The serial number on Canadian-made air strike targeting gear that turned up in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict last fall matched that of restricted military equipment Ottawa had approved for export to the Turkish navy, newly released documents show.
The House of Commons foreign affairs committee is probing how targeting and imaging equipment made in Burlington, Ont., by L3Harris Wescam and sold to Turkey ended up in the bloody conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The matching serial number provides the strongest proof to date that Canadian military equipment was diverted by the Turks to its ally Azerbaijan.
Canada is obliged under domestic law and the global Arms Trade Treaty to prevent, detect and stop the diversion of military goods to users other than intended customers. It is also compelled to stop exports of such restricted goods that are shown to be used to harm civilians.
Long-simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan exploded last fall with six weeks of heavy fighting that claimed more than 5,000 lives. Drones played a major role in the conflict.
E-mail records made public in the Commons investigation show the Department of Global Affairs scrambled last fall to verify allegations by critics that Wescam gear had been found on Turkish-made Bayraktar drones that had crashed or been shot down in the conflict. Government officials contacted Wescam officials regarding footage and photos of drones that were circulated by Armenian forces, asking if this was indeed their gear on display.
In an Oct. 25, 2020, e-mail, Shalini Anand, the acting director-general of the trade and export controls bureau at Global Affairs, wrote to departmental colleagues with feedback from Wescam: “They have indicated that some of the images may be their product, but it is difficult to confirm.”
In the case of the imaging and targeting gear in one video, Ms. Anand’s e-mail said “a [Wescam] system with this serial number was delivered in September 2020 under permit number [redacted] approved … for end user Turkish Naval Forces.”
E-mails also indicate Global Affairs checked the end-use statement submitted to obtain export approval of the targeting gear, which said only Turkey would be using the equipment.
The “systems will be delivered and used by the final end user Turkish Naval Forces, who will use the [redacted] system for the purpose of surveillance and targeting.”
In the statement that was used to obtain export approval, Ottawa had been assured “the imported goods will not be diverted, re-exported or transferred … for any reason.”
The e-mails reveal that last fall there were more applications to export Wescam targeting gear where the ultimate user was declared to the Azerbaijani Air Force – but Ottawa never approved them before suspending all Wescam permits to Turkey last October.
Wescam officials declined to comment on the information revealed in the documents. It also declined to say whether officials at the company believed the Turkish military had lied to them about its intentions for the targeting gear. Company officials also would not say whether they had eventually obtained confirmation on how many of its sensors ended up being used in drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with disarmament group Project Ploughshares, said the disclosed records confirm what many had long alleged.
“These documents clearly illustrate that Canadian weapons were illicitly diverted by Turkey,” he said. “This corresponds with an existing body of evidence indicating Wescam sensors played a central role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They were not approved to be used by Azeri forces in those hostilities.”
Despite an effective ban on arms exports to Turkey first enacted in October, 2019, former foreign affairs minister François-Philippe Champagne approved further exports of Wescam targeting gear to Baykar in 2020 – a decision Mr. Gallagher believes was a mistake.
“The government of Canada should have been the first to realize the risk these weapons posed in Turkish arsenals,” he said, adding it is unclear if Canada can trust the Turks to abide by the terms of further military exports.
“At this point, if Canada cannot mitigate the risk of Turkey further diverting Canadian weapons, their continued export is a breach of international law,” Mr. Gallagher said.
The Turkish embassy declined to comment on the revelations in Canadian government e-mails.
“We can neither confirm, nor deny matters of national security and commercial confidentiality,” the embassy said in a statement.
At the same time, the Turkish diplomatic mission said it welcomed at least part of the outcome of the conflict.
A Russia-brokered ceasefire last November cemented Azeri advances in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan but had been controlled by ethnic Armenians since the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“We welcome the fact that the illegal Armenian occupation has ended in line with international law after 30 years; also that justice and human rights are served with one million Azerbaijani [internally displaced persons] finally returning to their homes and lands,” the embassy’s statement said.
With a report from Reuters