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WESCAM controversy highlights double standards in Canadian arms controls

Canada is reneging on its official support for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems

Canadian PoliticsUSA PoliticsWar Zones

GA-ASI MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), manufactured by Burlington-based L3Harris WESCAM. Photo courtesy of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.

Double standards

In a rare rapid response to concerns raised by civil society groups about Canadian-made sensors being used by the Azerbaijan army against Armenia in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne halted export permits for the target-acquisition systems to Turkey on October 5.

L3Harris WESCAM, a Burlington-based subsidiary of American defence company L3Harris, has come under increasing scrutiny following the release of the Killer Optics report by researcher Kelsey Gallagher for Project Ploughshares, which documents how Canadian exports of WESCAM sensors to Turkey are in violation of international arms treaties.

In April 2020, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) had extended an arms embargo to Turkey that was put in place the previous fall, following Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria during Operation Peace Spring. Despite this embargo, WESCAM sensors were granted special exemption—as Gallagher’s report describes, with no explanation from Canadian officials. Now with allegations of the sensors being used in Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus, Champagne has directed GAC to investigate itself.

Since late September, Azerbaijan has escalated its attempts to recapture the Armenian-held Republic of Artsakh, an enclave within Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani army receives substantial support from Israel, as well as drones from Turkey—a NATO ally that shares a border with the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan where the conflict has most recently extended.

As Josh Lalonde wrote for The Leveller on Canada’s apparent hesitation to take sides in the conflict, “While Canada’s balanced approach is in line with that of the OSCE Minsk group and is presumably meant to avoid antagonizing either side, it is questionable whether it is adequate to the situation.”

“Canada continues to be concerned by the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in shelling of communities and civilian casualties,” wrote Champagne in a statement released on October 5, as the WESCAM export permits were put under official embargo.

The electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) sensors in question are produced by L3Harris WESCAM for use on Turkish combat drones including the TB2 model that is manufactured by Baykar Defence, a Turkish producer unmanned aerial vehicle systems. The sensors described in the Ploughshares report fall into the MX family, particularly the MX-15D, which is commonly used for surveillance and target designation.

By providing target information, the integration of MX sensors with F-16 warplanes is already cause for concern. Turkish domestic airstrikes, as well as those against Syria and Libya, have resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and were responsible for the initial triggering of the international arms embargo following Operation Peace Spring.

Baykar’s TB2 and Anka-S drones have been used in Turkey’s ongoing domestic airstrikes on Kurdistan, as well as on Kurds in Iraq. The Iraqi operations are notable for Turkey’s deployment of special forces alongside airstrikes, and extraterritorial targeted attacks through Operation Claw.

In northern Syria, Turkey has conducted numerous airstrikes against Syrian Democratic Forces and Kurdish People’s Protection Units. Two years ago, Turkish-backed militias in Afrin executed Kurdish captives and desecrated the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter known as Barin Kobani. In response, the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units denounced Turkey as “the world’s sponsor of terrorism.” As Max Blumenthal later reported for The Grayzone, members of the Turkish-backed militias were found to have been trained by the CIA and the Pentagon—including through a program to “combat DAESH”.

Turkey also continues to export drones, including TB2s, to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), indicating that Canadian WESCAM sensors are being re-exported to a country that is also currently under Canadian arms sanctions.

The UN-backed GNA has been condemned for human rights abuses. In June 2020, the UN established a fact-finding mission to Libya to investigate reports of war crimes following the discovery of several mass graves. Three independent investigators were appointed in August 2020, while French President Emmanuel Macron criticized Turkey for “playing a dangerous game in Libya today [that] contravenes all of its commitments made at the Berlin conference.”

Since the coup against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the ceaseless violence in Libya has also contributed to the proliferation of arms and spread of extremism throughout the Sahel, including the extension of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda deeper into Mali.

The impact of exporting drone technology to Turkey goes well beyond the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh that triggered Champagne’s fast reaction. Canadian hesitation on arms exports should extend more broadly to the US-led global “war on terror” in which Canada has long been embroiled, bolstering a multi-billion dollar arms industry and contributing more to fuelling extremism than suppressing it.

