Canada’s foreign affairs minister has launched an investigation into reports that Canadian military equipment exported to Turkey may have been used by Azerbaijan against Armenian forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.
Trudeau was responding to calls by disarmament group Ploughshares International and Canada’s Armenian community to stop the export of sophisticated Canadian drone optics and laser targeting systems to Turkey following reports that Ankara has deployed dozens of unmanned aircraft in combat against Armenian forces in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
“It is extremely important that the terms of Canada’s expectations of non-violation of human rights is always respected,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he’s ready to halt exports of Canadian military drone technology to Turkey if an investigation determines that these exports have been used in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In an emailed statement to Radio Canada International, Champagne said that he directed officials at Global Affairs Canada to investigate these claims immediately upon learning of these allegations.
“As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I can and will cancel or suspend any Canadian permit that would be found to have been misused,” Champagne said.
“Canada has one of the world’s strongest export controls systems and I am committed to respecting the highest standards in the review of export permits sought by Canadian companies.”
Fighting rages for 6th day
Fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces along the entire Line of Contact in Nagorno-Karabakh raged for the sixth consecutive day on Friday, with Armenian authorities reporting drone attacks and heavy shelling of the region’s capital Stepanakert and several other towns.
Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry accused Armenian forces of shelling Agdam, Terter and Barda regions adjacent to the Line of Control and attacking other areas. The line has separated the two sides since a 1994 ceasefire paused the conflict over the breakaway Armenian-populated region.
Armenia’s military said it shot down four drones flying near the country’s capital Yerevan on Thursday night.
For more than 30 years, Armenia has supported Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians in their fight for independence from Azerbaijan and eventual reunification with Armenia. Authorities in Yerevan have accused Ankara of direct involvement in the fighting on the side of their ethnic kin in Azerbaijan.
In a statement on Friday, Armenia’s foreign ministry condemned “aggressive joint actions of Azerbaijan and Turkey” and said that “this aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh will continue to receive our strong and resolute response.”
Armenia has accused Turkey of using its F-16 fighter jets and TB2 Bayraktar combat drones left in Azerbaijan following recent joint exercises to pummel Armenian forces from the air, collect intelligence and direct artillery and missile fire that has increasingly targeted not only military positions but also civilian infrastructure.
Nagorno-Karabakh officials said more than 150 servicemen on their side have been killed so far. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t given details on its military casualties but said 19 civilians have been killed and 55 more have been wounded.
Armenia has also accused Turkey of redeploying fighters from Syria to support Azerbaijani forces, but Turkey has denied sending people or arms to the conflict.
However, authorities in Azerbaijan have released several videos purporting to show Azerbaijani military drones precision-targeting dozens of Armenian air defence units and other military equipment.
But experts consulted by Radio Canada International said the videos actually show Turkish-produced drones equipped with Canadian sensors and laser targeting systems being deployed against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with Project Ploughshares who has studied Canadian exports of drone technology to Turkey, said the drone footage released by the Azerbaijani military appears to show interface images that are identical to the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar drones — which use Canadian-produced WESCAM optical sensors and laser targeting systems.
A report by Forbes magazine’s defence correspondent Sebastien Roblin came to the same conclusion.
L3Harris WESCAM, a Burlington, Ont.-based subsidiary of U.S. defence giant L3Harris, is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) imaging and targeting sensor systems, with approximately $500 million in annual exports, according to the Project Ploughshares report.
‘Substantial risk of facilitating human suffering’
Last week, Project Ploughshares called on the federal government to ban exports of Canadian-produced sensors and laser targeting technology used on the Turkish military drones deployed by Ankara across several conflict zones in the Middle East and Libya.
Project Ploughshares said the multimillion-dollar exports of high-tech sensors and targeting technology produced by L3Harris WESCAM violate Canada’s domestic laws and its international obligations under the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which the Trudeau government agreed to almost exactly a 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 a report released last Tuesday.
Exports of WESCAM sensor systems have continued despite Ottawa’s freeze on defence exports to Turkey, which was announced in October of 2019 after Ankara’s incursion into Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, Gallagher said.
Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of the arms control watchdog, said Project Ploughshares has built a well-documented case linking WESCAM exports to Turkey not just with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also with other conflict zones for which these exports have not been authorized.
“Under both domestic and international regulations, Canadian arms exports cannot proceed when there is a risk of misuse, including a risk of diversion from the intended end-user,” Jaramillo said.
“Not only is there a clear and present risk in the case of WESCAM exports to Turkey, but indeed compelling evidence that should prompt the immediate cancellation of export permits.”
‘We are extremely concerned,’ says Trudeau
Jack Harris, the foreign affairs critic of the centre-left New Democratic Party, said the government could be complicit in human rights abuses by failing to properly regulate its arms exports to Turkey.
“Canada must investigate these reports and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure Canada is not complicit in human rights abuses, violating the Arms Trade Treaty, and furthering this conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Harris said in a statement.
“The Liberal government must look in the mirror to re-evaluate Canada’s arms exports, stop selling arms to Turkey in breach of our own embargo, and to look for ways to work with other nations to build global peace.”
Trudeau said his government remains “extremely concerned” by the escalation of armed conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“We need to see a de-escalation of hostilities, we need to see a restoration of dialogue and negotiation, we’re calling for calm, we’re working with our partners internationally to see this situation resolved,” Trudeau told reporters.
“There is not a military solution to this conflict; it can only be resolved through proper dialogue and engagement.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday a cease-fire would be conditional on Armenia’s withdrawal from the separatist region.
“As the Azerbaijani president has said, Armenia must withdraw from these territories in order for Azerbaijan to declare a cease-fire,” Cavusoglu said at a news conference with his Italian counterpart in Rome. “This is an absolute legitimate call.”
He also called for international pressure on Armenia to withdraw.
“If the international community wants to do something, it should (ensure) that Armenia withdraws immediately,” he said.
Cavusoglu reiterated that Azerbaijan had not requested military assistance but that Turkey was ready to provide it if needed.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Azerbaijan a “brotherly state” on Friday and said its offensive in the breakaway region aimed “to defend its own lands and to liberate Nagorno-Karabakh, which is under occupation.”
“With all our capability and all our heart, we will continue to be by Azerbaijan’s side,” Erdogan said, speaking at the opening of a hospital in the town of Konya in central Turkey. “God willing, this struggle will continue until Nagorno-Karabakh is saved from occupation.”
With files from The Associated Press