Cesar Jaramillo is executive director, and Kelsey Gallagher is lead researcher on the arms trade, at Project Ploughshares.
A clearer picture is emerging of some of the trade-offs that Turkey is expecting in return for accepting Sweden’s membership to NATO. These reportedly include facilitating Turkey’s path to joining the European Union and the potential reversal of existing arms embargoes against Turkey, including the unfreezing of negotiations around Canada’s ban on exports of military equipment to the country.
The European Union’s decision to withhold Turkey’s accession process stems from valid concerns about democratic backsliding and alleged human rights abuses under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership. And while it remains to be seen whether Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU will be met through political bargaining, Canada must not lose sight of the fact that the foundation of arms controls lies in their impartiality, based on objective criteria, rather than political considerations or quid pro quo arrangements.
Canada’s current embargo against Turkey, which was implemented to stop the transfer of Canadian drone components to the Turkish government, has been in place since 2021 – and Canadian officials would be well advised to maintain such sanctions.
Turkey began deploying Bayraktar TB2 drones equipped with Canadian-made L3Harris Wescam surveillance and targeting sensors to conduct airstrikes in repeat combat operations in Iraq and Syria. Credible human rights monitors have charged Turkey with failing to discriminate between combatants and civilians during such aerial incursions, which have included attacks on schools, hospitals and other critical civilian infrastructure.
In 2019, Turkey also shipped a number of these drones – illicitly equipped with the same Canadian targeting sensors – to Libya, in blatant violation of a UN arms embargo. The next year, Turkey again diverted these sensors, this time on drones for allied Azerbaijan in its assault on the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where Azerbaijan’s forces are alleged to have committed war crimes.
In 2021, Canada finally acted to suspend and eventually cancel these arms exports to Turkey after their illicit diversion in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These were not arbitrary measures; they were grounded in the Erdogan government’s consistent failure to act as a trustworthy recipient of Canadian military goods. These findings were reflected in a report published by the government of Canada in April, 2021, which conceded that Turkey’s illicit transfer of arms constituted diversion.
Canada cannot consider now rewarding this behaviour by opening the valves for further weapons flows. Turkey has displayed a worrying pattern of diverting Canadian military equipment to unauthorized end-users and end-uses, with little regard for international law or the protection of civilians. Canada’s arms control obligations also demand that Canadian officials do not ignore the risk that future hypothetical arms exports could be diverted.
Preventing diversion is an overarching goal of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), to which Canada has been a party since 2019. The ATT requires parties to mitigate the risk of diversion – including by not authorizing further arms transfers where there is a demonstrable risk a recipient will illicitly reroute them. In the Turkish context, this should be an open-and-shut case: there is clear risk.
Any exemptions or relaxations around these arms control treaties driven by political expediency undermine the effectiveness of these regulations and erode trust in Canada’s commitment to a responsible arms trade.
Reinstating arms exports to Turkey would mark a disheartening step backward for Canada’s arms controls regime. By overlooking Turkey’s pattern of brazen misuse and diversion of Canadian military goods so as to gain a bargaining chip in a backroom deal, Ottawa would be denying the compelling reasons for which the embargo was originally imposed and signal a disregard for Canada’s domestic and international obligations.
The transfer of Canadian military goods to other human rights abusers – including billions in arms to Saudi Arabia’s autocratic regime – has exposed the fragility of the system and the pressing need for substantial improvements. Canada now has an opportunity to lead by example and demonstrate a principled approach to arms exports, ensuring they remain impervious to political maneuvering and steadfast in their pursuit of a responsible arms trade.
Any decisions on lifting the arms embargo on Turkey must be based on objective criteria, adherence to international law and a demonstrated commitment to the responsible use of military exports. Despite the high-profile nature of Sweden’s NATO accession, Canada must avoid yielding to political pressure and prioritizing short-term gains over the effective implementation of arms controls obligations.