Referncing the drones being used in Nagorno-Karabakh, Gallagher stated, “It is widely assumed that Azerbaijan is deploying Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2s in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although this has not been conclusively confirmed as of yet, on October 5, Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev confirmed that the Azeri military have indeed been utilizing Turkish UAVs, although he failed to specify which models.”

“It would not be at all surprising if the Azeris were using TB2s in the conflict,” he added. “Turkey has recently delivered TB2s to its allies in Libya, equipped with WESCAM sensors; there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t do this again with Azerbaijan.”

Certainly the sensors would be useful, considering that satellite imagery recently showed Turkish F-16s in Ganja, in western Azerbaijan earlier this month.

Ruined buildings stand in the Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians) two decades after fighting forced Azerbaijanis there and elsewhere to flee. Photo by Sergey Ponomarev.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh reached a temporary ceasefire on October 10 following negotiations mediated from Moscow by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but it fell apart after 72 hours. Lavrov has since advocated for Russia to send peacekeepers or military observers since the ceasefire was broken, signalling a similarly cautious approach to taking sides between Azerbaijan and Armenia as has been demonstrated by Canada and NATO forces other than Turkey.

There are mounting claims of war crimes being committed, with civilian centres and towns being targeted, and disputed videos of Armenian prisoners of war being executed by Azeri troops circulating on social media. Armenia has also come under scrutiny for missile attacks on Ganja, which the Armenian defence ministry has denied.

Turkey, however, has steadfastly armed Azerbaijan, and decried Canada’s hesitation on WESCAM export permits. On October 6, Turkish pro-government publication Daily Sabah referred to Canada’s embargo as “double standards,” comparing the WESCAM deal to the Saudi LAV deal. According to a statement by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Canada sees no objection in exporting weapons to countries that are militarily involved in the crisis in Yemen, where one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of this century is taking place.”

Turkey’s concern about Canada’s double standards should serve as a rude awakening for all Canadians. In the end, Champagne has halted the exports only in response to the potential use of Canadian drone technology in Nagorno-Karabakh. Even as Syria struggles to reconstruct amid an endless war, while facing famine amid the COVID crisis and the reappearance of cholera over the past few years—and even as Libya’s UN-supported GNA commits human rights abuses—these wars have been framed as justified and do not trigger the same concern.

A profitable niche

Canada’s approval to export WESCAM sensors should be seen in context of Justin Trudeau’s mandate in support of a global ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS), which was issued to Champagne in December 2019.

Despite this official directive, Canadian companies continue to profit from exporting software or components for autonomous weapons. There is no domestic regulation around Canadian companies being able to develop software or components for autonomous weapons, and there is little public debate around the development of export controls for such technologies.

WESCAM is a subsidiary of Florida-based L3Harris Technologies, a major US military contractor that develops communications and simulation technologies, and surveillance tools like the Stingray phone tracking technology. Its subsidiaries are involved in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other sensors similar to those produced by WESCAM.

As the Killer Optics report notes, there is a growing market for sensors and components to augment UAV capabilities. But Turkey is only one destination for WESCAM’s products. WESCAM has also partnered with the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy and operates a service centre in South Korea, with both countries actively developing LAWS.

The Canadian company also provides MX-20 sensors to the US Navy for patrol and surveillance. In July 2020, the company signed a $380 million deal brokered by the Canadian Commercial Corporation, to provide the US Army with MX-series products for “surveillance and targeting operations,” and to “support programs in the fight against global terrorism.”

The ability of Canadian companies to continue to export technologies like the WESCAM sensors, to Turkey or any other client state, should be alarming in light of the official support for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Wherever such technology is deployed, it reveals an inconsistency between the PR-friendly statements around arms control over automated warfare, and actually allowing private corporations to profit off of components that enable war crimes like assassinations and civilian killings.

L3Harris WESCAM’s MX-15 technology, commonly used for surveillance and target designation, in action. Still image from a promotional video/YouTube.

Making exceptions

While the halt of WESCAM export permits was an important step, the deal is still situated within a broader pattern of GAC’s approval of arms deals that are clearly destined for situations where they risk being used to commit human rights abuses or being diverted to extremist militias.

This includes the much-publicized deal on LAVs and weapons for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as missiles for Bahrain, for use in the proxy war against Iran in Yemen.

