Canada is being accused of breaching its obligations under both domestic law and the global Arms Trade Treaty by allowing exports of high-tech imaging and targeting systems to the Turkish military.
Turkish forces have faced allegations that they are violating international humanitarian law with indiscriminate air strikes that harm civilians.
Since 2017, Turkey has been buying gear from L3Harris Wescam, the Canadian subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor L3Harris. L3Harris Wescam, a company in Burlington., Ont., makes imaging and targeting sensor systems that contain laser designators to paint targets for laser-guided bombs launched by drones or fighter aircraft.
L3Harris Wescam’s proprietary graphical overlay is visible on footage of air strikes released by the Turkish military, and its gear is visible on drones operated by the Turks.
Canadian government records of exports of military goods do not identify sales from specific companies but data show hundreds of millions of dollars of “imaging and countermeasure” equipment has been shipped to Turkey since 2017: more than $326-million.
L3Harris Wescam has no large-scale competitors in Canada for its products, which are vital for guiding bombs to their targets.
Officials at Wescam and its parent company L3Harris Technologies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Without this type of sensor, the Turks would be unable to conduct modern air strikes as we know them today," said Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with Project Ploughshares.
The disarmament group, based in Waterloo, Ont., is releasing a major report Tuesday on the relationship between Canada-based L3Harris Wescam and the Turkish government entitled Killer Optics: Exports of Wescam Sensors to Turkey – a Litmus Test of Canada’s Compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty.
The report has collected evidence from government records, human-rights monitors, media reports and open-source data that “strongly indicates that Wescam electro-optical/infra-red sensors, mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been used extensively by Turkey in its recent military activities,” Project Ploughshares said.
“Such use raises serious red flags, as it has been alleged that Turkey’s military has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law and other violations, particularly when conducting air strikes.”
In one of several examples cited by Project Ploughshares, Amnesty International in October, 2019, issued a press release condemning “a shameful disregard for civilian life” by Turkey. It cited the testimony of a Kurdish Red Crescent worker about an air strike in northeast Syria that killed four civilians and injured six even though the “front line” of the conflict was more than one kilometre away.
Turkey has also exported military drones to Libya that are equipped with the Wescam gear, the group said. A United Nations panel of experts on Libya has documented the transfer of at least 13 drones to the African country, which is in the midst of a second civil war.
The Canadian government is obliged under the Exports and Imports Permits Act, because of amendments made in 2018 by Ottawa, to determine whether a “substantial risk” exists that an exported good could be used to “commit or facilitate” a serious violation of international humanitarian law or international human-rights law, or to undermine peace and security. There are similar provisions in the Arms Trade Treaty that Canada acceded to one year ago.
“Canada’s export of Wescam sensors to Turkey poses a substantial risk of facilitating human suffering, including violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” Project Ploughshares said in the report, authored by Mr. Gallagher.
Last October, Ottawa announced a freeze on issuing new export permits for military shipments to Turkey, echoing similar moves by European countries after incursions by the Turks in northern Syria to attack Kurds.
In April, the federal government said it would resume accepting export permits but said companies should expect that requests to ship Group 2 items would be denied. Group 2 is one of nine categories of military goods and includes the imaging and sensor systems that Wescam manufactures. The government said, however, that there would be exceptions for North Atlantic Treaty Organization “co-operation programs.”
Project Ploughshares said Statistics Canada data shows exports to Turkey of the kind Wescam makes dropped off after the moratorium but began trending upward again in the spring of 2020. Turkey is a member of the NATO military alliance, as is Canada.
The Canadian government declined to comment on Wescam exports, citing commercial confidentiality. It also declined to discuss the alleged diversion of Wescam sensors on drones to Libya or explain why exports to Turkey are allowed to continue.
“While restrictions will continue to apply to military exports to Turkey, Canada will consider on a case-by-case basis whether there are exceptional circumstances, including but not limited to NATO co-operation programs, that might justify issuing an export permit for military items,” department of Global Affairs spokesman Michel Cimpaye said in a statement.
The Turkish embassy in Canada declined to discuss what sort of targeting equipment the country uses on its military drones. In a statement, the embassy said it “completely rejected any claims it has violated international humanitarian law.” The embassy said allegations of indiscriminate air strikes are “just propaganda" by Kurdish groups and that Turkey takes “utmost care” to avoid civilian casualties.
“Turkey is protecting the southern flank of NATO … it’s a responsible NATO member."
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.