceptional circumstances. In one case, exemptions to the export suspension could now be justified if the withholding of exports posed “especially negative impacts on bilateral relations” that could “impact Canada’s foreign policy, security and/or defence interests.” Under this particular exception (designated “Exception: D” on the export permits), GAC suggested that a total of 34 arms exports to Turkey should be permitted, with more than half for WESCAM sensors.

The addition of “Exception: D” followed nearly constant pressure from Turkish officials to resume the delivery of Canadian weapons, according to this September memo. Canadian officials noted that the suspension of “export permits destined to Turkey had become a bilateral irritant.” GAC also argued that Canada’s withholding of weapons from Turkey could disrupt “allies’ efforts to prevent Russia from driving a wedge between Turkey and other NATO partners.”

Canadian officials suggested that Canadian weapons, then prohibited because of concerns about human rights violations, be exported to Turkey expressly to offset potential damage to bilateral relations. This ruling illustrates a dangerous politicization of Canada’s export controls regime.

Under the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), Canada, as a State Party, must assess the risk of human rights violations when exporting weapons, in a “consistent, objective and non-discriminatory manner.” In line with the treaty, Canadian export regulations do not allow for political, geostrategic, or other extraneous considerations when calculating the risk that a given export will result in IHL violations, facilitate gender-based violence, or be diverted. The risk assessment process, as the cornerstone of Canada’s export control regime, must be objectively implemented according to law. No other considerations should have sway.

Canadian sales to Turkey continue

In April of this year, Canada cancelled 29 weapons export permits to Turkey. Most were for WESCAM sensors and the product of an unnamed company. All other existing weapons export permits to Turkey remain in place. Much of the content of those permits, although heavily redacted, was made public in the documents released by the FAAE committee.

Many permits are for aerospace goods, such as mechanisms by Mississauga’s Curtiss-Wright Indal Technologies that assist in the landing of Turkish SH-70 helicopters; and full mission flight simulators by CAE, one of Canada’s largest military manufacturers, that will train Turkish air force pilots. Some permits are for Honeywell Limited generator control units that will be used in Turkish T-70 helicopters; while exporting these units presents “some risks pertaining to the final end use of this equipment,” officials still raised “no objections” to these exports.

Several export permits relate to small arms and light weapons, and ammunition. Magnum Integrated Technologies has outstanding permits to supply parts for production lines that manufacture the “cups, cases, bullets and primers” for rifle ammunition. ELCAN Optical Technologies, a subsidiary of Raytheon, has valid permits to supply “riflescopes, weapon sights, and their parts and components” to “multiple destinations,” including Turkey.

Other permits relate to armoured vehicles. Horstman Systems Inc. exports parts for the suspension units in Turkish-made “Pars” armoured vehicles. There are also permits related to the “testing and training of light [armoured vehicles] within Turkey, for end user Saudi Arabia”; all other information pertaining to this permit, aside from the date, has been redacted.

Questions raised by this new evidence

Many valid exports to Turkey have been found by GAC to pose a “medium risk” of violating human rights or being diverted to an unauthorized third party. The concept of “medium risk” was not defined in the documents. Under Article 7 of the ATT, if there is found to be a substantial risk that weapons will violate international humanitarian or human rights law, exports of such weapons shall not be authorized, unless those risks can be mitigated.

Export assessments also found that, for several potential exports, there was a “medium risk” that weapons would be diverted to Libya, which would breach the UN arms embargo against that country. Article 11 of the ATT requires State Parties to seek out mitigating measures when potential arms exports are at risk of diversion. It is not clear how Canadian officials have attempted to mitigate such risks.

A valuable cache of information

The documents released by the FAAE committee shine a light on the convoluted, often confusing history of Canada’s arms sales to Turkey. More broadly, they offer insights into the inner workings of the Canadian arms trade, which should prove useful in future analysis of Canada’s arms exports.

It is believed that the FAAE committee could soon release several thousand more pages of information on arms exports. Nothing in recent history has offered as much transparency into Canada’s material contributions to contemporary conflicts.

Spread the Word