Ukraine is another destination that avoided GAC’s scrutiny, as Winnipeg-based PGW Defense Technologies-produced sniper rifles were destined for the Ukrainian National Guard, which has openly integrated neo-Nazi battalions since 2014. While the PGW deal was signed in 2018, there were years of documented human rights abuses—including torture and executions—by the extremist factions in Ukraine’s military, preceding not only the approval of the deal, but also the very approval of Ukraine as a country to which Canada could export restricted arms in the first place.

The case of the PGW rifles is a notorious case study, as a PGW sniper rifle was also found with Houthi forces in Yemen in 2016, after being approved for export to Saudi Arabia. PGW’s CEO Ross Spagrud had then hired far-right lobbyist Kory Teneycke to handle the looming controversies around the exports of his bespoke rifles.

Reflecting its ambitions to join the NATO bloc, Ukraine itself is implicated in Turkish airstrikes by providing engines to the Bayraktar Akıncı high-altitude drone—which is guided using artificial intelligence. This is done through Black Sea Shield, a joint operation between Baykar and Ukraine’s Ukrspetsexport. After testing Bayraktar TB2 drones in June 2020, Ukraine continues to procure Turkish combat drones for the Donbass, but such procurement in the midst of peace talks has received minimal attention from Canadian media.

Much like the Donbass, the profits to be gleaned by weapons companies from a sustained conflict between NATO-backed Azerbaijan and Armenia carries its own threat of incessant war.

Canada’s WESCAM scandal, however, has largely been reported without remarking on these other deals—but it must be seen as part of a broader picture of Canada as an enabler of human rights abuses and a significant arms dealer for US proxy wars.

Gallagher noted in an email that “most attention on issues of Canadian arms control is reserved for the Saudi arms deal, simply due to the massive volume of exports and Riyadh’s terrible human rights record.”

“I think many people assumed this was only the case with Saudi Arabia, particularly due to the very high value of the Saudi-Canada LAV deal and the visibility the issue has received in Canadian media,” he said.

A lack of transparency and accountability on the part of GAC underpins all of these scenarios. Despite its obligation to conduct risk assessments to ensure that arms deals meet international obligations under the Export and Import Permits Act (EIPA), GAC can still override the counsel of military officials, for example, who may advise against the deals. Gallagher described this lack of transparency as having “worrying ramifications for the overall health of Canada’s arms control regime.”

Canada was, after all, reticent to sign the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) under the Harper administration back in 2013—a treaty that was specifically intended to prevent diversion of conventional arms. Under the influence of a domestic gun lobby, former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had claimed that Canada was “not ready” to sign the international arms treaty.

But what qualifies as ready? Canada became a party to the ATT only in September 2019, which hasn’t significantly affected Canadian profits from arming or providing technical components to militaries committing war crimes. This was a typical lag in Canada’s participation in agreements meant to reinforce international standards and, ultimately, protect human rights.

“I think the real-world ramifications these weapon systems have on people abroad needs to be better felt and understood by Canadians,” said Gallagher. “Ottawa doesn’t have to engage in exporting these weapons—they do so voluntarily. Likewise, they can halt the flow of weapons abroad that breach human rights.”

Champagne’s momentary halt of the WESCAM permits shows the need for continued pressure on Global Affair’s consistent negligence toward international arms treaties and the risks of Canadian technology enabling human rights violations.

Beyond Nagorno-Karabakh, WESCAM’s deal with Turkey must be seen in intersection with major policy questions around the development of Canadian technologies for autonomous weapons systems, and their deployment in US proxy wars. It makes little sense for Trudeau to issue a mandate in support of a ban on LAWS, while finding no issue in exporting components for other countries to equip their increasingly AI-dependent militaries.

At the end of these transactions—so often approved on the impersonal basis of showing “insufficient risk”—are the lives of civilians who are seen as dispensable by the arms industry until the PR scandal outweighs the profits.

Canadian arms controls cannot be allowed to continue as ideological instruments in NATO-led wars, picking and choosing which civilians are more expendable. And with the growing ubiquity of artificial intelligence and automated weapons systems, the stakes are higher than ever.

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.

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