Canada lifts ban on military exports to Turkey

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Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office declined to comment on the end of Canada’s ban on military exports to Turkey, and referred questions to her department.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

A ban on Canadian military exports to Turkey has ended, more than three years after it was revealed that the Turkish government had redirected Canadian-made air-strike targeting gear to help Azerbaijan, its ally, launch drone attacks on Armenian forces.

The Department of Global Affairs made the lifting of the restrictions public in a notice to exporters, posted online on Monday. The notice announced that a “presumptive denial policy” for applications to ship military goods to Turkey “is no longer in place.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office declined to comment, and referred questions to her department. Global Affairs spokesperson Jason Kung said Canada believes there should be no restrictions on defence trade between allies, and that, if a country breaks Ottawa’s export rules, “Global Affairs Canada can decide to stop issuing permits at any time.”

Canada first imposed its ban on almost all arms exports to Turkey in 2019, after Turkish forces mounted an incursion into northern Syria. The federal government extended the restrictions indefinitely in April, 2020, but added a loophole for items related to NATO co-operation. Both Turkey and Canada are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

In a much-criticized move in May, 2020, despite the ban, Ottawa issued permits for the export of Canadian-made air-strike targeting gear for combat and surveillance drones.

But the Turkish government had misled Canada about its ultimate purpose. It redirected drones equipped with the optical technology to Azerbaijan, which used them to target Armenians during a 2020 conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. In early October, 2020, Ottawa suspended export permits to Turkey for the gear.

Monday’s reversal by Canada follows reports late last week that Ottawa had agreed to resume exports of this gear as part of discussions between Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Western countries. The talks were aimed at convincing Turkey to drop its objections to admitting Sweden to the NATO alliance. Turkey approved Sweden’s accession last week.

Azerbaijan took control of Nagorno-Karabakh late last year. During a visit in October to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, Ms. Joly called on the Azerbaijani government to respect Armenia’s sovereignty.

On Monday, Armenian Canadians urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to rethink lifting the arms ban.

“Canadian arms shouldn’t be Erdogan’s reward for expediently taking advantage of his country’s NATO membership,” the Armenian National Committee of Canada said in a statement provided by executive director Sevag Belian.

“We find it incredibly disturbing that, on the one hand, Canada is calling for respect of Armenia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but on the other hand is lifting an arms embargo on a country that has spared no effort to endanger Armenian security either through direct threats or through sponsoring Azerbaijani aggression.”

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of the Waterloo, Ont.-based arms control advocacy organization Project Ploughshares, said the about-face by Ottawa “makes a mockery” of Canada’s arms control regime.

He said the penalty period for misusing Canadian military exports now appears to be “just over three years.”

The Global Affairs notice to exporters said applications for new defence exports will require statements from Turkey indicating whether the goods will be re-exported to a third country or non-NATO member, and whether they will be incorporated into a weapons system.

Mr. Jaramillo said these requirements are already part of existing legal obligations, and wouldn’t be “novel assurances” from Turkey.

Canadian government records released in 2021 to a parliamentary committee probing Turkey’s use of imported arms revealed that the country had not used the air-strike targeting gear in the way it had said it would. Ottawa issued export permits for the equipment only after assurances from Turkish officials that it would be used to protect civilians under attack in Syria, the documents showed.

The Globe and Mail was the first to report that, despite the arms embargo, Global Affairs’ export controls division issued permits in 2020 that enabled L3Harris Wescam, based in Waterdown, Ont., to ship seven MX-15D imaging and targeting systems to Turkish drone maker Baykar. The devices were valued at more than $1-million each. Many similar Wescam systems had been shipped in earlier years.

In 2021, Canadian government documents released to MPs showed that the serial number on Canadian-made air-strike targeting gear that had turned up in the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict matched that of gear Ottawa had approved for export to the Turkish navy.

A Global Affairs report released in 2021 said there was “credible evidence” that Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones with Canadian targeting gear were used in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Marc Garneau, who was foreign minister at the time, cancelled the already-suspended arms export permits, saying what had happened was “not consistent with Canadian foreign policy, nor end-use assurances given by Turkey.”

The same report said there was also credible evidence that Turkish drones with Canadian gear had been diverted to Turkey’s military operations in Syria.

Canada is obliged under domestic law and the global Arms Trade Treaty to prevent, detect and stop the diversion of military goods to users other than intended customers.

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