5 lessons from the cancellation of Canadian arms exports to Turkey

June 7, 2021

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 2 Summer 2021

On April 12, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced the cancellation of 29 permits for the export of Canadian-made surveillance and targeting sensors to Turkey. The decision was based on what GAC described as “credible evidence” that the exports in question were being unlawfully diverted by Turkey to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The same report that announced the cancellation indicated that Turkish drones had also been diverted to support Turkish military operations in Syria.


Several months before the cancellation was announced, Project Ploughshares had argued in various forums—including before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development—not only that optical sensors produced in Ontario by L3Harris WESCAM were used by Azerbaijan in attacks against Armenian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh, but also that they had been found in other conflict zones, including Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Other civil society groups and some media outlets had made similar denunciations or echoed the Project Ploughshares claims.

In the view of Project Ploughshares, the continuation of these exports to Turkey would have posed a substantial risk of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. And so, the cancellation of export permits to Turkey is certainly a welcome decision, even if it could have been made sooner. Given the weight of the evidence, this was the only path available for Canada to take if it were to comply with domestic and international arms controls.


There are important lessons to be learned from this episode, some of which speak to worrying shortcomings in the implementation of Canadian exports controls. Among them:


Civil society and the media first identified and drew attention to Turkey’s diversion of Canadian arms exports—not the Canadian government. This raises questions not only about Canada’s willingness to effectively implement export controls in the absence of public pressure, but also about its ability to monitor its own exports. Would Canada still be exporting weapons technology to Turkey had the government not been alerted about its misuse?

It is important that Canada develop measures and enhance capacity to ensure adherence to end-use and end-user assurances by recipients of Canadian military exports; this would include a careful examination of existing post-shipment verification and inspection frameworks used by other State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which Canada joined in September 2019. If civil society, with a fraction of government resources can obtain this information (as Project Ploughshares did), surely the Government of Canada can.


Contrary to repeated statements by government officials, the threshold for denying arms export permits is risk of misuse. No conclusive proof of misuse is required to deny these permits under Canadian and international law. The word “evidence” does not appear once in the ATT. In the case of Canadian arms exports to Turkey, the risk of misuse (in this case, unlawful diversion) should have been apparent well before the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh erupted because surveillance and targeting sensors produced in Ontario and exported to Turkey had already been found in other conflict zones.


It works and we need more of it. The fact that the House Foreign Affairs Committee undertook a study on “granting of arms exports, with a particular focus on permits granted for exports to Turkey” can reasonably be linked to the government decision to cancel the relevant permits, which was announced during the course of this parliamentary study. Project Ploughshares has called for the establishment of a permanent subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee to review Canadian military exports, policy, and adherence to the Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA) and the ATT.


The cancellation of arms exports to Turkey raises important questions about Canadian policy coherence. While this decision is consistent with Canada’s obligations under domestic and international law, Canadian-made weapons are still being exported to other suspicious recipients, such as human-rights pariah Saudi Arabia. Why?


The Canadian government must fully recognize the legal underpinnings of Canadian arms export controls. Adhering to the rules is not about some ethereal notion of taking the moral high ground—even as there are clear ethical implications to arms exports decisions. It is ultimately about compliance with the law. And the law, both domestic and international, demands an objective, reliable system that is free from political interference and economic calculations.


In recent years, a disconcertingly high proportion of Canadian arms exports have gone to questionable recipients that presented a clear risk of misuse, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Colombia. It is time for Canada to rectify past errors and embrace truly effective controls that ensure that Canadian exports do not help to sustain autocratic regimes, contribute to regional instability, exacerbate armed conflict, or enable the violation of human rights.

On April 27, Cesar and Ploughshares Researcher Kelsey Gallagher once again testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about arms export permits to Turkey. View the complete session here.

Photo: Bayraktar TB2 by armyinform.com.ua. is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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