Conservative MP Michael Chong raises a point of order before the Finance Minister delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday March 19, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Opposition presses Trudeau on exemption to military drone tech sales to Turkey

Canada’s opposition Conservative Party wants answers from the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over its decision to allow a Canadian company to sell advanced drone technology to Turkish arms manufacturers despite its own ban on military exports to Turkey.

The issue of Canadian defence exports to Turkey was brought to the fore once again last week when Armenian authorities displayed remains of what they claim is a Turkish combat drone, featuring high-tech Canadian-made optical sensors and a target acquisition system.

A spokesperson for the Armenian Ministry of Defence said the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone was shot down by Armenian air defence units during fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 21.

Armenian officials released detailed photos and video of the drone’s optical sensors and its target acquisition system that experts consulted by Radio Canada International identified as an CMX-15D system produced by L3Harris WESCAM in Burlington, Ont.

The WESCAM CMX-15D system — which basically allow drone operators to see what’s happening on the ground and paint targets for airstrikes, either by the drone’s own missiles or by other aircraft — was manufactured in June of this year and installed on the downed Bayraktar TB2 in September, said Shushan Stepanyan, spokesperson for the Armenian Defence Ministry.

Speaking during question period in the House of Commons on Monday, Conservative Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Chong demanded to know why the sale of these WESCAM systems was allowed to proceed despite the arms embargo announced by Canada following the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October of 2019.

Chong referred to a story by Radio Canada International, reporting that Trudeau discussed the issue of WESCAM exports to Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a phone conversation in April.

“Last April, the prime minister spoke with Turkish President Erdogan and reports indicate he committed to addressing Turkish concerns about the suspension of these arms exports,” Chong said in the House of Commons.

“Subsequently, seven drone systems were approved for export from Canada to Turkey. Did the prime minister or foreign affairs minister override the recommendations of Global Affairs officials and approve these exports to Turkey?”

FILE PHOTO: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, as he officially arrives to the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Robert Oliphant, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Francois-Philippe Champagne, said after learning about the allegations that the Canadian drone technology may have been diverted to Azerbaijan, Champagne immediately directed officials at Global Affairs Canada to investigate those claims.

“And in line with our robust export control regime and due to ongoing hostilities, the minister suspended immediately the relevant export permits to Turkey to allow time to further assess the situation,” Oliphant said.

Chong responded that the last two previous investigations took a long time and led to nothing conclusive being done.

“The government still has not answered the question. It is clear that Canadian drone systems were diverted to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in clear violation of the Arms Trade Treaty, the Wassenaar Arrangement and Canadians law,” Chong said.

“Once again, did the prime minister or foreign affairs minister override the recommendations of the Global Affairs risk analysis and approve these drone systems for export to Turkey?”

The Liberal government is committed to a “strong and rigorous” arms control system, Oliphant responded.

“Human rights considerations are the centre of our exports regime and Canada has one of the strongest export control systems in the world respecting human rights and these are enshrined in our legislation,” Oliphant added.

“The minister will deny permit application where there is substantial risk of human rights violation in keeping with Canadian law and in keeping with human rights obligations.”

In an interview with CBC News Network’s Power & Politics on Oct. 6, Turkey’s Ambassador to Canada Kerim Uras would neither confirm nor deny the presence of Turkish drones in Azerbaijan.

“I would make the case that drones, by pinpoint targeting the aggressor, are actually upholding human rights,” Uras told Power & Politics, adding that Canada’s decision to suspend exports to Turkey was “unjustified.”

“We think it’s surprising … it’s hasty, it’s not in line with an allied spirit and it amounts to rewarding the aggressor,” he said.

The issue of the suspension of the WESCAM export permits to Turkey was also discussed in a phone call between Trudeau and Erdogan on Oct. 16.

“President Erdogan stated it is against the [NATO] alliance spirit for Canada to suspend the export of some military products to Turkey due to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict,” said a readout of the call between Trudeau and Erdogan released by the office of the Turkish president.

The phone call between Trudeau and Erdogan happened when the Turkish president was hosting a dinner for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

According to reports in the Turkish press, Ukrainian officials have been so impressed with the performance of Bayraktar drones that they plan to purchase up to 48 Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey.

The readout of the phone call between Erdogan and Turkey also mentioned that “joining some part of the phone call, President Zelenskiy also had a friendly conversation with Prime Minister Trudeau.”

The readout of the same call released by the Prime Minister’s Office, makes no mention of the conversation with Zelenskiy. 

The PMO has not responded to Radio Canada International’s questions on whether Trudeau and Zelenskiy discussed the Canadian suspension of WESCAM exports to Turkey and its possible effect on Kyiv’s plans to buy Turkish combat drones.

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