Canada’s Armenian community has launched a coordinated grassroots and lobbying campaign to convince the Liberal government to annul export permits for the sale of Canadian-made armoured personnel carriers to Azerbaijan, according to Armenian community leaders.
The campaign started after Radio Canada International and CBC reported in July that the Toronto-based manufacturer INKAS Armored Vehicle Manufacturing has signed a deal with Azerbaijan’s interior ministry under which the company has already delivered “a few” Canadian-made armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to the oil-rich former Soviet republic.
The privately owned company has also set up a joint venture with an Azerbaijani firm to produce APCs in Azerbaijan, which has been embroiled in a simmering armed conflict with neighbouring Armenia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, said Roman Shimonov, vice-president of marketing and business development at INKAS.
Canadian Armenians dismayed
Chahé Tanachian, the Montreal-based president of the Canadian-Armenian Political Affairs Committee, the lobbying arm of the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), one of the oldest and largest Armenian Diaspora organizations, sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to express the community’s concerns.
“Canadians of Armenian descent and human rights activists throughout the country are dismayed by Global Affairs Canada’s recent approval of the export of Canadian-made armoured personnel carriers (produced by INKAS Armored Vehicle Manufacturing) to Azerbaijan,” Tanachian wrote.
“The decision to furnish arms to a country which regularly threatens peace in the region is one that violates all the principles that we as Canadians stand for, and which Global Affairs Canada seeks to promote in the world.”
The controversy over the sale of INKAS APCs to Azerbaijan comes as the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is dealing with the outcry over revelations by Radio Canada International that very similar armoured vehicles produced by another Canadian manufacturer, Terradyne Armored Vehicles, were used by Saudi security forces in their heavy-handed crackdown on a Shia-populated town in the kingdom’s restive Qatif region, as well as the ongoing controversy over the sale of $15 billion worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to the ultra-conservative kingdom.
Sevag Belian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of Canada (ANCC), one of the main groups lobbying the government on issues of concern of the Canadian-Armenian community, said the news of the exports of armoured personnel carriers to Azerbaijan created “great outrage” in the community.
“We reached out to the concerned governmental departments and agencies, namely Global Affairs Canada,” Belian said in an interview with Radio Canada International.
(click to listen to the interview with Sevag Belian)Listen
The ANCC has also reached out to more than 50 Members of Parliament, requesting them to make either oral or written representations to Global Affairs to relay the message that the entire Canadian Armenian community “is absolutely appalled,” Belian said.
The ANCC has activated a national grass roots campaign and set up a mass email campaign appealing to the government to annul permits for the export of Canadian-made defence equipment to Azerbaijan, he said.
The campaign has bombarded the Liberal government with over 1,200 emails and letters, requesting a meeting with top government officials to discuss the issue, Belian said.
Meeting with government officials
Adam Austen, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s spokesman, said Parliamentary Secretary Matt DeCourcey will be meeting with the representatives of the Armenian community at the earliest possible convenience.
“Armenia is a close friend and ally of Canada,” Austen said. “We have strong people-to-people ties and an economic relationship that benefits both countries. We are proud to work closely with the Armenian community in Canada as well as the Armenian government.”
However, Azerbaijan’s envoy in Canada dismissed the campaign by the Armenian community as “hysteria.”
“The illegal presence of Armenian armed forces in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan remains a main cause for the escalation of the situation and continues to pose a threat to regional peace and stability,” Azerbaijan’s Chargé d’Affaires in Ottawa Ramil Huseynli said in a written statement. “In contrast, the acquisition of armoured personnel carriers from a Canadian company does not pose such a threat, as these vehicles are intended only for law enforcement and civilian transport.”
Cooperation between the Canadian company and its Azerbaijani counterpart creates jobs for Canadians, the envoy said.
“In this light, the hysteria of the Armenian community, who should put Canadian interests above the rest, is unintelligible,” said Huseynli.
‘Thorough crackdown on dissenting voices’
Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights record and accused it of a “thorough crackdown on dissenting voices,” as well as persistent reports of torture and other ill-treatment perpetrated by its law enforcement agencies.
In November 2015, Azerbaijani police used Israeli-made armoured personnel carriers similar to those produced by INKAS in a controversial security operation that resulted in the death of six people and dozens of arrests in the town of Nardaran, about 30 kilometres northeast of the capital Baku.
The federal government granted INKAS permits for the export of APCs despite its own ongoing concerns over Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record. In a statement sent to RCI earlier, Global Affairs officials admitted that Canada is “concerned with the recurring crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan, particularly with respect to journalists and human rights defenders in the country.”
In addition, INKAS and AZCAN, its joint venture company in Azerbaijan, laud the military applications of their vehicles in the sales pitch.
Weapons buying spree
According to data collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) over the last two decades, Azerbaijan has spent over $30 billion ($25 billion US) of its oil wealth to rearm and retrain its military, purchasing high-tech weapons and munitions from Russia, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine and Pakistan.
According to the 2016 Report on Exports of Military Goods from Canada, Azerbaijan bought $378,705 worth of fire arms and ground vehicles in Canada. Ottawa, however, denied a permit for the export of automatic firearms to Azerbaijan in 2016 because it is not on Canada’s list of countries authorised for exports of such weapons.
Belian said they cannot accept assurances from Canadian officials that Canadian weapons being exported to Azerbaijan will not be used against civilians or Armenian soldiers along the frontline of Nagorno-Karabakh.
“It’s a matter of principle,” Belian said. “Canada is becoming complicit in further empowering the dictatorial regime in Baku and becoming complicit in their efforts of suppressing the very fundamental rights that Canadian soldiers have shed their blood for.”
Seeking peaceful solution
As a full member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Canada can play a pivotal role in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis by exerting pressure on Azerbaijan to make sure it agrees to a beefed up ceasefire monitoring regime along the frontline between the two opposing forces, Belian said.
Canada also fully supports the OSCE’s efforts to forge a peaceful and comprehensive settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karbakh region, Austen said.
“We fully agree with the OSCE Minsk group that a military solution is not the answer,” Austen said.