OTTAWA — Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says he's willing to halt military export permits to NATO ally Turkey if an investigation determines Canadian technology is leading to human-rights abuses.
Champagne declined to say how long his department's investigation would take, but in an interview with The Canadian Press he said Canada would consult with NATO and other allies to "get the best possible intelligence" about the alleged use of the sensors in question.
"If there was any evidence that these permits would have been misused, I'm willing and I will suspend or cancel any permits," the minister said.
In October 2019, Global Affairs Canada said it was suspending approvals of new export permits for military goods to Turkey "in response to Turkey's military incursion into Syria."
Champagne spoke as Turkey faces allegations it is involved in this week's renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
He was responding to calls from arms-control watchdogs, Armenian-Canadians and New Democrats to suspend the export of a targeting sensor made by a Burlington, Ont., company that is allegedly being used in Turkish attack drones.
Turkey, a member of NATO with Canada, has said it supports Azerbaijan in renewed fighting with Armenia that broke out Sunday in a disputed region in the South Caucasus separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia has accused Turkey of redeploying fighters from Syria and F-16 fighter jets to support Azerbaijani forces, but Turkey has denied sending people or arms to the conflict.
Champagne and his British counterpart, Dominic Raab, have expressed concern over the wide-scale military action between Armenia and Azerbaijan and are calling on them to negotiate through the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The Canadian disarmament group, Project Ploughshares, has issued a report that alleges Turkey is increasingly using a targeting sensor made by L3Harris WESCAM, a Canadian subsidiary of the American company L3Harris, and that it poses a substantial risk of human-rights abuses.
Jon Horler, a Canadian aid worker and independent researcher and writer who published a similar report on the company in September, said the sensor has proven to be a game changer in battlefields across the Middle East, Africa and now in the Caucasus.
"I'm not sure if the Armenians have enough evidence to prove that the Turks are doing it directly, and not just having sold them (to Azerbaijan)," Horler said in an interview.
Regardless, he said, Azerbaijani aircraft are using drones with the sophisticated targeting technology to attack Armenian air-defence systems, troops, armoured columns and other military targets.
"They paint the target for their own drones, or even for F-16s, which can operate in tandem with other aircraft," he said. "They're also vital to allowing those drones to do more because they can go from higher up, they can operate for more than 24 hours at a time, they can see through clouds, they can go at night."
Champagne said he has appointed an expert panel to advise him on "complex" requests.
Champagne said he is committed to "upholding the highest standards" when reviewing export permit requests from companies, including Canada's commitment to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.
"I've been talking with the different interest groups, which have raised these issues, and I take their concerns seriously," he said.
In September, Project Ploughshares released a report entitled "Killer Optics: Exports of WESCAM sensors to Turkey — a litmus test of Canada's compliance with the Arms Trade Treaty."
The group said it collected evidence from public records, media reports, academic sources, credible human-rights monitors and open-source data that "strongly indicates" that the WESCAM sensors, which are mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have been used extensively by Turkey in recent military operations.
It says Turkey has been using the sensors since 2017 while its military has been trying to put down an insurgency in southeast Turkey and while being involved in military operations in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
"Such use raises serious red flags, as it has been alleged that Turkey's military has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL) and other violations, particularly when conducting airstrikes," the report says.
"It appears that Turkey has also exported UAVs equipped with WESCAM sensors to armed groups in Libya, a blatant breach of the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo. The dramatic rise in exports of WESCAM systems to Turkey has persisted despite Canada's 2019 accession to the Arms Trade Treaty."
The Armenian National Committee of Canada has called on the federal government "to condemn this outright aggression" by Azerbaijan, and to immediately halt arms exports to Turkey.
"According to official reports, civilian and military casualties are mounting, and Azerbaijan's aggression has caused significant destruction of civilian infrastructure, including basic humanitarian supplies, due in part to the use of Canadian-enhanced drones," the committee said in a statement this week.
Jack Harris, the New Democrat foreign-affairs critic, said the government could be complicit in human-rights abuses by failing to properly regulate its arms exports to Turkey.
"The Liberal government must look in the mirror to re-evaluate Canada's arms exports," Harris said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 2, 2020
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press