In lifting Turkish arms embargo, Canada politicizes arms controls

February 8, 2024

Photo: Screenshot from the video feed of an August 2018 Turkish airstrike performed with a Canadian-made L3Harris Wescam CMX-15D surveillance and targeting sensor. Wescam’s proprietary graphical overlay visible in the image. See the special report Killer Optics for more information.

By Cesar Jaramillo and Kelsey Gallagher

Canada has compromised the integrity of its arms control regime and overtly prioritized political considerations over fundamental principles of responsible arms exports by lifting its arms embargo against Türkiye. The quid pro quo for Ankara’s clearing of Sweden’s path to NATO membership was made despite Türkiye's repeated and blatant diversion of Canadian military equipment to unauthorized end-uses and end-users, as well as its own use of this equipment to commit human rights violations.

Canada’s export of drone targeting equipment to Türkiye

Between 2017-2020, Waterdown, Ontario’s L3Harris Wescam exported approximately $300-million worth of its CMX-15D surveillance and targeting sensors to Türkiye. These sensor systems are affixed to the bottom of aircraft and allow the user to spot, identify, and direct smart munitions towards targets.

These sensors were procured for Türkiye’s production of the Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has since been sold to dozens of countries. Turkish forces would eventually deploy their Bayraktar TB2s – complete with these Canadian-made sensors – to several conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2019, Türkiye utilized this Canadian technology in airstrikes in northern Syria against Kurdish groups. Turkish forces were accused of conducting airstrikes on schools, hospitals, and other vital civilian infrastructure, while also failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Despite Türkiye’s troubling track record of diverting Canadian military goods, Canada has decided to overlook this considerable risk and lift the embargo on arms exports to Türkiye, calling into question its commitment to its own arms control regime.

The same year, Türkiye also diverted its Wescam-reliant drones to Libya – a flagrant and disturbing violation of a UN arms embargo.

In 2020, Türkiye again diverted dozens of these targeting sensors to ally Azerbaijan for installation on drones later used against the embattled Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s forces stand accused of war crimes in this action. Nagorno-Karabakh was totally absorbed by Azerbaijan in September 2023.

Türkiye’s diversion of Canadian-made targeting sensors to Azerbaijan was enough to force the hand of Canadian officials. Canada suspended arms exports to Türkiye in October 2020 and then fully cancelled relevant arms transfers in April 2021. Civil society organizations, including Project Ploughshares, welcomed the announcement as a case in which the government of Canada had been responsive in addressing allegations that Canadian-sourced arms had been misused abroad.

Now external pressure has again forced Canada’s hand – this time in the opposite direction. Sweden’s planned accession to NATO, initially announced in Spring 2022, has been blocked by Türkiye, which was eager to extract concessions from fellow NATO members. One of these concessions involved the dissolution of all standing arms embargoes against Türkiye. In step with officials from other governments, Canadian officials later acquiesced to these demands; the Canadian arms embargo was overturned in January 2024.

Political expediency over evident risk

Despite Türkiye’s troubling track record of diverting Canadian military goods, Canada has decided to overlook this considerable risk and lift the embargo on arms exports to Türkiye, calling into question its commitment to its own arms control regime. With the embargo gone, it seems certain that the flow of arms will soon begin to pick up.

In a statement released following the decision to lift the embargo, Canadian officials claim that Türkiye is now bound by stricter rules on end-use assurances and that additional safeguards have been introduced to prevent the further diversion of Canadian weapon systems. But such a claim is misleading at best. These rules were in place well before the 2021 arms embargo on Türkiye and, indeed, apply to all Canadian military exports as a matter of practice.

Canada, as a party to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), cannot authorize the transfer of weapon systems when there is a substantial risk that these systems will be misused, which includes the threat of diversion or their potential use in human rights violations. Canadian officials have also previously referred to preventing diversion as the “cornerstone” in evaluating the risk associated with individual proposed arms exports. Yet, in the case of Türkiye, there is not only a clear and present risk but overwhelming evidence of past wrongdoing. The decision to resume these arms exports sends a signal to the international community about the fragility of collective arms control frameworks and the vulnerability of these systems and standards to outside political coercion.

The implications of Canada’s lifting this ban extend beyond Canada-Türkiye relations. Canada’s decision could set a precedent for future recipients of Canadian arms exports that may, like Türkiye, be inclined to misuse them on the assumption that any consequences would be short lived. As an ATT state party, Canada must fulfill its responsibilities and demonstrate that arms exports are not simply negotiable commodities. Otherwise, Canada risks eroding the credibility of its commitment to uphold the values enshrined in the international treaties it has acceded to.

While it is an open secret that Sweden’s NATO accession was a decisive factor in Canada’s lifting its embargo, objective criteria, adherence to international law, and a demonstrated commitment to the responsible use of military exports must be the guiding principles of Canada’s export control regime. Any decision to lift an arms embargo must be based on an objective assessment of the recipient’s behaviour and a genuine commitment by all parties involved to uphold human rights and international norms.

The fact remains that neither the appeasement of NATO allies nor the expansion of military alliances should serve as legitimate determinants in the approval or denial of arms transfers. The arms embargo was imposed based on clear evidence of Türkiye’s failure to act as a trustworthy recipient of Canadian military goods; lifting it without tangible improvements is a disheartening step backward.

Canada has an opportunity to lead by example. The integrity of Canada’s arms control regime is at stake. The decision to lift the arms embargo on Türkiye should be revisited, and full compliance with domestic and international norms should be seen to prevail over political calculation.

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