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Light Armoured Vehicles are parked on the lot of the General Dynamics / Land Systems factory where they are built in London, Ont., on April 13, 2016.

Dave Chidley/CP

Arms-control advocates are accusing the Canadian government of a double standard when it comes to restricting exports of military goods after Ottawa cracked down on shipments to NATO ally Turkey but not Saudi Arabia.

In April, Canada ended blanket moratoriums on the approval of applications for new arms exports to both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These bans were initially applied amid mounting condemnation of each country: Saudis for the bloody war led by Riyadh in neighbouring Yemen and the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents and Turkey for its incursion in northern Syria to attack Kurds.

While all restrictions were removed for Saudi Arabia, Ottawa announced on April 16 a revised prohibition on exports of military goods to Turkey, warning arms exporters that they should expect any requests to ship Group 2 items would be denied.

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Group 2 is one of nine categories of military goods, but includes many items that Canadians might commonly think of as weapons, from guns to munitions to the combat vehicles that Canada ships in large quantities to Saudi Arabia.

This prohibition advises exporters that “until further notice” they should anticipate there was a “presumption of denial for Group 2 items" to Turkey. One exception, Ottawa said, is it might allow Group 2 exports if they related to co-operation programs with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

Arms-control advocates question why Turkey is facing tougher treatment from Canada than Saudi Arabia.

Military exports to Saudi Arabia from Canada more than doubled to a record high of nearly $2.9-billion in 2019 from the previous year. Most of the shipments stem from a $14-billion contract to sell Riyadh light armoured vehicles (LAVs) manufactured in London, Ont., by a subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor General Dynamics.

Turkey was among Canada’s top destinations for arms exports, according to the Department of Global Affairs’s recently released 2019 Report on Exports of Military Goods. More than $151-million of defence equipment flowed to Turkey last year, including electro-optical systems that identify, track and guide munitions toward targets.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of arms-control advocacy group Project Ploughshares, said Ottawa is failing its obligation under the global Arms Trade Treaty to maintain “common international standards” for export controls.

“While Turkey is certainly not a flag-bearer for liberal democratic values, by virtually any metric or assessment by authoritative human-rights organizations, Saudi Arabia is worse when it comes to human rights.”

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In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been leading military operations against Houthi forces backed by Iran, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or injured.

Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, said this discrepancy in the treatment of the countries makes it seem like Ottawa’s arms controls are arbitrary. “It’s hard not to look at it as if they determine what outcome they want and then they reverse-engineer a decision to accord with that.”

University of Waterloo political science professor Bessma Momani said the different export controls for Saudi Arabia and Turkey look like a double standard to her.

She thinks one factor is that for Canada, Saudi Arabia carries a lot more potential for a bigger and broader economic relationship than Turkey. Soured relations between Riyadh and Ottawa in 2018 have eroded business ties but Canada is trying mend that, she said.

“They’re trying to curry favour with the Saudis by keeping as much of those bilateral economic ties open and flourishing as much as possible," Prof. Momani said.

“It’s not just about arms; there is a whole host of other business opportunities and deals that I think we’re hoping will come back online with the Saudis: in particular in construction and oil and gas and telecommunications,” Prof. Momani said.

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By comparison, Turkey does not hold as much promise for Canada. “They’re not really looking for foreign direct investment like the Saudis are.”

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said he does not believe a double standard is at work here.

He cautions against drawing too many parallels between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and says it’s wrong to expect a high level of consistency in Canada’s foreign policy because, like most states, its responses to different countries depend on the incentives and constraints it faces in each case.

The Canadian government has disclosed it would face heavy penalties if it cancelled the controversial $14-billion deal to sell LAVs to Saudi Arabia and Prof. Juneau said that likely factored into Ottawa’s thinking on export restrictions.

In the case of Turkey, Canada’s export restrictions – or at least the moratorium on new export permits – were taken in concert with other NATO allies. “On its own, Canada has very little influence, and is vulnerable to retaliation; when part of a larger group of states, it is better protected. So again, that implies that it was easier to take a harder line on Turkey.”

The Canadian government defended its approach to Turkey, saying it matches what allies are doing.

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“In October, 2019, in response to Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Canada temporarily suspended the issuance of new exports permits to Turkey. In April, Canada significantly narrowed the scope of its policy regarding the export of controlled items to Turkey,” Department of Global Affairs spokeswoman Barbara Harvey said.

“This is in consistent with the policies of our allies including Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the U.K. and others.”

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